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