Monthly Archives: December 2011

Weekly Photo Challenge: Waiting

The chapel inside the USS Arizona Memorial

Once the ferry docked, everyone shuffled down the gangplank onto the blindingly white memorial. Despite the bustle, the monument seemed very peaceful. People kept quiet, moved slowly, were relatively polite to each other — but the men didn’t take off their baseball caps. I didn’t feel they were being consciously disrespectful. They just didn’t know any better.

I kept thinking of my visit to Hiroshima, the bookend of America’s involvement in World War II in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor’s shipyard had been an obvious military target. Victims here had been warriors. Even if war remained undeclared in 1941, the men at Pearl Harbor were trained and ready to fight. They expected to be called upon to give their lives for their country, if not as soon as they did. These sailors were betrayed by their government and their commanders — and, to be fair, by the enemy — but their deaths succinctly served the purpose the American government had in mind: to goad an uncommitted public into war.

Hymns I recognized from my childhood played over the speakers while people filed through the memorial. The structure is basically an enclosed bridge that straddles the sunken battleship. The Arizona rests on the harbor bottom, forty feet down. Its brittle, rusty smokestack protrudes from the water.

As I watched, a rainbow slick of oil drifted from a slowly leaking tank. An older gentleman in military uniform volunteered that the oil had been seeping since the ship went down. “Legend claims,” he said, “that the oil will flow until the last survivor dies.”

The veteran guide continued to speak, telling us how the memorial received some of its funding. When Elvis Presley came to Oahu in 1961 to film Blue Hawaii, he asked to be taken to Pearl Harbor. At the time, only a plaque marked the spot. Presley performed a benefit in Honolulu and donated the proceeds to the memorial fund.

I wondered how native Hawaiians feel about the monument in the bay where their ancient kings had hunted sharks. A million and a half people visit the Arizona Memorial each year, tossing coins and flowers into the water. It struck me as odd that the Park Service worried about the effect of lei strings on wildlife, but not sixty years of seeping oil.

I leaned through one of the rectangular openings in the memorial bridge, gazing down into the water. I’m not sure what I wanted to see to make the experience real. The men below had long been dissolved and carried away by the ocean. No fish could brave the contaminated water. Below me sat rusting steel bought by the American public, paid for with American blood. What did it mean?

An older woman leaned out from the next opening. I watched her methodically strip pink dendrobium orchids from a lei. The flowers dropped the short distance from her fingers to bob on the wavelets. Tears washed her cheeks. I felt I was intruding and turned away.

Dazed, I considered how I don’t have any personal connection to WWII. My parents were infants at the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing. My grandfathers were too old to enlist. Later in the war, my mother’s father moved the family to Virginia to build warships to replace those lost in Hawaii. My mom was too young to recall much of that. My grandparents, who would have remembered, are gone now.

I wandered into the memorial’s chapel in the room farthest from the hubbub of the dock. An angular framework suggested a modernistic stained glass window, except that the panels were open to the sky and water outside. Bright sunlight only emphasized the gloom in the chapel, highlighting a fraction of the 1177 names on the wall.

Tourists balked at going more than halfway into the shrine. They clustered toward the back of the room, clogging the entrance. I wasn’t sure if that was out of respect or from the same atavistic impulse that keeps people out of the front pew in church. I sidled through the crowd to get a picture without baseball caps in it.

On my way back to the ferry, the veteran guide said that scuba had been so new in 1941 that the rescue effort was abandoned quickly, even though they knew people survived inside the sunken ships. Among the tourists he’d spoken to had been a Navy diver. While the man dived that December morning, he heard someone banging for the longest time. They couldn’t rescue him. The banging came less and less frequently until it eventually stopped.

Even though I hadn’t reached the connection I desired, time had come to return to the tour bus. I kept thinking of the Japanese schoolchildren shaking my husband Mason’s hand in the Peace Museum. I wondered if Japanese visitors found such courtesy here.

