Pick from the Past
Natural History, November 1991

The Arizona Revisited

Divers explore the legacy of Pearl Harbor.


December 7, 1941

December 7, 1941: Settled on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona burns following the major explosion of its forwards.

Photo: USS Arizona Photograph Collection, National Park Service

A June day finds us once again diving around the battleship USS Arizona, whose sunken remains lie in Pearl Harbor. Larry Nordby surfaces beside me clasping his large plexiglass slate; a piece of mylar taped to it is covered with scribbled notations from his dive. “Navy’s here,” he announces. I look toward the boat ramp where a small landing craft full of “mudzoos” is tying up to the dock of the memorial building that straddles the wreck. Mudzoos are navy divers assigned to the Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) based at Pearl Harbor. We have a symbiotic relationship with these men, whose primary mission is as far from science and historic preservation as ours is from ship husbandry and underwater construction. Our allegiance instead is to the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, whose bureaucratic title refers to a group of diving archeologists, artists, and rangers employed by the National Park Service to promote preservation of historic shipwrecks and other underwater archeological sites.

This unit was formed in 1980, when the agency leadership decided to establish a mobile team that could help park managers “maintain responsible stewardship” over such sites. Coincidentally, I had just completed a large project in the Southwest, researching prehistoric sites flooded by reservoirs, and had pulled together in Santa Fe an effective team of park service diving archeologists. Unlikely as it seems, I found myself the first chief of a team of professional research divers based in the arid mountains of New Mexico.

In 1983 we began to survey the Arizona and subsequently the one other vessel still lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the Utah, a battleship that had been converted for use as a training ship. Over the years we have found that our skills are complementary with those of the Navy. They have boats, heavy equipment, youth, brawn, and large numbers; we know shipwrecks. As older, more experienced divers—the “park rangers,” they call us—we have a kind of underwater street savvy that the Navy personnel respect.

No diver who works on these ships is unaffected by them for long, particularly Navy divers. They are aware that there were new faces on the Arizona and Utah fifty years ago, when the Japanese war-planes caught a major portion of the Pacific Fleet at port. Those men had worn the same uniforms and entertained many of the same hopes and aspirations as their modern counterparts. They are part of the silt now, on the other side of the steel bulkheads.

As we clamber up onto the dock with our equipment, the Navy is raising its dive flags to warn boats that there are divers in the water. A red and white “diver down” flag and a blue and white “alpha” flag (a similar international sign) are soon flapping toward the southwest from the boat dock. From the mast on the memorial, the same colors appear in a more familiar form: Old Glory, the wind keeping her parallel to the others.

On that Sunday morning in 1941, the flags were just being raised on many of the ships when the men standing at attention were distracted by what they took to be some show-off flyboys buzzing the fleet below the altitude permitted by regulations. Even when the first bombs tore into the ships, there was still a sense of there having been some sort of accident. Not until the Rising Suns started to become visible on the planes did the full realization take hold.

Moments before, Flight Commander Mitsuo Fuchida had led, with what must have been great relief and satisfaction, a complete surprise attack. Many things could have gone wrong; some did. A flotilla of five midget subs had been deployed in the early hours of the morning and some had been spotted by U.S. patrol planes and ships. The destroyer Ward had even attacked and sunk one of those midgets more than an hour and fifteen minutes before the planes made their first strike. Why this incident didn’t tip off the Pacific Command to the impending attack is still not clearly understood. There was also the Opana radar station on the north shore of Oahu, which picked up the first wave of attacking planes. When the operators reported to their superiors what their then-developmental radar technology had detected, they were told to disregard the contact because a flight of B-17s was expected from California at that time.

The strange series of events that preserved the element of surprise seemed so unlikely to some historians that they developed a “revisionist” theory of the attack. Advocates of this point of view maintain that President Roosevelt knew the attack was about to take place but let events take their course so that the nation would be outraged and fully united in its response. In any event, Mitsuo Fuchida knew as he glanced down from his rear seat in the cockpit of his command plane that he had been dealt a winning hand in the most serious of games.

On today’s dive I guide Dave McCampbell, MDSU’s headman, and Otto Orzech, the commanding officer of a U.S. Naval Reserve detachment, on a swim-over of
A stairway that once led below decks

A stairway that once led below decks to the captain’s cabin now encounters the marine growth and sediment that fill many of the ship’s passageways.

Photo by Brett Seymour; National Park Service
the site so they can assess the problems their divers must face. Plasticized copies of maps trail from my gloved hand as I lead Dave and Otto on a surface swim toward the bow, where we will begin our dive. I no longer need the maps, but they will help orient my partners. Navy master divers I have previously taken on such tours of the ship have admitted they had not a clue as to their location at any particular point during the dive, although they could help identify certain features unfamiliar to archeologists.

