Remembering our Heroes

On Monday, communities around the country observed Memorial Day. As people paused to remember those who gave their lives while serving our country, I was reminded that it is left to us to honor their service and sacrifice, and to carry their memories forward.

“I am unable to shake the feeling about memorializing the service of an obscure sailor. Wherever (USS Enterprise [CVN 65]) goes in the next decade and a half, to the far places of the globe, this man’s attention to duty, honor, and country goes with it. Finally, his deeds will be known to the world.

“I hope he knows his work has not been forgotten. Somehow I think this is God’s way of rewarding a life given to sacrifice. I am humbled to think that we can play a part in helping the world remember a true American hero. It’s our generation’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to someone willing to give it all so we can live free.”

A shipboard historical room our exhibit design partnership created aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) sparked these thoughts from a project team member. The room was dedicated in April 2001. Just five months later, that ship would be underway after the horrific events of September 11. But those events weren’t on our minds that sunny April morning.

I don’t remember the name of the ‘obscure sailor’ mentioned above. I do remember being handed a box of medals and decorations he earned during his Navy career. At the time I was researching the ship’s history, writing timelines, documenting milestones, gathering artifacts, and summarizing biographies of  people who had served aboard her. In the middle of all that, there was this one man, and the suggestion that maybe we could use his things somewhere.

Throughout the entire project, the box sat at my left elbow. I often glanced at the faded ribbons and once-shiny medals, thinking about the sailor who had proudly worn them throughout his career. When he retired, these were arranged in a simple box and given back to him, a silent witness of his honorable service to his country. The box was old, and the mounting was not professionally done. There was nothing giving me any clues to his identity, rank, or dates of service. I only knew that he had once served aboard the Enterprise.

In the end, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to honor the service of so many sailors than to include that box in the shipboard historical room. Most of the people who man the rails and load the weapons and serve the meals and wash the uniforms and treat the injuries and go about their duties in a way that moves the ship, and the ship’s mission, forward are never acknowledged or recognized in any way. Their strength is in their vast numbers. They finish their time and move on to the next ship or shore assignment.

“I went back up (to the historical room) after everyone had left the ship and spent time thinking of the feeling you put into the room,” wrote another former Enterprise sailor. “You could not have done that without spending many hours getting involved with all of the history. Thank you for doing that.”

The “Big E” is retired from active Navy service now. The nuclear components that made her the first of her kind also made it impossible to preserve her as a floating museum. Awaiting final decommissioning, her story lives on in the lives and memories of those who served aboard her. And yes, there will be another USS Enterprise, the ninth U. S. Navy vessel to bear the name. In the meantime, one of her anchors has a new home aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72).

P.S. In my relentless housewide purge, I ran across old project notes and discovered information about the unknown sailor mentioned above. The medals belonged to Chief Bosun’s Mate Alfred “Gabby” Gabarra, a CV-6 enlisted sailor who just did his job after a Japanese kamikaze hit CV-6 in May 1945. He led rescue parties forward to retrieve dead and wounded sailors and threw ammunition overboard to prevent more damage. Long after he left the Navy, when he was in his 80s, he quietly handed his medals to the then-curator of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, SC, and said, “Maybe you can use these somewhere.” Gabby died not long after that, and the curator gave us his medals for inclusion in the shipboard exhibit. Gabby, his medals, and his story, became part of the exhibit, and along with countless others, embodied the heart and soul of Enterprise — her people.

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