The USS Arizona Memorial

Posted April 24th, 2012 by Devin and filed in History, Travel

When I was in the sixth grade and at a book fair, I chose a book based on its cover: a listing ship ablaze, black smoke in the sky, aircraft hurtling overhead. It intrigued me, to say the least. I didn’t realize it then, but I’d just selected my first book of many about WWII in the Pacific.  That book wasn’t about Pearl Harbor, and I’ve never been a big student of that particular battle for several reasons, but I’ve always known the Arizona Memorial was one of the few places that I could “be where it happened” for a WWII naval battle. And so, for most of my adult life — and for a good chunk of my childhood — I’ve looked forward to visiting the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor.

We got to the memorial visitor’s center early, and even at 8 a.m., the outdoor mall area where you get your boat tickets for the ride over to Arizona was packed. As we waited for our departure — three and a half hours away — we visited the small museum with artifacts from the attack. The museum tells the story of the lead-up to the war, and of the attack itself, through video, written accounts, recovered artifacts, and large-scale models of Arizona and other ships involved. Near the museum is anchored the submarine USS Bowfin, now a museum. We crawled through the cramped interior of the sub, all of it remarkably restored and preserved. My wife remarked how much she enjoyed that part of the day: getting to see how people lived and worked in such close quarters.

The boat ride out to the memorial was filled to capacity. You pull up to the long white structure, barely aware of the destroyed hull of Arizona just barely under the water’s surface. The memorial itself is large and hollow and crowded with tourists. At the memorial’s sides, wide-open to the outside world, you look down into the gentle waves and see the hull of Arizona still sitting there, rusting and clearly visible, seeping oil into the harbor. Parts of the ship stick up out of the water, shades of brown and green, coated in marine growth, an enormous metal tomb just below your feet. Etched in the marble wall the far end of the memorial are the names of the 1,177 who died there, and those who’ve been buried there since.

Many things struck me while on the memorial, such as how small Pearl Harbor truly is, and the mooring quays marked with the names of the other battleships in their location during the attack. But one of the most fascinating aspects is the leaking oil. I’d been under the impression that a drop of oil made its way to the surface every few minutes or so, but as I stood there I could easily see multiple drops float upward and burst on the surface every few seconds. I watched for a long time, mesmerized, as the blobs spread out into shimmering greasy rainbows on the surface, undulating on the slight waves of the harbor.

I have to admit that I felt a bit rushed at the memorial. I believe we had fifteen minutes aboard, maybe a half of an hour. Remember all of the people I’ve been mentioning at the visitor’s center and on the boat ride over? You don’t get jostled around like Herald Square during tourists season, and it’s very quiet and proper, but you can’t get away and be on your own, either.

What comes to my mind are my trips to Gettysburg. When I visit there, I spend every evening in Herbsts’ Woods, where the Iron Brigade fought. I let the sun set around me and the woods turn dark and I feel what happened there 150 years ago. I in no way believe in ghosts on the battlefield (and hold a certain disdain for those who make money off of such beliefs), but there, by myself, along with my thoughts and the surroundings, I feel something there. That is what I was missing at the Arizona Memorial. I didn’t feel that connection.  I remind myself, though, that I didn’t get that connection with Gettysburg on my first visit, so maybe I just need to visit the Arizona Memorial again.

The reminders of the war in the Pacific are as nebulous as the waters on which the battles occurred. You can see the signs of it in the faces of those who survived it, but those men and women are dying every day and before long will no longer walk among us. The decomposing hulk of U.S.S. Arizona is one tangible reminder of that history, it adds tangibility to the stories of what happened on those waters over seventy years ago, and I will return to it.

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