Though Pearl Harbor happened more than six decades before any of them were born, a group of 27 JROTC sea cadets from Cass Middle School got a little sampling of what that day might've been like for the people who lived through it.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Sam Edwards took 12 eighth-graders and 15 seventh-graders on an overnight field trip to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama, in December to be part of the 78th Pearl Harbor Day remembrance celebration.
"I have always wanted to take my cadets on some sort of field trip so they could experience an authentic military environment," he said, noting one student got sick and was unable to attend. "This particular trip came about because I visited the World War I battleship USS Texas in Houston, Texas, a couple of years ago. When I researched museum ships, the USS Alabama was the first on the internet. I called and asked about cost then presented it to the parents of the upcoming sea cadets, and they overwhelmingly stated they wanted to do the trip."
The group of 39, which included teachers and chaperones, left CMS on a charter bus Friday, Dec. 6, and arrived in Mobile in time to visit the Gulf Coast Science Exploreum, where they ate lunch then had "full access to the center," Edwards said.
"We participated in many hands-on activities, such as building an igloo, creating snowflakes, designing hovercraft, experiencing a tornado and watching a very informative documentary about our ecosystem in their IMAX Theatre," he said. "There were many other items of interest, including a special area just for STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] activities."
The group stayed overnight at the Country Inn & Suites in Saraland, Alabama, 20 minutes from the battleship park, but could've actually spent the night on the USS Alabama.
"We could have stayed on the ship if we consisted of a one-gender group — all boys or all girls — and made reservations earlier in the year," Edwards said. "It was already booked when we inquired this past May."
But Saturday, Dec. 7, was the whole point of the trip for the group — the Pearl Harbor Day ceremony.
"While there, we learned about the significance of Pearl Harbor Day and took part in the wreath-laying ceremony to honor two World War II Pearl Harbor survivors who were escorted by the USS Drum World War II submarine honor guard," Edwards said.
The highlight and "primary reason we chose this time of year to visit" the battleship park was to witness a re-enactment of the Pearl Harbor bombing, the instructor said.
"We were spread throughout the deck of the ship from the bridge, gun mounts and main deck and watched as planes simulated an attack on the battleship," he said. "It was crazy wonderful watching the planes maneuver extremely close the ship, diving for an attack and barely missing hitting the water before banking up and away for another round. It was an amazing display featuring authentic gun sounds from both the planes and guns from the ship.
"We watched as the ship’s crew were simulating being wounded and helped by corpsman — medics — as well as watching the outbreak of simulated fires, which were extinguished with live firefighting equipment. It was a truly wonderful display and is etched in the memory of all who observed."
The re-enactment of a tragic time in American history was "amazing to me because of the realism that I don't expect," said Edwards, who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy.
"The sounds of the gunfire were authentic for both the ship's guns and the aircraft guns," he said. "They also added fishing lights to the aircraft to simulate what gunfire would look like. The types of attacks were also realistic because they had the planes flying patterns of both torpedo planes, bombers and fighters. Additionally, the closeness the planes came to the ship was unbelievable."
CMS JROTC Battalion Commander Kelsey Sisk said she found the Pearl Harbor re-enactment to be "amazing."
"From the people being shot to the reloads of the guns, it was cool to see," the eighth-grader said.
JROTC Battalion Executive Officer Angelo Arena, also an eighth-grader, agreed.
"I think it was an amazing opportunity to see what some of the things that happened," he said. "Also, it helped me learn and visualize more about what happened on that day."
A problem with the sound system prevented the group from being able to hear what the moderator was saying, Edwards said.
"If you were in a higher part of the ship, like my group, you had a much better view but was unable to hear the narrative," he said.
The sea cadets also were able to visit a "very large collection of military equipment," including an authentic World War II submarine, the USS Drum SS-228, Edwards said.
"We were able to climb throughout the small spaces of the boat, look at the torpedoes, climb to the upper level and look through the periscope and get a real feel for how submariners lived on the boat," he said, noting the best part of the trip for him was visiting the submarine as well as the battleship's engine rooms "because they both brought back many memories based on the sounds and smells."
Angelo, 14, said the submarine was his favorite part of the trip.
"It was my favorite because it showed me how a submarine works, including the life and job of a submariner," he said.
The group also visited other parts of the park before returning home late Saturday night.
"We viewed and learned about a magnificent collection of World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Cold War planes on display, including the original stealth spy plane, the A-12 Black Bird," Edwards said. "We also had access to several artillery and tank displays."
The instructor said his cadets were "amazed" by the battleship park, and "all voiced that they really enjoyed the entire trip."
"They really liked the re-enactment, the Pearl Harbor survivors ceremony and that one [CMS cadet] was interviewed for the local TV station," he said.
"I think it was an amazing opportunity to visit the battleship because it helped inform students of the history of the battleship and show students what life is like living and working on a battleship," Angelo said.
Kelsey, 14, said she found the field trip "exciting, enjoyable, and it's definitely something I would do again."
"If there were to be another trip like this, I wouldn't enjoy it more than I did this one," she said. "Definitely something I'll never forget."
She also said it was "hard to decide" what her favorite part of the adventure was.
"It's either the museum with the USS Alabama or the first place we went to [the science exploreum]," she said. "It was enjoyable, informative, and it was really cool to see the different items and plaques throughout both."
Edwards said he would "love to do this trip again in the future and something similar but less expensive for next year."
"My biggest obstacle was raising funds to support students whose parents were unable to do so," he said. "We received $1,050 from the National Humanities Center because of a project that I am working on for them called 'Troops to Teachers.'"