I’m in the field again this week — and trying to blog on the iPad — so here are two of my favorite early Cemeteries of the Week that you may have missed. They seem appropriate, since another anniversary has gone by.
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.
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.
Events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the attack
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