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

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. Richardson, 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

Cemetery of the Week #43: Christ Church Burial Ground

Benjamin Franklin’s grave

Christ Church Burial Ground
Arch Street between 4th & 5th
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106
Telephone: (215) 922-1695
Established: 1719
Size: two acres
Number of interments: An estimated 6500
Open: In December, on Friday and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., weather permitting. Please call for more information. Closed January and February, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Open March through November, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m to 4, Sunday noon to 4, weather permitting.
Admission: $1 Students, $2 adults, and $25 for groups up to 25 people.
Guided tours: an additional fee of $3 for adults and $1 for students. In December, tours are by reservation only. From March to November, guided tours are given from 11 to 3:30 p.m. An historian leads  visitors to Colonial and Revolution-Era people and tells their stories.

The brick wall of the Christ Church Burial Ground, built in the 1770s, has a gap through which Benjamin Franklin’s grave is visible. Franklin’s tombstone has a large slab, almost as big as a bed sheet, carved with the names Benjamin and Deborah Franklin and the year 1790, the year of his death.

Franklin was buried near the wall because that is near the grave of his four-year-old son Francis, now remembered by a small brass plaque. The child died of smallpox. Franklin’s daughter Sally and her husband lay in the grave beside him. She raised money for the Continental Army and later sewed shirts for American soldiers.

Even during his lifetime, Franklin had been Philadelphia’s most famous citizen. He was responsible for the paving, lighting, and patrolling of the streets, along with improving the postal service, which made Philadelphia the communications center for the entire country. Franklin founded the nation’s oldest subscription library in 1731. He was also instrumental in founding the Pennsylvania Hospital and the “oldest continually active mutual fire insurance company in the country.” In 1757, he traveled to London as an unofficial ambassador to the Crown. When he returned to Pennsylvania in 1775, he joined the Second Continental Congress, which included John Hancock, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and John and Samuel Addams. Afterward, Franklin sailed to France, where he helped to get diplomatic recognition of the United States. At the end of the Revolutionary War, he negotiated the treaty with Great Britain, then returned to the United States to attend the Constitutional Congress in 1787. He was one of only five men who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution.

When he died in 1790, 20,000 Philadelphians followed the cortege to the Christ Church Burial Ground. In 1850s, bricks were removed from the wall to allow people to view Franklin’s grave. The custom of scattering coins on the grave began at that time, when a bride would toss a coin for luck onto the grave on her way to Christ Church to be married. Franklin’s marriage to Deborah had been long but not especially happy. Franklin married Deborah in 1730, when he was 24 and she 22. She died of a stroke 44 years later while he was in London. He’d been gone 16 years.

While Franklin’s is the most visited grave in the cemetery, the graveyard holds the remains of five signers of the Declaration of Independence, including George Ross, who served three years in the Continental Congress; Francis Hopkinson, a composer who designed currency; and Joseph Hewes, a delegate to all five Provincial Congresses who signed the Declaration for North Carolina.

In the Burial Ground rests John Dunlap, the Declaration’s first publisher. His descendents continue to be members of the Christ Church congregation. Also in the graveyard lies Colonel Edward Buncome, who died in nearby Germantown during the Revolutionary War and was buried here. A bronze plaque inside the cemetery’s wall remembers William Henry Drayton, signer of the Articles of Confederation and a member of the Continental Congress from South Carolina. His unmarked grave is now lost.

The cemetery contains a “Who’s Who” of Pennsylvania naval officers, including Commodore James Biddle, who received the Congressional Gold Medal for capturing the HMS Penguin during the War of 1812. Before his career was over, he’d signed treaties with Turkey and China and landed in Japan. Although two of the commodores were moved to newer family plots in Philadelphia’s lovely Laurel Hill Cemetery, Commodores Thomas Truxton (one of the first six captains appointed after the United States formed its Navy) and William Bainbridge continue to lie here. Bainbridge’s obelisk was restored by officers and alumni of the U.S. Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland, named in his honor.

A number of Philadelphia mayors also lie in the Christ Church Burial Ground, including Matthew Clarkson, a Continental Congressman who was mayor during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793.

