There are 1,177 men entombed beneath my feet.
The knowledge is humbling, overwhelming. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 would stun the nation, catapulting America into WWII. History tells us that the battleship USS Arizona sustained a fatal blow to a powder magazine that day. That the violent force of the explosion caused it to sink in minutes, entombing the 1,177 sailors aboard. Some were trapped alive. I think about the average age of those who died that fateful Sunday–23 years old–and of my son, 15, not three years younger than the crew’s youngest. I picture the faint mustache settling in above his lip and the cartoon character baby blanket he refuses to part with. I think about the soldiers’ mothers, whose sons will never return. History may seek to analyze and interpret the events of December 7th, but standing here at the Arizona Memorial, there is no logic or reason–only profound sadness.
Two hours earlier, we’d made the fifteen minute trek to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument –in our Sienna, not a rental car–a first and likely last for us in the National Parks system, given our homebase of Honolulu. We’ve driven thousands of miles visiting parks afar; it was only fitting that we visit the NPS site closest to home. Just a week prior, the Arizona Memorial had made international headlines with the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but today, there is a quieter crowd. Christmas is a week away, and the kids are less than enthused about our choice of holiday activity. With school out, they’ve merry making on their minds–not war. But with complimentary tickets to the Pacific Aviation Museum set to expire, we knew a combined Pearl Harbor/Pacific Aviation Museum tour was in order.
It’s a repeat visit for the kids, who’ve come before on field trips. But it’s been two decades, maybe three since my last visit. Everything is shiny and new–the result of a recent multi-million dollar renovation. It is comforting to see the familiar NPS set-up at work: park rangers, visitor center, gift shop. In many ways, the set-up reminds us of Mount Rushmore, complete with turnstiles, on-site museums, and guards. In other ways, less so: namely, the constant reminder that we are on an active naval base. We secure 10 am Arizona Memorial boat tickets* from a crowd-weary park ranger, who swigs water from his beat-up Nalgene. His boots and backpack indicate he is a hiker; his accent is not local. I don’t imagine this is the gig he envisioned when he signed with the Parks service. North Cascades receives 30,000 visitors per year; Pearl Harbor receives 1.8 million. It is the number one tourist destination in Hawaii, which is saying a lot for a state powered by tourism. He reminds us to meet at the theater in two hours, where we will view a short movie before boarding a boat to the Memorial.
We wander the Visitor Center’s two exhibit galleries, “Road to War” and “Attack.” Everywhere we turn, we are met with the sights and sounds of war: gunfire, airplanes, and portraits of Japanese fighter pilots that could just as easily pass for photos of lost relatives. It haunts me. Patriotism comes naturally–I was born abroad on an Army base, and my father and his seven siblings served in the Army and Air Force. But I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of those who attacked Pearl Harbor that day. And I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of US citizens who were interned, of JA boys who gave their lives in service to prove their loyalty to America. Confusion and sadness turmoil within. Intellectually, I understand the whys and hows of all that transpired. But wandering these galleries, I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings. Emotion overcomes me more than once. I tell myself this is a good thing. That we should not forget the price of freedom, that our nation is stronger for recognizing that heritage and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Above all, I am reminded that war is fiercely personal and that opposing sides often wear the faces of young boys not unlike my son, separated only by fate. Loyal to different flags, unaware of the politics at play or how their actions may change history.
The line at the theater gives Disneyland a run for its money. Every ten minutes, two park rangers rally throngs of ticket-holders into a cordoned-off holding area before funneling them into the theater. For 23 minutes, we view black and white footage of the two waves of Japanese attacks that day. It is surreal to see Japanese Zeros flying against the crenulated relief of the Ko’olaus, rows of sugarcane in Ewa plantation fields. Unlike the Ben Affleck flick, though, there is no melodramatic soundtrack to set the mood. The sounds of actual explosions, planes, and gunfire are sobering enough.
