PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — They never pulled the bodies from the USS Arizona. They tried a few times, but back then salvage equipment was too bulky, and besides, there was a war on, so they quit it, and then, later, there was talk about raising her altogether to get them out, but that was impossible because she was in pieces, several giant pieces of battleship lying on the harbor’s floor. After a while, the families and the Navy and everybody just figured, enough, too much, let them rest in peace.
So they are still down there, all those young men who never finished that Sunday morning, buried in 38 feet of water, and the guide who leads the ferries out to the Arizona Memorial — a gleaming white mini-bridge suspended over the sunken warship, close enough to see fish swimming around her skeleton — refers to them as “the 1,102 men entombed in her hull,” and tourists nod sadly and take snapshots.
Where are you today, America? Do you remember this Sunday, 45 years ago? Did a radio voice interrupt to tell you the unthinkable had happened, your country had been wounded, her very flesh cut by Japanese bombers, and she was now at war?
Where are you today? In church? Shoveling snow? At a restaurant ordering pancakes? It doesn’t matter. Nor does your age or your memory. Part of you must be drawn to this harbor, along these sugar cane shores, where, on one side of Ford Island, the Utah lies in 50 feet of water, and, on the other side, a few feet from the memorial, the Arizona’s gun turret No. 3, now rusted a muddy brown, pokes up out of the water, a structural last gasp of the horrors of war.
Did you know this? That oil still leaks from the Arizona’s engine room, so when the sun hits just right, you can see a tiny slick rainbow floating gently above her?
The 1,102 men entombed in her hull.
Forty-five years today.
She is still bleeding.
We could see their faces,” the old man was saying. “The bastards were grinning at us and shaking their fists and we could see their Japanese faces.”
He folded his arms across his chest.
“That’s how close those planes were. Yes, sir. We could see their faces and we were cursing at them and shooting at them but it didn’t do no good. They were too low. They were buzzing around us like bees around a hive and they were safe. They knew they were safe.”
He paused, and he looked at me, and I looked back and nodded sheepishly. He had seemed, when I first saw him on the airplane to Hawaii, a ridiculous-looking man, someone out of a Woody Allen film, squat and wrinkled, with thick glasses and a cotton shirt and this hat — what was it? — a blue-and-white beret that suggested an Elks Lodge or a Mickey Mouse Club or something.
And then, as he got closer, I could read the letters stitched in that hat
— “Pearl Harbor Survivor” — and a quick glance around the plane spotted several more, all men in their 60s, wearing the names of the ships they had served — USS Nevada, USS West Virginia, USS Honolulu.
They come back, every five years, the survivors. They pay for the hotel and the airfare and they come back, hundreds of men, like this man who said his name was Ralph McKinsey, a retired lumber worker and a gun loader on the USS New Orleans in 1941. He was putting up the flag that Sunday morning, he said, and then the planes came — “We thought they were ours at first, can you believe that?” — and within minutes there was hell on earth, and black billowing smoke, and he saw the Arizona “lift clear out of the water, 31,000 tons, when an bomb tore through six decks and exploded downwards, you understand, so she lifted out of the water and split in half and then sunk.” The 1,102 men entombed in her hull.
It took nine minutes to sink.
To be in Pearl Harbor today is to be stitched into the very seam between past and present. This is, after all, Hawaii, land of honeymooners and sweepstakes prize-winners — “Aloha! Welcome to Paradise” reads one tourist brochure — and the university crowd is buzzing over Saturday’s football game, and the tourist season is cranking up, and the shops along Waikiki are advertising Christmas sales.
But this morning, because it is Dec. 7, and it is the 45th year, the men in the blue and white hats will gather in the crater of an extinct volcano, a memorial cemetery known as Punchbowl, and sometime around 7:55 a.m., a squadron of planes will come out of the sun, precisely aligned, and then one will break away, as if shot down, to commemorate those who began dying at that very moment in 1941.
It is a movie to most of us, at least those of us under 50, something you might watch on a rainy afternoon with Kirk Douglas or Van Johnson frantically radioing Wickam Air Force Base and wondering why there is no answer. It is something we are told about, Pearl Harbor, rather than something we really remember.
AND YET, there is something profoundly personal when you stand above the Arizona — a flag flying atop her severed mast, because the Navy still considers her in commission. She is an unlikely coffin, so close to shore, close enough for even the poorest swimmer to reach safety, and when you realize that you realize just how little chance the skeletons below your feet really had.
More than 2,400 men would die here that day, in an attack that lasted barely three hours. America would be pulled into war quickly, inescapably, and the war would last four more years and thousands more would perish, and it would end with explosions in Japan that wreaked far more hell than what was seen in this harbor.
And yet, while we have entered wars since then, there is something about Pearl Harbor that will not let go.
Five years ago, a survivor of the attack passed away, presumably of illness or natural causes. He had outlived the horror by 40 years. It did not matter. In his will, he had requested to be buried with his shipmates on the Arizona. His family came to the memorial and, in a simple ceremony, lowered an urn with
his cremated remains into the rusting hull of the ship, where it remains.
“How old are you?” Ralph had asked me on the plane, and I told him, and he grabbed my hand and pulled me closer to him.
“Keep asking questions,” he said. “My generation, they want to forget this already. Every five years, I come back to these things, and I ask about someone, and then I don’t ask anymore because I find out he’s passed away.”
He looked around the plane and he sighed.
“We’re old now,” he said.
Where are you today, America? In the car? At the health club? In the kitchen with the radio blasting?
On the Arizona memorial Friday, another Pearl Harbor survivor walked slowly behind his wife. He was a big man, with a big belly, and although he once might have been quite strapping, his shoulders slumped now and his face was as sad as any I have ever seen. When his wife walked away, I approached and asked if he had indeed been here that day, and he nodded and I asked what he remembered most.
He said he had been on a ship on the other side of the island, and it was one of the few to actually get out moving in the water before the Japanese attack ended.
He pointed to an area just in front of the Arizona’s remains. “We came right past here,” he said, his voice weak and thin, “and a lot of these ships were already down or going down, but in the smoke you could hear the men screaming for us. They were cheering us, because at least we had our guns up, you see, at least we were in the water. And they figured, we would fight back.
. . .”
He did not finish the sentence. I did not ask him anything else. He stepped back behind his wife, and they walked into the room at the end of the memorial with the marble walls listing the names of all the dead, and after a few minutes he began nudging her toward the exit ramp as if he wanted to go, but she didn’t want to go just yet.
It was very quiet, save for the rustling of the trees and the lapping of water against gun turret No. 3. It was a perfectly beautiful morning, much like that Sunday morning a long time ago, and, because the sun was clear and strong, soon you could spot the oil that still leaked from the engine room, and it formed a greasy rainbow atop the burial waters.
Where are you today, America?
You are right here.
“We should have brought flowers,” said the wife, gazing out on the rusted flagpole, and her husband, who was crying openly now, only nodded yes, they should have.