Day Eight / O'ahu
A date that will live in infamy. A dark day in American history.
Whatever you want to call it, the effects of December 7, 1941 are still being felt at Pearl Harbor, our stop for today, Election Day in the United States. Our excursion started off on the wrong note as we got in a cab at the airport and told the driver we would like to go to the USS Arizona Memorial. "Is that even open today?" she asked. "Government employees have off today to vote." We told her to drive there anyways so we could at least have a visual of the area even if it was closed. "If it is open," she continued, "the chances of getting to see any of the sights are slim because you need to buy tickets in advance."
As we pulled into the venue, a swarm of tourists were wandering around, a good sign that it was at least open. I was initially struck by the surroundings; when I think about Pearl Harbor, aided by movies and photographs, I normally visualize an idyllic Hawaiian atmosphere, with palm trees and women doing the hula. In reality it is more industrial, and in the shadow of Aloha Stadium, home of the University of Hawaii's football team, as well as the venue for the National Football League's Pro Bowl.
Once at the entry gates, we were welcomed by a Park Ranger. She immediately looked at Sarah's engagement ring and then introduced herself to me. "I would like something just like that!" she beamed. "What are you two lovebirds doing here?" We told her it was our honeymoon and she seemed genuinely happy. "Wait right here!" She ran off for several minutes, with us standing in the spot she told us to. Sarah and I looked around wondering what just happened. She came running back, waving a piece of paper. "This is a ticket for every attraction here," she said. "My gift to you for your wedding! I'm so happy for you!"
We walked into the museum extremely thankful for her generosity. Our tickets for the viewing of the USS Arizona Memorial were for 11:15, so we had an hour to kill. We walked through the exhibits and saw the first draft of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech to Congress. There were several artifacts from the events of that day on display as well—a piece of the USS Arizona; an exploded torpedo shell; and images and quotes from the people who survived the attack.
As we waited in line for our viewing time, a Park Ranger told us the story of Uncle Herb—Pearl Harbor survivor Herb Weatherax—who just had a heart attack this week at the age of ninety-nine. He is doing well and recovering, but the ranger lamented that we would not see him today, as he usually makes appearances to greet visitors. The ranger asked Herb the secret of his longevity, to which Herb replied to marry young, as his wife still gives him massages. She is ninety years old.
After watching a short film on the attack, we were ushered onto a small Navy vessel and escorted across the harbor to the memorial. Designed by architect Alfred Preis, the all-white structure has two peaks on either end and a sunken middle, to symbolize the depression of the nation during the war. Once aboard, a somber mood takes hold. This is a watery grave for some nine-hundred soldiers that had been entombed when the boat sank, as well as the final resting place for some of the survivors that wished to be reunited with their crew members decades later. Walking through you look down and see the hull of the USS Arizona as gun turret three rises out of the water. The whole area smells of oil, and the water is covered with a rainbow shine—the result of almost nine quarts of the ship's oil being released every day for seventy-five years, still a fraction of the almost five hundred thousand gallons aboard when the ship sank. At the end of the memorial is a shrine to all of those that died aboard the ship. A volunteer guide from the Marine Corps told the stories of a few of the dead, as children of some of the visitors squealed and played, visibly irritating the guide. As our time aboard the structure was coming to an end, the guide remarked that this was the place the war began for America. He gruffly directed our attention to the USS Missouri, docked a bit down the harbor. "And that's where we ended it," he said.
Back ashore, we rushed over to the shuttle busses that would ake us on a bridge over the harbor to Ford Island, still an active naval base, where the USS Missouri is docked. Ford Island has much of the charm I was looking for in Pearl Harbor. There are bungalows that President Kennedy once stayed in; the sandy fields are specked with tufts of grass as palm trees jut out every so often; mountains loom in the background. The bus we were on played the hits from the Forties to set the mood, notably Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade."
The bus pulled up to the ship and we forewent the guide tour to roam around on our own. The first stop was the Surrender Deck, where General MacArthur accepted the surrender of the Japanese, and all of the heads of the participants of the war in the Pacific signed a treaty for peace. I was dumbfounded at all the Japanese tourists on deck, smiling and snapping photos. "This is their history, too," Sarah told me. She is right, of course, but it still was a sight to see. The rest of the ship is remarkable in how ships on such a large scale usually are. It had been operational through the first Gulf War, so any traces of its history in World War II were ornamental.
We had a flight to catch, so we boarded the bus again to go back to the entrance of the museum. On our way out of Ford Island, we drove past the Pacific Aviation Museum, a place we would have liked to have seen if we had the time. The observation tower, which looks like a very large barber shop pole, was the original one the Japanese planes flew over, as depicted in the movies "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Pearl Harbor."
The songs of the time played as we looked out the window at a piece of America encapsulated in time. It reminded me of the final line from my favorite book, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby":
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.