My tour ended at the grave of Dr. Benjamin Rush, acclaimed by the American Psychiatric Association as the father of psychiatry in America. Our guide said that Rush was the most radical of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was suspicious of slave-owners and wanted to see the practice of slavery banned in the new country. The other signers, nearly all slave-owners themselves, voted him down. While serving as the surgeon-general of the Continental Army, Rush campaigned for the removal of George Washington as commander. After the war, he served as treasurer of the U.S. Mint, advocated scientific education for women, wanted public clinics opened to treat the poor, and authored the first textbook on psychiatry in America, which demanded that the insane be treated with respect. When he died, John Addams wrote, “I know of no character, living or dead, who has done more real good in America.”

Useful links:

Famous people and a map of Christ Church Burial Ground

Some context for the burial ground

A lovely springtime photo of Christ Church Burial Ground

Other Revolutionary War heroes on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #18: King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts

Cemetery of the Week #33: Old Dutch Burying Ground, Tarrytown, New York

Cemetery of the Week #41:  Trinity Churchyard, New York City, New York

Cemetery of the Week #61: Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts

Cemetery of the Week #73: St. Paul’s Chapel churchyard, New York City, New York

Weekly Photo Challenge: Family

Grandma’s headstone

When I showed my grandmother Death’s Garden, hot off the presses in 1996, I was nervous about what she would say about a book of essays about cemeteries.  Grandma was a plainspoken woman who survived the Depression as a girl in Missouri.  She didn’t spare your feelings if she could tell you the truth.  It was one of the many things for which I respected her.

She paged through the photographs of grave monuments, examining each one.  When she’d finished, she rested her gnarled hands on the book cover and asked, “Didn’t you include your grandfather’s stone?”

How could I tell her why?  The marker made me uncomfortable.  I dodged the question and said, “I didn’t have room for all the pictures I’ve taken.”

“I hope you’ll write about it someday,” she said.

The thing that made me uncomfortable about my grandfather’s gravestone is that it already had my grandmother’s name on it.  When she bought the stone, the funeral home persuaded her that it would be cheaper to carve her name and birth date into the monument at the 1961 price.  Then only the final date would need to be carved once the stone was set in place, a more expensive procedure since the engraver must travel to the cemetery.  Throughout my whole life, the ground beside my grandfather’s coffin has been waiting to swallow my grandmother.

Grandma’s in her grave now.  I hurried home to see her one last time, but fled before the end came.  As the plane bore me back to San Francisco, I knew was I making a mistake.  I should have stayed, I kept thinking.  I should have stayed.  I should have stayed ’til the end and watched her go into the ground.

October of 2000 was the first time I was able to come home after the funeral.  I kept so busy after I arrived that I didn’t have a moment to visit the graveyard.  Finally, about an hour before I needed to get in the car for the drive to Detroit to fly away again, I visited my family.

Once I rode my bike past the cemetery gates, I felt how this was my home, this little cemetery where my dad’s parents lie, where my mother’s mother and the only grandfather I remember lie, where my parents have four plots — one of which is mine, if I care to claim it.  There, the names of my childhood molder under stones that say, “Not Dead, Only Sleeping” and “Passed Out of This Life.”  Those old sentiments linger from the days when good Christians believed they would wait in their graves until Gabriel blew his trumpet and Jesus burst the bonds of death.  I remember the stories of my childhood, even if they offer no comfort.

Grandma chose no epitaph, no words to sum up the life she left or the husband she joined.  She was a staunch Baptist, saved as a girl at a tent revival.  In the end, she believed that Jesus was waiting for her when she died, waiting to escort her home.  I don’t have any such faith.  I talk to her like she’s in the ground, not in the skies singing hosannas in her wavering, tone-deaf voice.  I have no illusions that she’s sleeping beneath my feet.

As I framed a photo of Grandma’s headstone, I remembered her lying on her deathbed.  I treasured the memory of seeing her brighten and call my name and tell me that she loved me.  Tears prickled my eyes as I thought of all that is lost.  I knew the photo could not capture what I felt, nor could any words.  The woman I loved is gone, will always be gone.  In her place, I am left with a stone.

Another post about Bendle Cemetery

Some information about Death’s Garden