A Date That Will Live in Infamy

In honor of the 70th Anniversary off Pearl Harbor, I’m reprinting, in whole, my post from a couple of years ago on visiting the USS Arizona memorial.

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I don’t usually put up “what I did on my summer vacation” stories, but I thought I’d make an exception in this case. You see, today I went out and saw the USS Arizona Memorial.

I’m used to battlefields having a certain clarity to them. At Gettysburg, for example, I can get a glimpse—just a brief one—of how the battle must have looked in real life. That’s more difficult at Pearl. Honolulu has grown; the harbor has grown; Ford Island is still. It’s very difficult to close your eyes and imagine what those boys must have seen that bright December morning when wave after wave of Japanese planes came screaming into the harbor. But you can see, from the lay of the land, what a juicy target it must have been for them. Coming over the hills into that wide space with the battleships neatly lined up and the airplanes clustered together … it must have made their eyes light up.

The memorial is as a memorial should be—a quiet and understated white sliver in the harbor. It doesn’t draw attention to itself; it is content to honor the past. In an odd way, I was reminded of when I visited the concentration camp in Dachau or Ground Zero. It has that same eerie quiet, as if the color and volume buttons on the world had been turned down slightly.

The visit to the Arizona is preceded by a 30-minute film. The film is too old to blame the US for the attack but old enough to mention the oil embargo as Japan’s justification for the attack. I have never really bought this. Technically, it’s correct, but expansionist empires are not known for their caution. Japan was going to attack at some point, as Billy Mitchell foresaw. They were not going to sit around and let us just keep the Philippines.

It’s a short boat ride out to the memorial. Though the water, you can see parts of the ship—the #3 gun turret most notably. There’s a large white wall with the names of those who fell, most of whom are still interred with their ship. From the memorial, you can see the Missouri, upon whose decks the Japanese officially surrendered, standing a silent vigil over her fallen sister’s grave.

One little touch let me know just how impressive and beautiful was the vessel that rested beneath us. Occasionally, a bubble of oil floats up from Arizona and bursts into a circular rainbow on the surface. She has been lying under the waves for six decades and she’s still leaking. Based on my conversation with the park service, it may be centuries before the Arizona sheds her last “tear”.

There was only one moment when my emotions got the better of me. A guide had mentioned that 334 sailors survived the destruction of the Arizona. I asked what happened when they passed. I was told that they are cremated and placed in urns. Divers then take the urns down to the #4 turret so that they can, at long last, rejoin their fallen brothers.

Sorry if this post rambles. I don’t have any notion of What It All Means and How It Applies To Today. I just wanted to give an impression of our fallen ship and my strong recommendation that you pay your respects if you are ever out in Hawaii. It’s a short trip from the airport. You could even do it in a modest layover.

(PS – I noticed a number of Japanese people at the memorial. While I am sure that many of them are Americans, some of them have to be tourists from Nippon. I always wonder what they think when they visit.)

PPS – When you get a ticket for the Arizona tour, the reverse side has a description of one of the men who fought in the battle. There’s a “collect ‘em all, trade ‘em with your friends” vibe to them that I don’t like but the stories are worth it. Our three were Rudolph Martinez, who is entombed with the Utah; James Daniels, who was one of two survivors of a returning fighter squadron that was attacked by friendly fire; and Frank Flaherty, who tried to evacuate people from the Oklahoma as she was sinking and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Posthumously.

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  1. richtaylor365

    Good post, Hal. I was going to write something on this as well but have difficulty sitting at my desk for long stretches.

    I’ve been to the PHM a few times, every American should see it once. I went through a stretch a few years back where I read the biographies of all the great WW2 admirals (King, Nimitz, Halsey, Spruance), all squids have a special place in their heart for Pearl Harbor.

    Mare Island is very close to where I live, much history there, and the USS Hornett is in dry dock in The City, the docents there make the tour very cool and once a month they have live (not a small feat these days) WW2 vets, navy guys, who give talks about there war experiences.

    My father in law (now deceased) was a bright young engineer in his second year of Stanford on Dec. 7th 1941. The next day he and his brother quit school and enlisted in the navy, he spent the next 18 months at Pearl doing underwater demolition and construction, raising several of the previously sunk battle ships. On his death bed (four years ago tomorrow) he would tell stories (that we all heard a thousand times before) of his days at Pearl. His memory was not good, but those stories were vivid and detailed, the greatest generation, indeed.

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  2. CM

    It’s a great Memorial for sure, I was certainly moved by it. It’s unique. When I was there they were making the film, and we couldn’t go the day we wanted because a stunt pilot had crashed and died. But we got to see it the following day.

    Hal I liked your comparison to Dachau and Ground Zero….I agree with both examples.

    (PS – I noticed a number of Japanese people at the memorial. While I am sure that many of them are Americans, some of them have to be tourists from Nippon. I always wonder what they think when they visit.)

    I’ve visited the various sites at Galipolli, where our forces played a major part in attempting to breach the Turkish mainland (to capture the capital and secure a sea route to Russia) leading to the deaths of 120,000 over nine months. It was very humbling, even more so being from the side of the invaders. Although that quite different I guess, because both sides lost heavily and our forces were a small part of a larger force, and it wasn’t such a brazen unprovoked attack. And also because of the incredible words of Ataturk:

    Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

    That sentiment is certainly the atmosphere at Galipolli today.
    Anyway, I digress….

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