Growing up, I knew my birthday was a special day.
I started out thinking it was its own holiday of sorts. Not only was it less than three weeks before Christmas, but my parents went out of their way to isolate my birthday from this bigger day, to make it special with separate presents and a party and a cake. But I also knew my birthday was a “special” day when I was around older adults, who, when they heard my day of birth, solemnly said, “Pearl Harbor Day.”
As a little kid, I didn’t understand that December 7 was remembered as a horrible date, much like we remember September 11 today. It wasn’t until I got into the older grades at school that I understood the significance of Pearl Harbor Day, its relation to sudden loss of young life and its catalyst for the U.S. involvement in World War II exactly 40 years before my birth.
Brendan and I spent our one day in Oahu visiting the site of Pearl Harbor. Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived from only a few hours of shuteye on the overnight flight, we climbed aboard a coach to the chirping of our cheery bus driver Lani. She gave us the deal on visiting the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument — no bags, no drinks other than clear water — as we drove the 45 minutes to the site. We walked around the visitor center taking in remnants of torpedos and cannons and Japanese suicide machines before going into a movie theater to view a short film about Pearl Harbor.
That’s when it started to sink in.
Stockard Channing’s solemn voice described the night before the attack, which involved the crewmen going to a band competition. The footage showed smiling crewmen with hula girls, swaying palm trees, sunlit skies. The next morning, it was darkness, explosions, smoke, a ship sinking to its watery grave where it — and the — crewmen aboard it — remains to this day. Suprisingly choked up, we left the movie theater to board a ferry to the USS Arizona Memorial.
The memorial is distinctive not just because it is set on the water; it sits over the remains of the USS Arizona and many of its more than 1,100 crewman that died on December 7. You can see corroded components of the ship still poking through the water. Dots of oil pool on the surface; the government is unable to fix the leak coming from the ship, which oozes 2 to 9 quarts of oil into the water each day. It’s a surreal image — the sunlight gleaming on green-blue water while a rusting tomb rests underneath.
At the back of the inside of the memorial, a wall lists all the names of those who died on the Arizona. Perhaps even more poignant are the names etched into two separate marble benches in front of the wall. These are some of the 334 survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack who still wanted to be interred with their fellow crewmen when their time came to exit this world. Their ashes are scattered over the remains of the ship.
For all the sadness, there is a lot of beauty at the memorial site. Maybe it’s something to do with the water, with idyllic Hawaii, with spirit and patriotism and bravery. When we left, I didn’t feel bogged down in sadness. I felt buoyant.
Have you ever been to the site of the Pearl Harbor attack? What are the stories you grew up hearing about that day?