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Hawaii: USS Arizona

December 11th, 2007

In elementary school I used to build model ships. I wanted to be in the Navy and I’d spend hours painting and gluing the plastic boats together. Later, I’d have sea battles with them, ripping their propellers off on my friend Jeff’s living room carpet. My interest was fueled by WWII picture books detailing–quite heroically, I’m sure–the battles of Midway, the Coral Sea, and Pearl Harbor, the “day which will live in infamy.” (at left: tourists and mural of Arizona)

I also read Sadako Saki and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a story about a young girl who dies of leukemia from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Later, as my comprehension and literacy grew, I would read about Japanese internment in the United States.

When I was in Japan, I hitch hiked south to Hiroshima to see the memorial; it was one of my first times truly traveling alone–I think I was 19–and spent a fair bit of time sitting at temples or riding in truck cabs. And no, I don’t speak Japanese. (at right: memorial to nearly 50 submarine crews lost at sea)

Several years later I hunted down the Minidoka Internment camp in Idaho. Just in case you don’t know, and please don’t take offense but some of my friends didn’t know, during WWII the United States forced everyone of Japanese descent–even if you were the third generation born on American soil–to leave the west coast and live in the high desert, in tar paper shacks, inside a guarded perimeter. Euphemistically called “evacuation” by the Canadians it was unjust imprisonment for which the US Government eventually apologized.

Minidoka is meaningful to me because my relatives were interred there during the war. This family reunion I am attending, I think the fourth annual, is because my mom tracked down our Canadian counterparts in Toronto. They too were uprooted and moved inland, some choosing to stay inland rather than return and rebuild their lives. (at right: war machines, a harpoon missile the first with launch capability from plane, ship, or submarine)

Today, since I am in Honolulu, I went to the USS Arizona memorial with my parents. When the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire US Pacific fleet was at anchor save for the aircraft carrier group delivering planes to Midway Island. I am not a military strategist but you have to think, the risk Admiral Yamamoto took with that many resources, on a sneak attack which would be the opening salvo against the US, was–and truly proved to be–monumental. (at left: aboard the memorial)


I don’t remember the exact numbers, but some 2300 service personnel died that day. For the Arizona, 1104 perished when an armor piercing bomb ripped through the foredeck and detonated in the forward magazine, engulfing the ship in one massive explosion of munitions. It sank in minutes. (at right: the roster of the dead)

My life has not been steeped in WWII tales of valor from relatives who served. My mom’s father was a ship-board doctor in New Guinea and his tales, brief in nature, focused on the humorous. And on food. My dad’s father served on mainland Japan as an interpreter (from what I know) because of his English language skills. I never heard a story from him, though in recent years my dad has started talking about the poverty and deprivation growing up in post-war Japan. I do remember when I stayed in Japan, at age 13, watching black and white Hollywood war movies dubbed over in Japanese. (at left: foundation for turret no. 3 emerges from the harbor)

The Arizona Memorial was packed with visitors of different nationalities, many of whom were Japanese. To say it was gripping or emotional–for me–would be an overstatement but I suppose it depends on where you are coming from. Informative it was, and considering the volumes of people they push through on a daily basis I think it was as reverent and respectful as one could expect. (at right: sailor and visitors departing the memorial)

I suppose you take from it what you bring to it, and I couldn’t help but think how conquest pushed us to war. Not that we were necessarily innocent victims, with our foreign economic interests and isolationist policies, but within one day we we were at war with Japan and in four days Germany and Italy declared war on us. We were committed. Our entire nation would unite for “the good war,” millions would die, and the atomic era would emerge from a radioactive plume over Japan.

Standing in front of a wall listing the 1104 men below my feet, amongst floral wreaths from the most recent anniversary of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7th), and on a memorial hovering over a rusting war machine, you have to think when it comes the random and sudden death in war, that there has to be something good to believe in, something to stand and fight for. I just wonder if our leaders today understand and respect that, or if it really is just about oil. (at left: departing the memorial)

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