We descend at the “bullnose,” near the very stem, or prow, of the ship. Looking up from a depth of about twenty feet, I notice that the two holes for mooring lines do look like the flaring nostrils of a bull. The Arizona is narrow at the bow, and even in poor visibility, one has the sense of looking at the front of a large ship.

Biofouling, marine organisms mixed with products of corrosion, covers the Arizona like a thick scab. Archeologists tend to see the substance as “the crud that covers the wreck”; to a biologist, though, it is a rich organic community that reveals much about environmental changes over time in the harbor. The hawsepipes, through which the chains for the four huge anchors used to descend, are heavily carpeted with sponges and other colorful life forms, but they are not so clogged that sunlight can’t make its way through the hawseholes on the deck. Rays of light from the midmorning sun pierce through the gloom from the starboard set of pipes.

Soon we pass a team led by Scott Henderson, a Navy civilian biologist. They are intently collecting a bulk sample of biofouling from the hull; one diver is chipping away with a geologic pick while another holds a makeshift funnel over a canvas bag. Later they will separate the critters in the sample into types and sizes and tabulate their relative numbers. The activity produced a cloud of silt in the area of major blast damage, where the thick metal plates are ripped and crumpled. One million pounds of explosives in the forward were detonated by a Japanese bomb, blowing out the lower decks and peeling back part of the forward hull; at least, that is our best guess.

There are eyewitness accounts from men who stood on the stern of the Vestal, a ship moored outboard of the Arizona on the morning of the attack. They swear that a torpedo traveled directly under them and struck the deeper-draft battleship, causing the massive explosion. One survivor visited me in Santa Fe to adamantly make this point after he learned of our conviction that a bomb caused the major damage. These men tell the truth as saw it, but the material record, the archeology, doesn’t confirm what they say. There simply is no torpedo entry hole where they say it should be. Possibly one exists below the silt line, but in that case we would expect to see “washboarding” (a rippled effect) above the silt or some other sign that the bull was compromised; nothing is there. This interplay of words from documents, people’s memories, and physical evidence of a site constitutes historical archeology, its answers and puzzles.

Grasping the remains of the gunwale with a gloved hand, I propel myself up and over the ship’s side and head aft, angling toward the center line of the ship.
14-inch guns

Much of the Arizona was salvaged during WWII, but these 14-inch guns were left in place. They were forgotten after the war and not rediscovered until underwater archaeologists with the National Park Service began researching the wreck in 1983.

Photo by Brett Seymour; National Park Service
The cavernous barrels of the fourteen-inch guns in the number one (forward) turret start to take shape in the murk ahead of me. Before the first dives in our 1983 survey, park service and Navy officials in charge of the site thought this turret had been removed along with the others during World War II salvage operations. Other items of interest were found in our first dives, such as live ordnance for the five-inch guns lying right under the busiest part of the memorial.

I see the dim shape of the fourteen-inch guns because I expect them, but my Navy guests concentrate on watching me to keep from becoming separated—we are now swimming in a featureless void between the blast damage and the turret. I distract them with a few hand signals so they will not look up until they are close enough to get the full visual impact. By the time they look ahead to monitor their slow forward progress, the guns are staring them straight in the face. The effect on them is electric.

They have gone from a prone swimming position to bolt upright, their lights now shining at the gun muzzles, which seem incongruously large in the cloudy water. These encrusted steel tubes were once capable of heaving a 1,500-pound projectile about twenty miles. Only battleships had guns like these, and although their importance in naval warfare was soon to be overshadowed by the aircraft carriers, they were still the pride of the world’s navies in 1941.

The knowledge that the majority of the battleships in the Pacific Fleet “slept with the fishes” after only a few hours of fighting, with more than 2,400 Navy and other military and civilian personnel killed, had a galvanizing effect on the American public. That the Pearl Harbor attack was flawed, because it probably emphasized the wrong targets and was terminated too quickly, is easier to understand from a historical perspective. But in 1941, after news of the full damage leaked out—nineteen ships sunk or put out of action—the attack seemed devastating.

Broken ceramic bowl and fork

A broken ceramic bowl and fork lie where they fell in the galley area.

Photo by Larry Murphy; National Park Service

I shine my light down the barrel of the gun farthest to the right from our perspective, actually the port gun, and spy my friend the puffer. What was once the most inhospitable environment in the world for any living thing is now a deluxe condo. We swim over the muzzles and head toward the “breeches,” the place in the turret from which the gun tubes emerge.

