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Profiles of Courage at Pearl Harbor

Three of Oahu's most visited sites are not beaches but memorials of war.

November 04, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAVAL STATION PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — 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...."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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