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Profiles of Courage at Pearl Harbor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the shuttle boat over to the USS Arizona Memorial, I noticed that a woman in the next seat was crying softly.

I thought maybe she was the daughter of a sailor, Marine or soldier killed when the mighty battleship was sunk at its dock during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Or maybe she was a military wife or someone with a special emotional link to that horrific morning six decades ago.

Using my press card as an excuse for being intrusive, I struck up a conversation. Her husband gave me a stony look, but the woman seemed eager to talk.

“I don’t know why I feel like this,” she said tearfully. “None of our family was at Pearl Harbor. Maybe it’s just because I’m an American and this is all so sad....”

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Her name was Virginia Grassley, and she and her husband, Walter, were in Hawaii for a long-awaited vacation. They had not planned on coming to Pearl Harbor, she said, but after a few days on Oahu they felt an ineluctable pull to make a pilgrimage to the symbol of America’s biggest military defeat and yet its greatest victory. “It’s just the right thing to do,” she said.

More than 1.5 million people this year will feel it is the right thing to visit the 184-foot-long memorial spanning the midsection of the sunken ship.

Before there was the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was Pearl Harbor. It is a mark of the profound shock inflicted on America by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that it has been described as “another Pearl Harbor.” The phrase is instantly recognizable as something not just of unspeakable horror but with a transforming impact on the American way of life.

Only time will tell us whether that comparison is true. This much is known, however: Long after the day of infamy, interest in the Arizona and the Dec. 7 attack has never been higher, and its ability to bring tears and pain to Americans is undiminished.

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Partly because of the release last spring of the movie “Pearl Harbor,” the number of visitors to the Arizona Memorial and the museum and bookstore ashore increased by 10% this summer from the previous year.

As an accidental tourist--in Hawaii this spring to cover the aftermath of the collision between a U.S. submarine and a Japanese fishing trawler--I made the 20-minute trip from my Waikiki hotel to the memorial complex twice during my three-week stay.

Admittedly, I am drawn to cemeteries. Every summer when my family and I go to our cabin in Michigan, I visit the same rural cemeteries and look at the same headstones.

Maybe that’s what drew me to the Arizona Memorial, which has the status of a national cemetery honoring the 900-plus men entombed in the rusty wreckage a few feet beneath the softly lapping water of this massive Navy base.

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If you want to know about modern America, it helps to visit the Arizona and reflect on those brutal, chaotic 110 minutes that left 2,340 U.S. service personnel and 48 civilians dead and changed the world and our country’s role in it forever.

I had first visited the Arizona in 1967 when I was on a summer frolic at the University of Hawaii, studying oceanography and native dancing. To be blunt, I hadn’t been much moved by it or thought much about it.

Now older, if not wiser, I was spending my days in a press tent shoulder to shoulder with Japanese journalists covering the same story.

With a head buzzing with unquiet thoughts about two seafaring nations sharing the same Pacific Ocean and the inevitability of tragedy and misunderstanding between them, I set out for the Arizona Memorial.

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The Navy shuttle boats that bring visitors to the memorial are often solemn affairs. Passengers ride in reverential silence, many in tears, sometimes for reasons they cannot explain. Although no longer considered an active-duty ship, the Arizona is guarded by the Navy with particular vigilance.

On one visit, I started to make a cellular call. A Navy petty officer assigned to the shuttle boat gave me a look that said, without a word, “Put it away, buster, or you and the phone are going overboard.”

It’s an anomaly that in a vacation paradise of warm beaches and swinging nightspots, three of the most popular attractions are relics of war.

Although not nearly as well known as the Arizona, there are two other memorials at Pearl Harbor to famous ships from World War II: the battleship Missouri, on whose deck the Japanese signed the surrender; and the submarine Bowfin, the “Pearl Harbor Avenger,” which sank 44 Japanese ships, more than any other vessel in the U.S. Navy.

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The three provide a kind of historic triptych of the war in the Pacific from the American point of view: the sudden and disastrous beginning, the long and costly middle and the triumphant conclusion.

The Arizona is ever present in the thoughts of its neighbors.

