Cemetery of the Week #44: The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

The USS Arizona Memorial

The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial
No. 1 Arizona Memorial Place
Honolulu, Hawaii 96818
Telephone: (808) 422-3300
Established: 1962
Size: 10 acres
Number of interments: 1102 of the 1177 men who died on the Arizona. Some were cremated at their posts. Others were killed by the concussion and their bodies left in place. Since the 1980s, approximately 30 urns of ashes have been placed in the gun turret by Park Service divers. Other men, who served on the Arizona prior to December 7, 1941, have had their ashes spread over the waters.
Open: The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1. Ferries to the USS Arizona Memorial begin at 8 a.m. and run until 3.
Admission: Tours are free, but timed tickets are given away on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets may all be given away by noon, so come early and be prepared to wait.

There had been talk of turning the shallow harbor on Oahu to American military usage during the Spanish-American War, before the U.S. even annexed Hawaii in 1898. Construction of the Naval base began in 1908. Between Hawaii and Japan stood 4000 miles of open ocean, a distance too narrow for American hawks.

Out through the back of the Visitor Center, a patio surrounded by lush tropical greenery looked out over the placid harbor. The shallow water shone cerulean beneath fleecy white clouds. Park Service plaques held black-and-white photos from 1941, showing where the ships had been moored when the attack began. Gray steel warships literally encircled the island in the center of the harbor.

I know those were different days, but looking back from seven decades on, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have seen this accumulation of war machinery and believed America’s intentions were peaceful. Hostilities might not have been formally declared, but they were clearly anticipated. In reality, the U.S. had long looked forward to quashing Japanese expansionism. Washington simply wanted justification. The Rape of Nanking hadn’t been enough; some small Pacific nation needed to be sacrificed, too.

Men on both sides of the ocean counseled against starting anything. Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto had attended university in the U.S. and spoke fluent English. He understood that Americans might be balked by a surprise defeat, but once battle was joined, the larger country would win. He spoke against provoking the U.S. until his countrymen threatened his life. Cornered, Yamamoto lobbied for a decisive first strike to destroy the fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. With any luck, the U.S. would be completely disarmed until after Japan conquered Asia. By then, it would be too late.

James O. Richards, the admiral in command of America’s Pacific Fleet, called it suicidal to mass the entire fleet in one place. That warning contradicted what President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to hear, so he replaced the man. Pearl Harbor had seemed safe because its waters were considered too shallow for torpedoes to travel. A submarine net easily blocked the harbor’s narrow mouth. Radar was only just coming into use, but military consensus was that the Japanese wouldn’t dare anything worse than sabotage. To prevent that, Lt. General Walter Short ordered American warplanes parked wing to wing and tail to nose to make them easier to guard. That made them impossible to fly on December 7th, 1941.

If not for a cascade of American ineptitude, the attack on Pearl Harbor might have been no surprise at all. Roosevelt received reports that the Japanese fleet had gone to sea, but his advisers predicted they were headed to the Dutch Indies. The Pacific fleet did not go in search of them.

At 4 a.m. on the morning of the attack, the USS Ward sank a Japanese submarine outside Pearl Harbor. However, its report of the incident was not coded urgent and didn’t get passed on to the men sleeping on ships inside the harbor.

Radar trainees had been supposed to shut down their equipment at 7 a.m., but because they had not yet gone off-duty, they saw a huge mass approaching Oahu. They reported to a lieutenant on the second day of his command. He expected American B-17s from San Francisco. Even though this swarm came from the south rather than east from San Francisco, he advised the radar men not to worry about it.

When a modified torpedo hit the West Virginia, the U.S. fleet was completely undefended. Three minutes later, a bomb cut through the Arizona and ignited its forward magazine. It sank in nine minutes, all hands aboard. America had its catalyst to enter World War II.

Park Rangers accompany the low white ferries for the trip across the water to the memorial. The sound system played “Taps” and informs visitors that the USS Arizona “is considered a cemetery, so keep your voices down.” Other instructions include, “Don’t throw coins from the memorial.” The Park Service still collects coins five times a year, but the metal plummeting through the water damages the old ship. Flowers are OK to cast onto the water, but lei strings should be cut so they don’t endanger wildlife.

The memorial is the most popular tourist destination in Hawaii, with up to 4000 visitors per day. Since 9/11, bags, backpacks, and purses are not allowed in the memorial. They must be left on the tour bus or locked in your trunk.

Useful links:

Events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the attack

The National Park Service site

Pearl Harbor Memorial official site

Names of the dead

A Marine visits Pearl Harbor

Cemetery of the Week #26: Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park

My visit to the Arizona and thoughts about Hiroshima

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. Scribner published my favorite essays from Morbid Curiosity magazine as Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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