07 December 2012

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Like the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery, the Memorial to the Battleship Arizona is one of those places you should visit if you can. Many years ago I saw it the first time when I was passing through Hickam AFB on my way to duty in the Western Pacific. Back then the US Navy ran the whole show. There was a pilot boat that could take a small number of visitors out to the Memorial. Even though all of us were active military the sailors who took us out stressed that this was a tomb and a solemn place. Reverence was in order.

Nowadays the shore facility is run by the National Park Service and is a quite elaborate pavilion with memorabilia from the USS Arizona, along with several displays and dioramas depicting the scenes of that day, now sixty-eight years ago. Just before you are taken out to the Memorial, now on a much larger boat than I rode out on the first time I saw it, you are shown a fifteen minute video explanation of the events that lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and other military bases on Oahu.  Then you are taken out to the Memorial.

While the National Park Service runs the on-shore part of the Memorial, the US Navy still owns Pearl Harbor, and it is a Navy operated boat that shuttles visitors to and from the Memorial.  They still stress that this is a tomb and a solemn place, but the reverence is not what it once was, especially among the numerous Japanese visitors to the site.  The sailors who run the boat shuttle do what they can to maintain decorum, and the tone among visitors is generally subdued and reverent.

The Memorial spans the USS Arizona at about where the bridge once was.  There are the remains of the 16" gun turrets at or just above the water line on either side of the Memorial.  Looking down into the water on just about any day, you can see globs of bunker oil from the ship still slowly oozing to the surface.  It is feared that some day, when the ship has decayed enough, whatever fuel remains inside the ship will spill into Pearl Harbor. 

At the far end of the Memorial is a shrine, literally, to the men who died on the Arizona.  Their names are carved on white marble slabs that line the far end of the chapel.  A low marble railing separates visitors from the slabs themselves, unlike the Vietnam Memorial where visitors can walk up and touch the slabs.  In the tradition of Hawaii, there are many leis left as a kind of personal offering to those who are entombed there.  If you look carefully at the names on those slabs you can get a glimpse of the scope of the tragedy some families endured that day.  Back then it was Navy custom to allow family members to serve on the same ship simultaneously, so you see a list of brothers, and sometimes, fathers and sons, who went down with the USS Arizona.

There is even a tradition, if you will, that the survivors of the Arizona's death that day can be buried with their ship mates when their days are done.  Their cremated remains are lowered into the hulk.

In recent years another ship that played a large part in the Pacific War now sits at anchor in Pearl Harbor.  It is the USS Missouri.  When you look out from the on shore pavilion it is almost as if the Mighty Mo is standing sentry over the Memorial.  The Missouri is operated as a museum by a private foundation.  Lots of retired US Navy and retired military people from other services volunteer to work there and support the visitor traffic that pass through that ship.  Access to it is from Ford Island, and that is US Navy property.  There still are sensitive things going on around there, so the Navy is sensitive about people shooting pictures of anything and everything in the area.  Still, it's hard to miss something like an attack boat that is headed out to sea.

In 2004 we took our daughter and her family with us on a winter visit to Hawaii.  We made sure that visiting the Arizona Memorial was on the list of things to do.  The two granddaughters were not yet teenagers, but they took in everything about the Memorial.  Looking at the dioramas and models, the youngest granddaughter, especially, had lots of questions.  We went through the pavilion, saw the fifteen minute video, went out to the Memorial, and returned to shore.  As we were walking off the boat youngest granddaughter told me that she didn't like those nasty Japanese.  I told her that all those events took place a long time ago and that things were different now.  Then I took her over to where we could see the Memorial and the Mighty Mo together.  I told her that in another day or so we were going to take a trip out that big gray ship out there and she was going to see where Imperial Japan surrendered, ending World War II.

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