The Arizona Revisited

Divers explore the legacy of Pearl Harbor.

USS Arizona memorial

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

Brett Seymour; 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  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.

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.

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