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Pearl Harbor: The USS Arizona
Travel Icon To The Greatest Generation
by Charles N. Barnard

If, one of these days, you find yourself recounting a little ancient (and perhaps personal) history to someone of less than, say, a certain age, do it in easy stages. Like this: "First, my boy, there was World War II . . . ." which you could explain began in Poland in 1939. (Be gentle; the young, in their innocence, are fragile.)

Then explain that America's entry into that war came more than two years later, " . . .on a dreamy Pacific island, of all places. Radio announcers, untutored in Hawaiian names, stumbled over the pronunciation of Oh-wah-hoo that day . . . ."

Finally, you can tell your young friend, "So that's where The Big One began for us, son — on Oahu, in the Territory of Hawaii, at a shallow, ink-blot-shaped harbor called Pearl, on a warm Sunday morning in 1941 . . . ."

And then maybe you should add, (oh yes, definitely you should add) " . . .an old battleship named Arizona became the tragic symbol of the day."

"Were you there, Grandpa?"

"No, son, only later, much later."

USS Arizona. BB39. Keel laid at Brooklyn Navy Yard March 16, 1914. Launched June 19, 1915. Named for the then-newest American state. Length 608 feet; beam 97 feet. Displacement, 31,400 tons. Four propeller shafts, 33,375 horsepower, top speed 21 knots. Main armament, 12 fourteen-inch guns. Armor up to 14 inches thick. Escorted President Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference, December 1918. Flagship U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Modernization completed, 1931. Flagship Pacific Battleship Division, 1938 (Admiral Nimitz). Entered Pearl Harbor December, 1941, and moored on the east side of Ford Island.

The first time I saw the battleship Arizona, she was already stricken from the Navy's roster of ships, a scorched and rusting hulk, barely distinguishable as a vessel, a collection of tangled armor plate, awash in the tide. The time was, I believe, late 1943. A Navy friend was giving me an informal tour of Pearl Harbor in a captain's gig; we were sightseeing for surviving evidence of December 7, 1941 — the day of infamy — the day that brought America into the war.

Arizona, I saw, had already been stripped and carved up by the salvors' cutting torches. Not much was left; no guns, no anchors, no masts, no bell, just junk. No flag flew over these pathetic remains. There was no omen either that this derelict would one day become a national shrine.

It was only later that most Americans learned the details of the treacherous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — and on USS Arizona. Only later did the ship, still embracing the bodies of more than 900 of its crew, become another Remember-the-Maine to remember, another Lexington-and-Concord to honor, another place where the names of our war dead are forever engraved into marble.

Now, a half century later, millions of travelers a year make a pilgrimage to Arizona's watery grave. It is the premier tourist attraction in Hawaii. It is the most visited United States war memorial anywhere, barring perhaps the uncounted, unending procession which files by Viet Nam's black marble wall in Washington. In the lexicon of our day, the barnacle-encrusted remains of the old warship have become an icon.

Alas, iconography sometimes spawns myths: "Arizona is still considered a commissioned ship of the United States Navy . . .Arizona was sunk by a lucky bomb that went straight down her stack . . .Some Arizona sailors survived for two weeks within the sunken hull . . . Arizona was going to be raised and fitted with a new bow . . .They even built a cofferdam around Arizona and pumped her out . . .Some of Arizona's guns were installed on other warships . . .Two divers were killed in '42 trying to explore inside the hull . . .Arizona's colors have never been hauled down . . .Skeletons were removed from #2 gun turret years later . . .Arizona was hit by five Jap torpedoes . . . Arizona was supposed to be anchored at Maui instead of Pearl that day . . .Arizona's musicians had won a band contest the night before and were given permission to sleep late on December 7 . . .Arizona's musicians played the Star Spangled Banner until Jap machine-gun bullets put holes through the band instruments . . .There are 1102 bodies still in the hull . . . ."

Scuttlebutt, all scuttlebutt.