We descend over the turret onto the port side of the ship and stare into an open hatchway with an awning frame still in place. Because we consider the Arizona a tomb, we do not enter these interior spaces out of respect, but there is always a morbid urge to push through and see the remains of the carnage only a few feet below us. Of the 1,177 crewmen who died in the attack, the bodies of only a few hundred were retrieved. (The Utah is also a tomb, containing fifty-three of the fifty-eight crewmen who were aboard.)

Nearby, the teak decking is exposed where certain species of fish have cleared an area in the silt in which they may deposit their eggs. Wood rarely lasts in a warm saltwater environment like this because of the insatiable appetites of teredos, or marine boring worms, but the harbor silt has helped preserve the wood by creating an anaerobic environment. The fish are inadvertent vandals.

As we pass over the middle of the ship, just in front of the memorial, a crowd of spectators watches over the rail. We enter the remains of the ship’s galley, where there are coffee cups and forks used by the crew in 1941, intermingled with the modern detritus from millions of visitors who have been to the memorial over the years: camera lenses, sunglasses, and hairbrushes accidentally dropped and hundreds of coins purposely thrown on the ship, despite the park service request that this not be done. For years, the memorial staff has removed these coins from the vessel, mainly because they can corrode the metal they are resting on, accelerating deterioration. The site managers tell amusing stories about their attempts to get the U.S. Treasury to accept the bags of thousands of semicorroded coins.

When we began our dives, I was puzzled over something else we occasionally found amid these other offerings and lost items: photographs, often of young kids or the very old. I believe now that I know the reason they are here: they are mementos from the living to the dead. These are the photographs of the siblings, children, and grandchildren of the men who lie here, a way of sharing the joys and sorrows of their unknown offspring. An image flashes through my mind of the black stone wall in Washington, D.C., on which more than 50,000 names are inscribed. Men and women wearing the park service uniform stand silently by each day as flowers and photographs accumulate at that stark memorial to sons of the generation entombed in the Arizona. I wonder how many of the men on this ship never saw their sons, who, in turn, never saw . . . We move on.

In many places on the Arizona the portholes remain intact. When cleared of a carpet of sponges and other organisms, the glass reveals blackout covers tightly
Sixty-year-old air remains trapped

Sixty-year-old air remains trapped between a porthole glass and the internal black-out cover.

Photo by Brett Seymour; National Park Service
closed from the inside—evidence of the state of readiness the ships were supposed to observe as the clouds of war gathered to the west. In a few places, air remains in the spaces between the glass and the cover, air dating from 1941.

Aft of the memorial, the barbette for the number three turret emerges from from the water, the largest single visible feature at the wreck site. Like a huge, cylindrical well casing, the barbette was the support structure for one of the turrets holding a triple set of fourteen-inch guns. As we swim out from the shadow of the memorial and approach the barbette, we run into another of our research teams, taking measurements of electric conductivity potential at selected points on the hull. They are using a device called a bathycorrometer, an instrument shaped like a garage-variety electric drill, which gives a digital readout when pressed against bare metal. By graphing these numbers in the laboratory, we can estimate the likelihood of corrosion at various points on the hull.

Immediately behind this group is another team of three, working with measuring tapes and slates under Larry Nordby’s direction. There is momentary confusion over the unexpected traffic jam in the turbid water, but within a minute the groups have sorted themselves out and continue on their respective missions.

I hold my twosome still until the water stirred up by the passage of so many fins begins to clear. We continue to a point on the deck next to the barbette, where they will see a unique sight. I point to a small globule of shiny black material moving out from the edging of a hatchway on the deck. It spins slowly, like a lazy liquid marble, as it rises gently to the surface. Dave is mesmerized by these oil droplets as they move past his face mask. He pokes one with his finger; it merely breaks into two droplets, but both now spin more erratically as they continue upward.

An underwater view of the memorial built over the Arizona

An underwater view of the memorial built over the Arizona shows streaks of oil that has leaked upward from the wreck below.

Photo by Brett Seymour; National Park Service

Years after it sank to the harbor bottom, the Arizona’s fuel bunkers are still leaking. When the droplets hit the air a few feet above us, they lose form, becoming part of a slick that bobs on the waves under the gaze of the onlookers standing in the memorial. The slick seems disproportionately large compared with the black drops that created it. There is a sense that the Arizona, which is easy to anthropomorphize anyway, is still bleeding slightly from one of its wounds.

Moving aft, I pass by the slightly submerged number four barbette, also stripped of its rotating turret. Entering the barbette from the shallow waters covering the deck is comparable to diving into a thirty-foot-deep well. I take people here only if we are on a specific working mission. This is where the funeral urns of recently deceased survivors of the original attack are laid to rest by Navy divers in modern-day ceremonies; it is the one place where human remains may be subject to inadvertent disturbance by our activities.