“You visit the Arizona, and it tears your heart out,” said Lee Collins, an official with the USS Missouri Memorial Assn., a nonprofit organization that runs the Missouri in cooperation with the Navy. “You visit the Missouri, and you know it came out OK in the end.”

And the Bowfin? On one visit I met Bill Shaw, a World War II submarine veteran from Texas vacationing in Hawaii with his wife. Like a lot of submariners, he thinks their role in winning the war has never been fully acknowledged.

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“The Bowfin shows you how much ... bravery and sacrifice it took to get from the Arizona to the Missouri,” Shaw said, before turning and walking away.

USS Bowfin

If your frame of reference for submarines is the movie “The Hunt for Red October,” the Bowfin may be a shock. A World War II submarine compares with a modern air-conditioned, e-mail-equipped, CNN-receiving submarine like a battered Jeep compares with a sport utility vehicle.

A modern Los Angeles-class attack submarine is about 33 feet in diameter, measures 360 feet long and displaces 7,000 tons. The Bowfin and other Hellcat submarines from World War II were but 16 feet in diameter and 312 feet long, with a displacement of 1,800 tons.

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At 6 feet 2, I’m used to tight squeezes. In the Bowfin I felt positively Brobdingnagian. Cramped, noisy, claustrophobic and reeking of diesel fuel at all times, submarines of the Bowfin era were only for the stout of heart. As any submarine veteran will gladly tell you, no class of ship was more decisive or more risky during World War II than the sub.

A waterfront memorial at USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park pays tribute to the 52 U.S. submarines and 3,500 submariners lost during World War II. No other branch of service had as high a mortality rate during the war.

Launched a year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bowfin made nine combat patrols during World War II, averaging 44 days each. It was sent to the mothball fleet in 1971 and opened to visitors in 1981. Attendance this year may reach more than 200,000, a record.

The museum’s mini-theater provides a Hollywood version of submarines. Admittedly, the Bowfin does not carry the emotional wallop of the Arizona or the grandeur of the Missouri.

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But it has two remarkable features. First is a nicely arranged museum, which traces the development of this unique kind of ship and, among other things, innocently discloses two bits of information: the maximum depth and speed of today’s submarines. The Navy places the maximum at 800 feet and 25 knots, but the museum suggests the true numbers are far greater.

The second treat is the recorded narration of retired Capt. Alexander K. Tyree, who commanded the Bowfin on its seventh, eighth and ninth patrols. Visitors are given headsets with Tyree’s voice explaining each space aboard the submarine.

In the after-engine room, Tyree describes a harrowing 18-hour passage through the Tsushima Strait to the Sea of Japan as the Bowfin dodged enemy ships on the surface and contact mines below:

“Every hour seemed like a year as we inched our way through the minefields, and every so often the FM sonar would emit an eerie noise, and we knew there was a mine dangerously close by.... Once we heard a mine cable scraping along the side of the hull.”

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The matter-of-fact tone with which Tyree explains the ordeal makes the events seem all the more extraordinary. If awe is the common reaction to the Arizona, disbelief is the byproduct of a visit to the Bowfin.

“I don’t see how they could stand it, living like that,” said one visitor, as we emerged not a moment too soon into the tropical air and sunshine.

USS Missouri

Of the three ship memorials at Pearl Harbor, the battleship Missouri is the largest, the most recent arrival and the one whose fame can be linked to a single piece of historic film: the surrender of the Japanese on Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay.

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With his exquisite sense of high drama--particularly when he had a starring role--Gen. Douglas MacArthur insisted that the surrender on the deck of the Missouri be filmed. The Missouri takes full advantage of the film and narration. On the “surrender deck,” MacArthur’s voice can be heard: “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.”

Although it is linked most commonly to the surrender, this is the ship whose big guns provided firepower at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and, 46 years later, launched 28 Tomahawk missiles during Operation Desert Storm.

The Battleship Missouri Memorial does not carry the emotional punch of the Arizona or the cramped intimacy of the Bowfin. It was a working ship, no different from scores of others, save for the historic surrender.

Dozens of Navy ships have been turned into museums in recent decades--some successfully, some not. Such ships often open to strong attendance, which then recedes as the novelty wears off.

