Last week, on a day when rain fell heavy from the sky, I explored the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. You might know the place as, simply, “Pearl Harbor,” where the USS Arizona Memorial resides over a warship that sank in less than nine minutes on December 7, 1941, a sunny day when what fell from the sky were bombs. One such explosive--a 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb--blasted through the deck of the USS Arizona and entombed a crew of 1,177 men. The ship burned for three days afterward. It sits today where it came to rest 70 years ago.
Even on a rainy day, it’s hard to imagine such a scene in Hawaii, especially the post-war Hawaii that has come to represent a paradisiacal vacation escape.
I was born at the whip tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation, although I’ve never really considered myself a Boomer. Some social scientists might counter that I am really a member of Generation-X. In musical tastes, I veer toward Boomer, preferring The Rolling Stones to Guns N Roses. But when it came time in life to super-size—bank accounts, stock portfolios, automobiles and houses—I went the other direction. I fled Corporate America, downsizing my life to 13 boxes, and my husband and two dogs and I relocated to the islands of Hawaii. Is that characteristic of a Gen-X’er? Throughout my life, I have always landed between and betwixt, not part of any one group or another. I’ve often felt mixed up, more or less a loner than anything else. A guest, you might say.
One other thing the year of my birth says about me is that I have had very little personal experience with war. My father was a toddler when 350 Japanese planes and five midget submarines targeted Pearl Harbor and six other military installations on Oahu. During the drafts of the Vietnam War, he was a father of three and watching his 30s roll by, as my brothers played Little League Baseball and started grass fires with magnifying glasses.
I knew surprisingly little about World War II before last week—except for what a Midwestern upbringing will teach you in school, and that, let me tell you, was heavily weighted toward one European country. My knowledge of the war in the Pacific was sorely lacking.
If there is one place to learn, to make up for that gap in my education, it’s the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
My first stop in the recently renovated complex that features nine sites commemorating the war was a table just beyond a giant map of the Pacific set in the concrete walkway. Four men sat behind the table. I recognized them immediately by the hats they wore. I’d first seen such a hat on the day of the 70th Anniversary Pearl Harbor Commemoration. The hats all included the word, “Survivor.”
One survivor was from Kauai, my home, and his 92nd birthday was the day after my visit. A military band played in his tribute.
According to a flyer, which he signed, Alfred Benjamin Kameeiamoku Rodrigues was born on February 7, 1920 in Kapaa, Kauai, Territory of Hawaii. After graduating from Kauai High School, he moved to the big city—Honolulu and joined the Navy Reserves. In 1940, his reserve unit was called to active duty. He was based at Bishop’s Point, the entrance to Pearl Harbor. On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Al had watch and was on duty. He was just about to sit down to breakfast when the general quarters alarm sounded, and he raced for the armory. From there, the planes flew so close that he could see the faces of Japanese pilots. Al was issued a .30 caliber rifle and set his sights on the planes with the red “Rising Sun” on the wings.
I wanted to sit down with Al and the other three men at the table and hear from them first-hand about their experiences that Sunday morning 70 years ago, but the band played on and on. A few years back, at my grandmother’s funeral, the much-older cousin of my father got to talking story about his involvement in World War II. My brother and I sat around him and peppered him with questions. Later, his children and grandchildren would say they’d never heard some of the stories he’d shared that day. I wanted to hear Al’s first-hand.
Last week wasn’t my first visit to Pearl Harbor. That took place in 1999, a few days after my move to Hawaii. Pearl Harbor was a much different place then. My husband and I visited the USS Arizona Memorial while my dogs put in their 30 days in quarantine a short distance away. I remember drops of oil escaping the remains of the sunken ship and slithering their way to the surface, where they bloomed and shone iridescent in the sun’s light. Two to nine quarts of oil continue to leak from the USS Arizona today, 70 years later. They are referred to as “black tears.”
Talk about a memorial to recognize the navy men entombed in the USS Arizona began almost immediately after its sinking. The first formal step toward that end started with the establishment of an official commission in 1949. Then, in 1950, Adm. Arthur Radford, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific ordered a flagpole be erected over the sunken battleship. On the ninth anniversary of the attack, a commemorative plaque was placed at the base of the flagpole. But it wasn’t until 1961 that the memorial as we see it today was completed. A visitor center followed in 1980. In 2008, a presidential proclamation proclaimed the complex a national monument and gave it the new moniker—the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. By then, a total of nine sites commemorated the Pacific war. The monument is run by the National Park Service.
In thinking about this essay, I called my brother, the same one who sat enthralled as our older cousin shared his war stories, a brother who straddles the same fence as I do between Boomer and Gen-X’er. I wanted my brother to remind me of our cousin’s stories. I knew my brother would remember them better than I did. He has a head for history. He’d take to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument like a fish to water.
He’d spend a day here. Walk the “Road to War” and “Attack” exhibit galleries, press all the numbers on the self-guided audio tour, and absorb every bit of information that actress Jamie Lee Curtis—daughter of actor and Pacific war veteran Tony Curtis—shares. He’d read every named etched into the shrine of the USS Arizona Memorial.
He’d take in “Remembrance Circle,” where the men, women and children, both military and civilian, who were killed on December 7, 1941, are recognized. He’d read the names of the Medal of Honor recipients.
He’d tuck his six-foot-one-slender shape into a “C” to maneuver the doorways of the USS Bowfin. Stick his head in the bunk rooms and wonder how tall men got any sleep. Learn about the more than 3,600 officers and crew and 52 precarious submarines lost in the war under the sea.
He’d take another day to tour the Pacific Aviation Museum, inspect an authentic Japanese Zero, learn about the “Niihau Zero Incident,” stroll to Historic Hangar 79 and note the unrepaired bullet holes in its windows.
He’d spend an hour in the book store.
He’d tour the eight-hundred-and-eighty-seven-foot-and-three-inch USS Missouri, dodge knee-knockers and head-bangers, and walk in the footsteps of General Douglas MacArthur to the spot of Japan’s unconditional surrender to Allied Forces on September 2, 1945, ending World War II.
Dangit, Kirk, isn’t it time for a visit?
If you go:
New as of 2.16.12:
Visitors are now able to reserve tickets for tours of the USS Arizona Memorial and other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites online at www.recreation.gov.
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except for Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1.
Timed programs for the USS Arizona Memorial begin at 8:00 a.m. and run through 3:00 p.m. daily.
Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pacific Aviation Museum are both located on Ford Island and are only accessible to the general public via the shuttle buses which depart from the Visitor Center every 15 minutes.
The USS Oklahoma Memorial and USS Utah Memorial on Ford Island are both open from dawn to dusk; however, unlike the USS Oklahoma Memorial, the USS Utah Memorial is not currently available to the public via shuttle. Access to the USS Utah Memorial is currently limited to visitors who have military base access.
There is no charge for admission to World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial are free. The program lasts an hour and 15 minutes and includes a 23-minute documentary on the history of Pearl Harbor, a short boat ride to and from the floating memorial. The other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites are non-profit entities that charge fees for admission.
1. Pearl Harbor Survivors make an appearance on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings throughout the year.
2. No bags. Pearl Harbor is also an active military base. As such, no bags—purses, backpacks, diaper bags, shopping bags, etc.—are allowed inside the visitor center. Bag storage is available for $3.