December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor

A Visit to Pearl Harbor

May, 1941: Author Ed McManus at rest, six months before Pearl Harbor.Photo by  Francis Poisson

May, 1941: Author Ed McManus at rest, six months before Pearl Harbor.
Photo by Francis Poisson

It was Japanese Appreciation Week in Nineteen Eighty-Something when I left Waikiki, Hawaii and began the drive to Kuilama to see about opening a new sales and services office for my company. I was in the computer business. There are all sorts of businesses on Hawaii, although the tourist business is still Number One.

The Japanese, I was told, account for half the Hawaiian tourist business. They come as social groups, families, and young married couples who, for a stiff fee, can reenact their wedding western style, complete with parson, gown, music, tux, and limo. The mandatory photo album is extra. It always is.

My business in Kuilama went quicker than I anticipated and it was all wrapped up in one evening dinner, and a meeting the following morning. My plane wasn’t scheduled until the next morning. The idea of laying out on the beach was very attractive, until a friend asked, “Is this your first trip to Oahu? Aren’t you going to visit Pearl Harbor?”

Oahu; Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941: “The date that will live in infamy.”

The drive down the shore road to Pearl Harbor takes about an hour and a half. It is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. Mile upon mile of mountains and valleys and ocean waves crashing against volcanic rock. If you pull off the narrow road from time to time you can see things off the coast like whales and dolphins, and the island of Molokai, the 19th century leper colony of both heroic and tragic reputation. It is now being reworked into a tourist destination.

The USS Arizona Memorial is administered by the U.S. Navy and the U. S. Park service. You arrive easily. The Navy has everything clearly marked. You park, and then walk a short distance to a concrete shell, housing the gateway to the memorial. Admission is free and you request a ticket for the next tour from the smiling attendant behind the desk. All smiles, clean, good manners, spit & polish – it’s nice. It’s what I like to believe America really is.

The wait is short and since you have your ticket there’s no need to queue up. You can spend a restful time walking the grounds and watching the ships come in and out of Pearl Harbor, still an important naval base.

The huge anchor from the USS Arizona is hung in a monument by the entryway. I wanted to get a picture of it but couldn’t get through the Japanese tourists who were photographing each other with that grim determination that the Japanese bring to relaxation. I went into the gift shop instead.

They had postcards, fact sheets (did you know that oil still bubbles up from the Arizona? Oil is still leaking from the fuel tanks. Environmental pollution, one minor tragedy added to the long list of lost lives). They had plastic models of Japanese Zeros, recordings of the actual radio and news broadcasts of that day, and books on every aspect of the Pacific War in general and Pearl Harbor in particular. All books are available in both English and Japanese.

Tour Group 18 was called and we all moved into a theater to watch the US Navy prepared documentary shown on a huge wall screen.

The theater too is interesting (everything on Pearl is interesting). It incorporates all the crowd movement and control techniques given to the world by Walt Disney at his famous theme parks. How did we ever manage to line up before Walt Disney showed us how?

The movie began. It is part American and part Japanese newsreel footage, part contemporary color sequences, part recreation, and part revisionist history. Emperor Hirohito, we learn, was a peacetime leader who surrendered power to Marshall Tojo when hostilities broke out. I’m not sure it was all that simple, but Japanese-American relations are very important today, and Tojo was an easy guy to hate back then and today as well.

And then, on the huge screen, came the attack. The first wave of Japanese carrier based planes came out of the rising sun over Ford Island at 8am on a quiet Sunday morning. There were 49 bombers carrying armor piercing torpedoes, 40 torpedo bombers, 50 dive bombers, and 42 Zero’s flying the air cover that was never necessary. The Zeros spent their time strafing the men in the water as they tried to get away from the burning hulks; and strafing the men on the airfields trying to get away from the flaming planes and hangers at Hickham Field. The planes came in two waves, and the attack lasted an incredible two hours.

The USS Arizona took several direct hits from both aerial bombs and torpedoes. One or more of them hit her magazines and she violently exploded, taking over 1,800 officers and men with her to the bottom. Seventeen other ships were lost or seriously damaged, countless planes, and a total of 2,403 dead and another 1,178 wounded soldiers, sailors, and marines.

The USS Arizona is still there, right where she sunk, and her 1,800 crewmen are still aboard.

The movie ends quietly. We are reminded that we are about to visit a cemetery. We head for the USS Arizona shrine.

The USS Arizona shrine is a modern, white bridge-like structure which is welded to the sunken hull. It has a modified wing look to it, depressed at the center and high on both ends to suggest the war’s low start and soaring finish. Along the walkway is the Arizona’s bell and on the far wall are the names of all who died here.

In the middle of the memorial is an open well cut into the steel and if you look down into it, she can see her. You can see the USS Arizona resting in less than 40 feet of water: The ship that fought its first and last battle here at Pearl Harbor; the ship, the shrine, the symbol, the tomb.

On the boat ride back I chatted up a fellow tourist about my own age. He was a history buff. He told me that the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor was not as complete as it could have been. In their haste to get the ships, the planes, the men running on the ground and swimming in the sea, they completely overlooked the American fuel storage tanks, the submarine pens, and the shipyards.

Those storage tanks fueled the entire Pacific fleet. The submarine pens birthed and sent forth hundreds of American submarines, crewed by angry men who had lost buddies at Pearl. And the ship yards – those marvels of engineering – they cleared the harbor and put back into fighting order 14 of the 18 ships sunk that fateful Sunday, and watched them sail again to hasten the Japanese defeat. The Japanese had destroyed the giant’s weapons, but they had enraged him in the process, and they had left him his tools.

The principals are all gone now: FDR, Nimitz, Tojo, MacArthur, Yamamoto, Maguma, even the Emperor Hirohito, that mild little marine biologist who basically got in over his head and in that unique Japanese mentality so alien to American understanding, only wielded his absolute and unquestionable authority as long as he never attempted to use it.

And the USS Arizona is still there, leaking oil in 40 feet of clear water, to remind us:

1. An unsuspecting America can be viciously attacked without warning by an enemy who would employ without remorse the most terrible and sophisticated weapons of the day.

2. That Marshal Tojos exist among us, just below the surface of every civilized society, ready to rise on a moment’s notice to seize an opportunity, to spread their hateful and destructive ambitions.

3. We must always remember that day and that story of what happened and why. We must remember the USS Arizona, its eternally captive crew, and all those who suffered and died in the short term, terrible triumph of hatred and treachery over trust and good will.

We must remember Pearl Harbor.


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Worcester Telegram on December 7, 1981

1 Comment

Filed under Travel

One response to “December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor

  1. Elizabeth Prentiss

    Awesome picture! My dad lives on.

    Sent from my iPad

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