The kids don’t say much at the dock. I suspect they feel as affected as I do; it’s hard not to. We are ushered with several dozen visitors onto a Navy-operated boat. It is a short ride to the Arizona Memorial, and clear skies and calm waters make for a smooth ride. Looking out upon Ford Island and the telltale contour of Pearl Harbor, it is impossible not to picture the events of December 7th. The stillness of the harbor reminds us that time may have passed, but this will always be hallowed ground.
The all-white Memorial grows larger and larger until finally, its symbolic shape comes into full view–peaked ends sloping toward a concave center. The peaks represent America’s pre-war pride and eventual triumph; the concave depression symbolizes the attacks of December 1941. We deboard into the entry chamber, moving quickly to the assembly room to gather around floor portals that open directly into the water. Designed by architect Alfred Preis, the Memorial spans the sunken hull of the Arizona, floating above the battleship without touching it. Oil still seeps from the wreckage; this morning, there is a filmy sheen to the blue-green water beneath us. Our youngest points out a ten-inch slick just beyond the portal, a school of fish darting into view. Though the wreckage is clearly visible from all vantage points, there is a surprising lightness to the Memorial. Open-air ceilings accentuate blue skies, warm breezes. Overlooks allow for quiet contemplation over the water.
My personal discomfort stops me from photographing the Memorial, though I know that photography does not equal disrespect. Still, I am less sure of the selfie sticks, social media posts, and Go Pro cameras I see, though I try to refrain from judgment. Most visitors linger quietly–some in the assembly chamber, others in the shrine room with a marble wall bearing the names of Arizona’s fallen. Many offer lei, prayers. I don’t know how to honor the sacrifice here except to read the names of the fallen and try to comprehend the magnitude of each life lost. For a long moment, I am overwhelmed with grief, and then I see the diversity of those gathered: Americans of every color and credo, as well as international visitors–including many from Japan. Perhaps peace is the most beautiful testament of all to the sacrifice and memory of these men. Bonded here in reverence, it is clear that the humanity that unites us is so much greater than the sum of our differences. Here at the memorial wall, there is grief, yes, but there is also promise and beauty and hope.
Tips for Families Planning to Visit Pearl Harbor:
- *Admission to WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument is free. Boat tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial Program are also free, but slots are limited. Recreation.gov allows you to reserve tickets up to 2 months in advance; there are also 1,300 first come, first served walk-in tickets issued daily. (A note of caution: walk-in tickets almost always sell out by mid-morning.)
- For security reasons, no purses, camera bags, diaper bags, etc. of any kind are allowed at the Visitor Center. There are storage lockers available at the entrance for $3, but pockets are free and work well for phones, wallets, and keys.
- The Memorial Program lasts 75 minutes, including boat rides, theater movie and time at the Memorial. Three hours provides ample time to wander the exhibit galleries and experience the Memorial. Allow an extra half hour to walk the Remembrance Circle and interpretive wayside exhibits.
- Other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites include: the Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Separate admission fees apply unless you choose to purchase a Passport to Pearl Harbor bundle, which allows access to all sites for one inclusive cost. However, we found that the Arizona Memorial and Pacific Aviation Museum alone took us the better part of 7 hours to experience. I’d recommend spreading visits over two days, or alternately, choosing one or two historic sites to focus on.
- The Pacific Aviation Museum is fantastic for aviation enthusiasts of all ages. Historic Ford Island is restricted to those with military access; however, visitors to Pearl Harbor can access the museum by taking a free 5-minute shuttle to the museum. As this is an active military base, cell phones and picture taking are prohibited during the shuttle ride. We highly recommend taking advantage of the free audio tours available at the museum’s entrance. They provide a wealth of information and do a fantastic job of bringing the exhibits to life. Be sure to visit Hangars 37 and 79; Hangar 79’s windows house bullet holes from the Pearl Harbor attack. Our youngest, an Amelia Earhart buff, loved the Combat Flight Simulator, a 20-minute hands-on experience over Guadalcanal. Be sure to check the museum’s website, which often features coupons for free flight simulator admission (normally a $10 additional fee).