12/05/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Pearl Harbor: Woman's Wave at Pilot a Reminder of Shared Humanity

I read this in an obituary from The San Antonio Express-News on July 9, 2012, and it has haunted me ever since.

Her name was Gloria Swanson and, according to the obit, she was a "breathtaking beauty" and big band singer in San Antonio in the years before World War II. But then Gloria met air cadet Lt. Henry "Hank" Chisholm on their first and only date. They married shortly thereafter.

The young couple's first posting was Hickam Field, Hawaii, near Pearl Harbor. They lived in a residential area near the base. Shortly after arrival, on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Japanese airplanes roared out of the sky. The air was filled with the sound of explosions and the bitter smell of acrid smoke. Like the other dependents in the neighborhood, Gloria ran to her front porch - trying to comprehend what was happening.

And this is where the obituary takes a fascinating turn. As Gloria stood there, the waves of Japanese planes wheeled to make another attack on the burning battleships. One pilot flew so low that he was barely above the treetops. And, according to the obituary, the American housewife and the Japanese pilot locked eyes for a long moment and Gloria - perhaps still in shock - waved. Then the pilot abruptly pulled upward, heading again for the carnage at Pearl Harbor.

The obituary doesn't say anything else about the incident and Hank and Gloria Chisholm lived a long and happy life together. The obituary doesn't add what she thought when her eyes met the gaze of the pilot, what she felt. Perhaps Gloria told those things to her friends and family in the years and decades that followed.

I don't know the Chisholm family, but Gloria's spontaneous reaction to the eye contact of her unnamed, unknown Japanese pilot fascinates me. The story must have intrigued her family as well, since it was included in her obituary. Regardless, in her surprise at that moment, Gloria did the human thing. She waved at a fellow human being. Perhaps later, when she discovered the horrors of the surprise attack, she wished she'd given him some other universal symbol of defiance or anger. Perhaps not.

As for the pilot, here was someone who had doubtless just contributed to the deaths of thousands of people, many of them dying horribly from the fires or drowning.
I'd like to think that there is a chance that Gloria's simple wave impacted him somehow. Suddenly, he wasn't bombing and strafing faceless foreign devils. He was killing human beings. People like Gloria, the "breathtaking beauty" who impulsively acknowledged their shared humanity.

And perhaps ... just perhaps ... that gesture and that eye-contact shook him. And on his next pass, he purposefully kept his finger off the trigger of his machine gun. Or perhaps he dropped his last remaining bomb too soon, away from the hundreds of helpless human beings beneath his bombsight.

It's probably wishful thinking on my part.

Seventy-three years later, we are - once again - in December and the season of shared humanity, of love, of forgiveness, of family.

I have spent the past eight years studying the protest spirituals and freedom songs of African Americans fighting for their rights. There is much beauty here, much insight, much wisdom. Eight years later, I still have much to learn about them.

But I know this: the spirituals and freedom songs are remarkably free of anger. It is part of a continuum where the aggrieved continually sought reconciliation, not revenge. In the years following the American Civil War, when Reconstruction meant that - for the first time - blacks held office in the South, the new legislators showed restraint in their dealings for their former masters. They could have passed laws to severely punish the defeated Confederates and slave-owners. History says they didn't.

In 1915, John Wesley Work writes this powerful paragraph in Folk Song of the American Negro:

"Another characteristic of the Negro song is, as has been stated before, that it has no expression of hatred or revenge. If these songs taught no other truths save this, they would be invaluable. That a race which had suffered and toiled as the Negro had, could find no expression for bitterness and hatred, yes, could positively love, is strong evidence that it possesses a clear comprehension of the great force in life, and that it must have had experience in the fundamentals of Christianity."

Work ends with a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson's Sea Dreams: "One shriek of hate would jar all the hymns of heaven."

And so it is also true during the Civil Rights movement. The freedom songs sometimes name-check those oppressing them - "Ain't gonna let Bull Connor turn me 'round." And in a number of particularly violent situations, such as Selma, they sang the old song, "I'm Gonna Tell God How You Treat Me." But instead of vowing vengeance against who persecuted them, the singers repeatedly returned to the loveliest of expressions in "We Shall Overcome" - "Black and white together/We shall overcome."

Which brings us back to the obituary of Gloria Chisholm and how she often recounted an event that happened seventy-three years ago this week. It's a story of connection, however fleeting, told with a touch of wonder, not bitterness.

It's also a story that doesn't really have an ending, at least not in this life.

Gloria Chisholm lived a rich, full life and passed to the next stage of her journey surrounded by friends and loved ones.

We don't know the fate of the Japanese pilot. Few Japanese pilots made it home in 1945. Most died in the four years that followed, their graves are their bullet-riddled airplanes, still lost in the depths of the blue Pacific Ocean.

In December 2014, in Gloria's gesture and in the message of the spirituals and freedom songs, we find once again, the real meaning of this season: Forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, humanity, and love.

Robert F. Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014)