People don't talk much at the U.S.S. Arizona memorial site in
Hawaii. When they do, their voices are low and their words are few.
Pearl Harbor has a way of speaking for itself. In less than nine minutes, the U.S.S. Arizona became the grave of more than a thousand Americans, December 7, 1941. Sixty years later, the sight of it still moves visitors to silence, and sometimes tears.
People come from all over the world to pay their respects at the graceful white monument that since 1962 has hovered, dove-like, across the Arizona's sunken deck. Even from a distance, it is recognizable. No one has to ask if that's it.
The harbor is natural and reaches like fat, greedy fingers into Oahu's southern shore. There, just off Hawaii State Highway 99, the National Park Service operates the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, where people get their free admission ticket, see a half-hour documentary, and board the boat that takes them to the memorial.
It sounds routine, but it isn't. The American losses of December 7 were staggering: 2,388 dead, 1,178 wounded, including civilians; 21 ships sunk or damaged; 323 aircraft destroyed or damaged. And because war takes its toll on both sides, the Japanese also lost that day: 64 men and 5 ships, with 103 aircraft destroyed or damaged.
Until September 11, nothing else compared. Since September 11, comparisons can't be helped. Just as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon quickly came to represent all of the acts that took place on September 11, so Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Arizona became the symbols of all that happened on December 7.
Moments of Reverie
The landscaped grounds of the visitor center, at the harbor's shore, overlook the memorial from across the water. The documentary explains the growing political tension between the United States and Japan prior to the attack.
And the museum that takes up a small corner of the visitor center displays models of the Arizona, an aerial torpedo that was dropped from one of the Japanese attack planes, and a few small artifacts recovered from the sunken ship.
All of these things are informative and well presented, but that's not what people come here for. They come for the 15 minutes or more they'll spend at the monument.
It is one of history's cruel tricks that the time of day Imperial Japan determined 60 years ago was best for the attack is also the optimal time for peaceful visitors today: early morning. That is when the tide is lowest, the visibility is highest and the crowds lightest.
Those who make the first tour of the day will be in the monument not so much later than 8:10 a.m., when the Arizona took the 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb that ignited her forward ammunition magazine and sent her to the bottom.
Her upper decks were removed during the war for salvage. Most of what remains lies under the phosphorescent green waters of Pearl Harbor. She is a shadowy ghost that to this day still weeps rainbows of oil up to the surface.