I have been researching the battles fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II as backstory for my next novel. My father, William Carl Thomas, served as a chaplain in the Navy aboard the USS Phoenix, a light cruiser, from 1944-5. I never knew exactly what happened in that year, except that he experienced the terror of kamikazes dive-bombing close to the ship. So I saw this as an opportunity to find out more.
I was able to chart the route of the USS Phoenix and sense a bit of what my father experienced, if that is humanly possible.
The name intrigued me, for I recalled the ancient myth of the phoenix, the bird that rose from its own ashes, a kind of resurrection. Indeed, the resurrection of Christ has been seen as a kind of phoenix, as if the phoenix were prophesizing the future salvation of mankind.
Our present day is in need of rebirth, for there are many signs that our civilization is dying. Will there be a rising from the ashes of the West? Will the resurrection be in time? Will we even have voices to tell the story, the history, to our children? Or will be silenced?
The USS Phoenix, named after the Arizona city, was a light cruiser. Her job was to guard convoys in dangerous waters. She shelled beaches to protect American troops in their amphibious landings. She was attacked by torpedoes and kamikazes, many near misses. In the course of the war, she lost only one man. She was a true phoenix and was nicknamed “Lucky Phoenix.”
The ship was present in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese raid of December 7, 1941, but anchored northeast of Ford Island and not hit. The men on board witnessed the attack and the fire and the smoke and sailed to find survivors. My father was not enlisted as yet. He would join the Phoenix on June 3, 1944 according to the Navy’s “Muster Roll.” He had recently graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary.
The cruiser had executed many operations by this time, and the current goal of General MacArthur was a massive amphibian attack on the islands arcing up to the Philippines, occupied by the Japanese (“I will return,” the general had promised). They would liberate the Philippines and thus have a position to invade Japan. The Phoenix was part of many battles off the northwest coast of New Guinea, protecting and escorting at Biak, Yapen, Noemfoor, Morotai, and Halmahera islands, and in the battle of Leyte Gulf, a key victory in the battle for the Philippines.
My father saw a great deal of fire in the year he served in the South Pacific, but he survived, and like many, rose from the ashes of the war to return home, marry, and have a family.
Curious as to how the town of Phoenix, Arizona, was named, I learned that a Civil War Confederate veteran, Jack Swilling, was prospecting in the settlement of Wickenburg in 1867. He saw an area in the Salt River Valley that could be farmed, providing food for the town. They built a canal. Lord Darryl Duppa, one of the settlers, suggested Phoenix as a name for the town, for they had found evidence of a long-gone native civilization. They would build a new civilization, rising from the old one.
Today, perhaps Phoenix, Maricopa County, will rise again, this time from the turmoil of purported election 2020 fraud.
And so this morning in our Berkeley chapel, I thought of the freedoms we still enjoyed, the freedom to worship and assemble, to write and to speak, although self-censoring has paralyzed many, and many who have spoken have had careers destroyed, reputations ruined. But this morning, in the chapel, we prayed and praised Our Lord of Resurrection. For America is a country of resurrection. It is a place of new life rising, a beacon burning on a hill, a torch flaming, held high by Lady Liberty in New York’s harbor. Within our nation’s laws, and within its borders, America offers a new life to immigrants escaping tyranny, a resurrection.
I prayed too, that we remembered to remember the heroes of our nation, at home and at sea, in the air and on the land. I prayed that we remembered to tell these stories to our children so that they would tell their children. In this way they would understand that rising from the ashes happened and can happen again, that they can protect the sanctity of life and all that that means. I prayed for freedom, the freedom for which my father fought and was willing to die, for he knew he would be resurrected too.