Pearl Harbor has been much on my mind lately. For one thing, December 7 fell on a Sunday this year. I don’t remember the last time that happened, and usually I’ve simply taken a moment from a normal weekday to offer a silent toast to those who were there when World War II started.
But this year it was Sunday, just as it was in 1941. There’s a special kind of stillness that pervades Sundays that isn’t present in other days. The wind is gentler and clocks seem to measure time with greater deliberation, as though they will be held accountable later for every tick and tock. That’s how it was in 1941, and that’s how it was this year.
December 7, 1941: Sunday dinner was over, the leftover pieces of chicken gathered for later appetites, and Mom had helped me lace up my boots so I could go outside and play with the dog in the thick blanket of new snow that had fallen the night before.
She may have called to me, but all I remember is suddenly looking up from my snowy environment and seeing my mother standing at the back step, the door open behind her. There was something about the way she looked, the way she stood there, that told me something had happened. I got up and shook off the snow and walked toward my mother. I remember the silence ringing in my ears.
Inside, Dad was huddled next to the radio. Newscaster Cedric Adams was saying that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and that America was at war. We listened and sat quietly for a long time. It was difficult to put it together, to figure out what it meant, and to know what would happen next. I remember crying in bed that night.
Fast-forward to the early 1960s. As a junior naval officer, I was assigned to the Fourteenth Naval District headquarters in Pearl Harbor. One of my responsibilities was boat tours to the USSArizonaMemorial.
We scheduled six tours in the mornings and six in the afternoon. The boats used for the tours were outfitted with a large map of Pearl Harbor. The crew of each boat was hand-picked and carefully trained. The tour was without frills, sobering.
The narrator explained the chronology of the Japanese attack, pointing out on the map where the different waves of planes came from. They described the weather—seventy degrees and sunny. The tour boat inched across the harbor, past Ford Island, where scars of the attack remain to this day, and then down battleship row, where each giant ship was tethered.
At the end of battleship row stands the USSArizonaMemorial. It is stark white and spans the width of the battleship it honors. The memorial does not touch the ship, and the ship has never been decommissioned. The flag flies every day from the Arizona’s sunken bridge.
At the end of the memorial, inscribed on the wall, is a roster of the men who died aboard the Arizonawhen a Japanese bomb touched off the ship’s forward munitions magazine. The huge battleship sank in less than ten minutes. Nearly one thousand of those aboard remain entombed in the ruined ship’s murky interior.
As I said, the tour boat crews were well trained. But every once in a while I’d go along on a tour just to make sure. When the tour ended at the memorial and everyone got back onto the boat to return to shore, there were invariably a few moist eyes.
Four years after Pearl Harbor this tragic war ended and the Japanese surrendered aboard another American battleship, the USSMissouri. Plans have recently been disclosed to move the Missourifrom its current decommissioned port of Bremerton, Washington, to Pearl Harbor and park it next door to the USSArizona Memorial.
There is a lot of controversy, of course. Opponents say the huge ship and its thousands of visitors each day would overshadow the somber atmosphere that has always been present at the memorial. Those in favor say it is a perfect addition, adding closure to the war next to its beginning.
It does make sense, of course. But it depends on how the Missouriis treated. If it is presented reverently as an extension of the memorial, it can help teach children the horrors of war for generations to come. I think the US Navy could make it happen. The US Park Service operates the memorial now, and they are among those expressing concern about the USSMissouribecoming little more than a boisterous tourist trap selling souvenir T-shirts on the quarterdeck.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The two ships could work together in peacetime as they did in war. But for the Arizonaand Missourito continue the lesson that was taught in this place, there must be a moment for every visitor to be unexpectedly touched by the incredible silence that has remained here since that quiet Sunday years ago.
In 1998 the Missouriwas brought to Pearl Harbor, where she sits in harmony with the USS ArizonaMemorial. By all accounts both memorials have maintained the air of dignity and respect due vessels so steeped in history.