Pearl Harbor remembrance plaque, Oahi, HI

Reliving the Day That Will Live in Infamy

August 8, 2012

in December 7, Hawaii, history, Pearl Harbor

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.

Pearl Harbor remembrance plaque, Oahi, HI

Dedication plaques at the Pearl Harbor Memorial

Old missile at Pearl Harbor Memorial site

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.

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, HI

 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, HI

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.

USS Arizona Memorial, plaque dedicated to deceased

USS Arizona Memorial, plaque dedicated to survivors

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.

USS Arizona Memorial, view from the ferry

USS Arizona Memorial, flag above memorial

Have you ever been to the site of the Pearl Harbor attack? What are the stories you grew up hearing about that day?

8 Comments - Add Yours!

  1. Erik

    I haven’t been there- Alaska and Hawaii are the final 2 states I need to visit- but everyone I know who has been talks about what a powerful place it is. I’ll get to Hawaii someday, and when I do, this will be on top of my to do list.

    Reply
    1. Lauren Post author

      I think those states are probably commonly among the last few Americans have left to check off. You’re sort of in an oddly situated place to get to Hawaii — would you have to do MI to Cali and then HI? Would you to take a cruise to Alaska?

      Reply
  2. Sky

    Wow. I understand how you feel – my birthday is 9/11, though I was turning 7 on the day that the towers fell. I’ve always felt a little guilty celebrating my birthday since then and would love to visit the memorial someday just to fully grasp everything (as I was young when it happened).

    As far as Pearl Harbor – everything I know about the day, I learned in my Military History class. It’s such a huge part of our history and I would certainly love to visit the memorial someday.

    Reply
    1. Lauren Post author

      I have always wondered what it’s like for people born on 9/11. Had you had a party for your birthday yet that year? And you are making me feel old saying you were 7 — I was a sophomore in college that year 🙂

      Reply
  3. Idun

    I was there just two days before you wrote this post actually. I’m not American, and here in Norway the Pearl Harbor attack is mainly mentioned in our history classes because that’s what brought USA into WWII, as there were so many other horrible things happening in Europe at the moment that a few thousand people dying in Pearl Harbor pales in comparison. Like several millions of Jews and others being gassed to death in concentration camps and several countries, including my own, being occupied by the Nazis for years. It was interesting to go to the Pearl Harbor memorials though, and it is of course sad what happened there.

    By the way, they can fix the oil leak, or at least remove the oil, but they choose not to because it’s considered a tomb because so many people died there, so the leakage is not stopped because they want to honor the dead by not disturbing their “burial” place. So the oil will continue to leak for another 50 years or so. Or so the guides on the boat to the Arizona memorial told us.

    Reply
    1. Lauren Post author

      You know, I remember when 9/11 happened that as bad as I felt, I couldn’t help thinking of all the other places in the world that had experienced death and tragedy on a far greater scale. I guess, too, on some level, those who enter the military know there is a risk of death or injury. It’s not the same for people who are just going about their lives and fall prey to the whims of dictators.

      I believe our tour guide on the Arizona said that if they did try to fix the oil leak, there was a chance that a much greater amount of oil would come out. So, the idea seems that they’d rather have a little leak out then potential gallons of it at a time. But they did also mention the fact that the ship is basically a resting place.

      Reply
  4. Suzy

    I haven’t been but I have always wanted to go to Pearl Harbor. It’s crazy they can’t fix the oil leak after all these years but I guess it’s a final resting place. I heard my Grandpa describe that day from his perspective at an army base in Nebraska. They all had to get into position for fear of another attack.

    Reply
    1. Lauren Post author

      That must have been such a crazy time for your grandpa and all the others who were serving in the military then. All the not knowing — and there was no social media or internet like there is today to get up-to-the-minute news and info.

      Reply

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