Story by Michael Shapiro
Photo by Elyse Butler
Ahead of us the USS Arizona Memorial burns stark white in the midday sun. Everyone on the ferry—visitors, kids on a school field trip, a scattering of locals and resident military—sits in quiet reflection. To our left, on what was once Battleship Row, floats the USS Missouri, the exemplar of the vessels that went down here seventy years ago. Today only concrete pylons bearing their names—West Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada—mark the spots where hundreds died.
I’ve lived in Hawai‘i for almost twenty years, but this is my first visit to Pearl Harbor. Apparently that’s not unusual, says Eileen Martinez, chief of interpretation for the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. For many visitors to O‘ahu, Pearl Harbor is a must. It’s the site of the historic trauma for which the island is best known, the shock that made it infamous. But to a number of residents, Martinez says, it’s often thought of as a tourist attraction, with crowds and long lines in the hot sun. It’s like the Statue of Liberty, the Space Needle, the Gateway Arch: fixtures in the urban landscape to which we rarely give a thought unless we’re showing around our out-of-town friends.
But last September, on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the attack, I finally made my way down. There were no long lines, no crowds, only a diverse group of other visitors—about five thousand per day, Martinez says—drifting through the new $56 million visitor center. The exhibits included moving oral histories, like the Japanese aviator’s account of his final approach over the pineapple fields of Wahiawa. Some objects connoted the human dimension, like the rusting galley door recovered from the Arizona. It’s easy—unavoidable, really—to imagine crewmen rushing through that portal in terror and confusion as their ship became their tomb. And one haunting image recalled by several witnesses living nearby: When O‘ahu was under total blackout following the attack, the only light seen at night was the fire from the Arizona, which burned for two and a half days.
You can still see that illuminated spot from the hills surrounding the harbor, the white memorial briefly visible while you’re speeding by on H-1—until that day the only vantage from which I’d seen it. My own reluctance to visit had little to do, though, with being too busy or uninterested. I, like a lot of us, prefer not to think about historic traumas; I’ve never been to Gettysburg, the Alamo or Ground Zero, either. And I wonder about the greater scope: What will future generations think of such monuments? Will they pity us, will they deride us for our preoccupation with—and repeated failure to avoid—war?
But now, in the atrium of the USS Arizona Memorial, I walk in silent communion among a few dozen strangers. Some snap photos, embarrassed by the gunshot-loud reports of their shutters. Others man the rails, watching the coral reclaim the ship and the more than 900 men buried in it. Still others scan the names engraved in marble, looking as I am perhaps, for some hint of personal connection. I hear voices whispering in seven different languages—much of it Japanese—struggling, I like to think, to name emotions we equally share, that are equally unnamable in every language. And as I consider how different those Japanese syllables would have sounded to my American ears seventy years ago, I understand that at their best, monuments like this don’t only commemorate a trauma or speak to a distant future. They are places that, in sharpening our recognition of what once divided us, draw us closer within the circle of our shared humanity.
Seventy years on, the last survivors and eyewitnesses are passing; in a few years the attack on Pearl Harbor will no longer be included in the annals of living memory, and a visit to its memorial will become a different experience. “It’s the sunset time,” Martinez tells me on our way back to the ferry. “Those stories will be gone, and the monument will have to speak for the people and things that cannot speak for themselves. That’s our job, to help people remember. … Now is the time to visit.”