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Open only two years, the Missouri, “Mighty Mo” to friends, already has seen a decline; attendance in 1999, the first year of operation, was 386,000, dropping to 343,000 last year.

Trying to reverse that trend, the Missouri association has launched a $25-million fund-raising drive to refurbish the ship and make off-limits areas accessible; only about a quarter of the ship is open to the public.

USS Arizona

When you are at the Arizona Memorial, it is nearly impossible to believe that there were actually elements in the Navy and civilian bureaucracy in the 1950s who thought it would sap American morale to place a memorial over the battleship where more sailors were killed than on any ship in U.S. history.

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President Eisenhower nevertheless approved its creation in 1958. The USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day 1962, with an onshore visitor center added later. From an open well at the memorial, visitors stare down at oil bubbling up from the sunken ship, which entombs more than 900 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed when an armor-piercing shell scored a hit on the ship’s forward powder magazine.

A list of names of the honored dead covers an entire wall in the Shrine Room. Among them are those of 61 brothers killed; only four bodies of the 61 were ever recovered and identified for burial.

All day every day--except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day--visitors come to the memorial, in rental cars, on tour buses and by public transit. Some bring memories, some flowers, others just a desire to learn.

“For Americans, the Arizona has come to symbolize the need to stay prepared and the cost in lives of ever taking our freedom for granted,” said Daniel Martinez, National Park Service historian at the memorial.

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Like many other visitors to the Arizona, I felt small in the presence of such sacrifice and nobility. In a world where the term has been overused, there are few experiences that can be said to be truly awe-inspiring. Visiting the Arizona, watching the oil bubble from the wreckage, listening to the soft weeping of other visitors, is one of them.

Still, history has a nasty habit of being nonlinear. And so I left without any epiphany that would help me put the submarine and trawler story in much perspective.

On two of my visits I was greeted by Everett Hyland, 78, a retired teacher who was critically wounded on Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the battleship Pennsylvania, also moored on Battleship Row. A cheerful, informative man, he’s a docent at the Arizona museum.

Hyland knows that soon all the firsthand witnesses to the Pearl Harbor attack--American and Japanese--will be gone. I wondered aloud whether the Arizona Memorial--and its lesson about the need for America to stay prepared--would still hold the public’s interest in the decades ahead.

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“I hope so,” he said. “Otherwise, America is in trouble.”

Maybe someday the same will be said of a space in lower Manhattan and a government building not far from the White House.

Guidebook: Shipshape Memorials

* Getting there: American, Hawaiian, Northwest, United and Continental fly nonstop from LAX to Honolulu. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $279.

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* The memorials: The memorials can be reached from the same parking lot. The Bowfin is within walking distance. Open-air trolleys take visitors to the Missouri, moored off Ford Island.

The memorials were closed temporarily after the Sept. 11 attacks, so it’s best to call ahead to confirm hours. The Navy has imposed stringent restrictions on what visitors can carry into the memorials. No purses, diaper bags, handbags, backpacks, camera bags, strollers with pockets or compartments or other items that offer concealment are permitted. Baggage storage lockers are not available.

USS Arizona Memorial, (808) 422-2771, https://www.nps.gov/usar. The Arizona museum, bookstore and theater, open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., are close to parking. Shuttle boats to the memorial, filled on a first-come basis, run every 15 minutes. Admission is free.

Battleship Missouri Memorial, (808) 455-1600, https://www.ussmissouri.com, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Self-guided tours are $14 for adults, $7 for children. The Captain’s Tour, which includes a themed tour, access to the captain’s cabin, a tour of the weapons systems and refreshments, costs $49 for adults, $39 for children 12 and younger.

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USS Bowfin, (808) 423-1341, https://www.bowfin.org. The museum and submarine at Bowfin Park are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $3 for children. Tours are self-guided with audio headsets.

* For more information: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 801, Honolulu, HI 96815; (800) GO-HAWAII (464-2924), fax (808) 922-8991, https://www.gohawaii.com.

*

Tony Perry is The Times’ bureau chief in San Diego.

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