On Oahu in December 1941, death came not like a thief in the night but like an eagle screaming from the sky. The Japanese American press in Honolulu had, in fact, earlier characterized Japanese fliers as “our angry young eagles” when they achieved victories in Java and China. Partly in reaction to such apparent signs of ambiguous allegiance, many Japanese Americans who were loyal to the United States from the beginning of World War II suffered the indignities of internment and persecution. The attackers themselves saw the war in racial terms. Reaction to real and perceived racial slights by Americans regarding immigration quotas fueled the war fever in Japan and contributed to the sense of destiny and self-sacrifice that made the Japanese formidable soldiers, and sometimes cruel and dehumanizing in their treatment of enemies.

Reaching the stern of the ship, I show Dave and Otto the hole where the base of the crane used for hauling aboard the reconnaissance planes had been. Even battleships were serving as mini-aircraft carriers in those days; the seaplane spotters mounted on catapults were a curious addition to the sleek profile of the huge warships. As the advantage of air reconnaissance became more prized during those years of rapidly evolving military tactics, even some submarines were equipped with a watertight hangar for an airplane.

Dave runs his finger over the scalloped metal edges of the hole; neither he nor Otto, experienced salvage officers, need an archeologist to tell them this is the work of cutting torches and not the ragged tears associated with blast damage. Their predecessors in the Navy and civilian salvage community accomplished a feat after the bombing of Pearl Harbor almost as dramatic, and easily as portentous, as the attack itself. Within several frenzied months, they raised and sent back into action the majority of ships considered total losses on December 7.

The USS Arizona Memorial

The USS Arizona Memorial bridges the submerged ship.

Photo by Brett Seymour; National Park Service

Among the fatal flaws of the Pearl Harbor attack, besides missing the aircraft carriers (which were at sea) and the aviation fuel depots, was neglecting the ship repair facilities in favor of the more immediate gratification of seeing battleships in flames. Hardly six months passed before the reconstituted Pacific Fleet delivered a blow at Midway that eliminated any serious chance that the Japanese Imperial Navy would launch another major offensive. Most of the Japanese aircraft carriers and their crews, the backbone of the attack on Pearl Harbor, took their turn on the seabed in 14,000 feet of water, far beyond any hope of salvage.

We are now at the fantail, the very stern, where the Arizona narrows markedly and again becomes identifiable as a ship, even in the low visibility. The flagstaff hole is empty now, as the flag-spattered with oil, water, and blood-was removed by two Arizona survivors in the aftermath of the attack. The orange buoy bobbing on the surface here is only a few feet from our heads.

I let the regulator fall from my mouth and breathe in the fresh air as the waters part around me. There is the odor of fuel oil mixed with sea salt and, as I run my fingers
An underwater view of the memorial built over the Arizona

Model on display in the Arizona Memorial shows the memorial building spanning the submerged ship resting on the harbor bed.

Photo by Brett Seymour; National Park Service
over the mask strap on the back of my head, a slightly viscous feeling to my hair. The long, translucent rainbow of oil trails toward the entrance of Pearl Harbor, pushed gently by the prevailing northeasterly winds.

I part company with Dave and Otto and swim on the surface back under the memorial to a place where the twisted steel is only a few feet underwater. This is my favorite place to take a break during working dives on the Arizona. Standing on the tips of my fins in chest-deep water and leaning against the jagged remains of a bulkhead that used to be part of the ship’s galley, I can hear voices in the memorial through the slap of the waves. There are times when I feel that the voices from below may be louder than the ones from above. I can imagine 1,177 young men joking, flexing their muscles, feeling immortal at 8:00 A.M. on a sunny Hawaiian morning. Ten minutes later they would be consumed in an inferno, transformed instantly into the stuff of history.

The latest visitors have trailed in from the tour boat and are orienting themselves to the spectacle of rusted metal that stretches below them. From my vantage point in the shadow of the white, arching memorial, I can observe them as they stroll along a promenade over my head, but I myself am visible from only a few points of the walkway. A child looking through the railing at knee height spies me and tries to convince his mother that a man’s head is sticking out of the tangle of wreckage in the water beneath them. She knows better and, never glancing in my direction, explains me away as she has other figments of her son’s overactive imagination.

Yellow and purple leis have been tossed onto the ship by a group of Japanese. The flowers float by me, carried in the current, their brilliant colors only slightly subdued by the effects of the oily water.

Daniel J. Lenihan’s book Submerged: Adventures of America’s Most Elite Underwater Archaeology Team, published by Newmarket Press, is available on Amazon.com.

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