Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Remembering Pearl Harbor

The only trouble with going on vacation is coming back to mountains of stuff that somehow didn't get done whilst one was away. ::gusty sigh:: Now where was I....

While DH and I were in Honolulu, much of our time was occupied with family matters, although we did our bit for the depressed tourism economy as well. One day the two of us and my sister visited some of the historic sites at Pearl Harbor, which includes the battleship USS Missouri, the submarine USS Bowfin, the Pacific Aviation Museum and a couple smaller museums,U.S. flag over the Arizona Memorial and the site virtually synonymous with Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial.

This December 7 will be the 70th anniversary of the Imperial Japanese attack that led to the U.S. entering World War II. The date may live in infamy, but those who remember where they were when they heard the news that Sunday are older and fewer now. Nowadays the Arizona Memorial is a top tourist attraction for visitors of many nations, and some (mostly Americans) need a quiet reminder that it stands over the sunken battleship, which is a military cemetery.

USS Bowfin deck gun

Deck gun on the submarine USS Bowfin, the Pearl Harbor Avenger. (My sister rather enjoyed pretending to shoot stuff.) The Bowfin has a sister ship, the USS Ling, in Hackensack, NJ.

In fairness it should be noted that although the Arizona Memorial is somber, the tone of the historic sites taken as a whole is somewhat ambiguous. There are junior park ranger activities, and it must be admitted that clambering around the Missouri and the Bowfin and gawping at the planes in the Aviation Museum and the assorted torpedos scattered about is rather fun (and occasionally somewhat strenuous). The concession stand plays bouncy patriotic music; the gift shop bookstore sells temporary tattoos. So perhaps temporary lapses in decorum by younger visitors are understandable and may be forgiven.


Black torpedo near right; the white poles in the middle ground are submarine periscopes – it's amazing how tall they are and how smoothly and easily they pivot; USS Bowfin off to the left. Also, pink shower tree and fragrant cream-flowered Plumeria, a popular lei flower.

As an educational remedy, the Visitors Center shows a documentary, magnificently narrated by Stockard Channing, that includes remarkable film footage of the attack from both the U.S. and the Imperial Japanese points of view. Some parts are difficult to watch – I thought of 9/11 and teared up; other visitors were chattering and laughing before they saw the movie, subdued after.

Burning wreckage of the Arizona

The burning wreckage of the USS Arizona, December 7, 1941. The explosions and fires collapsed some decks and melted others together. Click to view full size. Source: US Library of Congress, Identification Code LC-USE62-D-OA-000189.

It's also instructive to recall that the memorial was not always so popular. In the 1950s, some critics felt a monument to a military defeat was inappropriate, even shameful; some called the design a "squashed milk carton" and vilified its Austrian-born architect, Alfred Preis, as an enemy alien. In the 1980s, similar hateful remarks were made about the now-iconic Vietnam War Memorial and its Ohio-born architect, Maya Lin. Gentle readers of today may find themselves divided over projects such as the Park51 Muslim community center near Ground Zero.

Arizona Memorial

The only access to the Arizona Memorial is by boats which are handicapped accessible. Notice the flagpole is attached to the mainmast of the sunken wreck.

First-time visitors to Pearl Harbor are often surprised by its great natural beauty and calm water – along with its military and historic significance, the place is also a wildlife refuge. The water is clear enough that the rusting hulk of the battleship is plainly visible both above and below the water.

Arizona gun turret

Arizona gun turret. It's difficult to convey a sense of its scale, over 35 feet (over 10 m) in diameter.

Due to the exigencies of war, much of the Arizona's superstructure was salvaged, particularly the big guns, but most of the human remains were never recovered from the wreckage. The memorial has a portal in its floor to permit strewing of flowers over the submerged hull. For some visitors, there seems to be a quantum of solace in the many contrasts; for others, they are deeply painful.

Port in the floor of the memorial

The view through the portal. Each December 7, visitors so inclined are given the name of one of those killed to pray for and a flower to cast into the water.

I grew up hearing harrowing stories about the attack and its aftermath. My mother was a civilian employee at Pearl Harbor; she watched the damaged warships burn and heard the reports that sounds of tapping were coming from the capsized USS Oklahoma, made by men trapped in air pockets. Some were rescued, but some were in places underwater that could not be reached.Wartime poster The tapping grew fainter and eventually stopped after four or five weeks.

There was extensive "collateral damage" as well – some sections of Honolulu were bombed and the first responders strafed; later, there were the injustices and hardships of martial law: curfews, censored mail and newspapers, seizure of money and property, restricted travel, prohibition, and rationing. Some people expected imminent invasion – the beaches were strung with barbed wire, shore batteries set up, college and even high school ROTC units activated. There were intense fears about spies, saboteurs, and fifth columnists. The concerns were frequently misplaced, but for many people then (and perhaps for some people now) the grim mood of the times was sometimes unencumbered by either fact or compassion.

BIL remembers running home from Sunday school amid warplanes flying treetop high, seeing the faces of the pilots and the rising sun markings on the planes, the terrible noise and smoke. His father was arrested and interned at Sand Island and Honouliuli for three years without charges, trial, or even, initially, word of his whereabouts. Not surprisingly, the experience impoverished and broke some, and radicalized others. BIL eventually served in the U.S. Air Force – his experiences while deployed in the segregated South gave him additional perspectives on civil rights.

Battleship Missouri

Big gun on the USS Missouri, with a lot of tourists for scale. Touring the ship involves lots of stairs and ladders.

Today the battleship USS Missouri, scarred but not dehumanized by kamikaze attacks, the site where the surrender accord was signed, symbolically watches over Battleship Row. Former enemies have become trading partners, allies, and friends. The Visitor's Center offers recorded tours in English, Spanish, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and many other languages. And the past is remembered – ships entering Pearl Harbor still render the high honor of manning the rail when they pass the Arizona Memorial.

USS Pasadena

USS Pasadena, homeport Pearl Harbor, coming home (click to view larger).

Indeed, while we were exploring the Missouri, the fast attack submarine USS Pasadena came into port with the ship's complement turned out. There was a lei on her conning tower (!) to welcome her home. After she made her silent salute to the memorial, the other ships in port began blasting their horns in greeting. It was wonderful to hear and wonderful to think of the many joyous reunions that would soon take place.

Fireworks in Brookdale Park


It took us a full day to tour the Pearl Harbor historic sites, and we somehow never did get to the Pacific Aviation Museum. It's taking even longer to process the experience, which I thought about over the 4th of July weekend and will have in mind this December. In the meantime, gentle readers, do you have any thoughts on or remembrances of Pearl Harbor? Feel free to share them in the comments.


Kaye said...

Great pics!!
I have no memories of PH, obviously. I only grew up with the story that this is what sent my grandfather over the deep end. He had a traumatic childhood and he escaped by joining the Navy. He lost a lot of friends in PH and it was kind of like the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of his mental health problems.
He died 9 years ago, so he was luckier than his friends, but he was never quite the same they say.

Kristen said...

Thanks for the informative and moving post, especially moving for someone like you who had family members personally affected.
My dad was 18 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it spurred him and most of his classmates to join up as soon as they graduated.