The Arizona Revisited

Divers explore the legacy of Pearl Harbor.

USS Arizona memorial bridges ship

The USS Arizona Memorial bridges the submerged ship.

Brett Seymour; National Park Service
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.

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 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.

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