What really happened? Well, there is no shortage of books and photographs and official documents (both American and Japanese) which undertake to describe and explain, often in minute-by-minute detail, the attack on Pearl Harbor. The bibliography is impressive and still growing. After 60 years, there may be continuing controversy about the geopolitics which led to December 7th, but there is substantial agreement on the brutally simple events of the day.

0400, December 7, 1941. More than 350 Japanese warplanes are poised on six aircraft carriers 230 sea miles north of Pearl Harbor. (One of the attackers later remembers the scene on the flight decks: "Officers and men moved hurriedly about like elves in a dark forest.") Leaflets printed in awkward Jap-English are ready to drop on America: "Hear! The voice of the moment of death. Wake up, you fools!"

One young hotshot petty officer named Noboru Kanai, is reputed to be the best bombardier on the carrier Soryu. He is destined to have a special day.

So that they may be physically, as well as spiritually pure for this morning's "divine" mission, all the task force flyers are allowed to take Samurai-ritual baths in scarce fresh drinking water. They put on belly-band "belts of a thousand stitches" (handmade by mothers and wives and girl friends) to guarantee good fortune. They have a pre-dawn "combat meal" of snapper, rice and beans. They write farewell letters to their loved ones. Then they clamber into their Mitsubishi-built single-engine propeller planes and take off in waves. Their objective, the velvet green island of Oahu, is less than two hours flight time away.

0750, December 7, 1941. Colors will be raised as usual on the Arizona's fantail at 8 a.m.; some officers and crew begin to appear on deck. Arizona is one of eight battlewagons in the harbor, six of them moored along what is called Battleship Row. USS Nevada is immediately astern of Arizona and members of her band begin to assemble on deck for the playing of the National Anthem. (The black dots by now visible in the sky northwest of Oahu are incoming Japanese torpedo bombers, but nobody on the American warships knows that yet.) Belowdecks, more than a thousand of Arizona's 1511 crew members are still asleep in their skivvies. For some, it had been a big Saturday night ashore in Honolulu. For most, there were now less than 20 minutes to sleep — and to live.

0755, December 7, 1941. The Japanese aerial attack begins — torpedo bombers, dive bombers, high-level bombers. Pearl Harbor is turned into the scene of fiery chaos that has been forever etched into America's memory by the now-historic black and white photos. All of the big "wagons" are hit almost at once, some hurt worse than others. USS Oklahoma takes several torpedoes, turns over and sinks. So does the old target and training ship, USS Utah. California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee and Nevada (where the band finished playing the last bars of the National Anthem while being strafed by a Japanese tail gunner) are turned into smoking, listing casualties. Only Nevada manages to get up steam and attempt an escape to sea.

0810, December 7, 1941. It is now Petty Officer Kanai's moment to go into trivia-history. His pilot heads their "Kate" bomber for Arizona at high altitude. In the belly of his plane he carries a single 1800-pound, armor-piercing naval artillery shell to which fins have been attached in order to convert it to an aerial bomb. Arizona has already sustained some damage, including a possible torpedo hit astern. Her crew is beginning to fight fires and her anti-aircraft gunners are manning their guns.

PO Kanai's bomb is released. It strikes Arizona near the #2 forward gun turret. It penetrates 5 inches of forecastle deck steel without exploding, continues down into the ship and comes to rest near, or in, magazines where more than 800,000 pounds of smokeless gunpowder are stored. The bomb, now armed, has a delayed-action fuse.

Just as a grisly few moments of motion picture film recorded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (how can we forget those Zapruder pictures?) so, too, the death of Arizona was captured by chance on 17 seconds of black and white movie film — 400 frames taken at 24 frames per second. The photographer is unknown; the location from which the pictures were made has only been deduced — but the evidence is clear: at Frame 46 there is an explosion on Arizona's forward deck; black smoke rises. At Frame 208 (7 seconds later) the ship's forward magazines explode with catastrophic power; white smoke and flames shoot 500 feet into the sky. "Luminous objects" are seen flying. Debris and parts of bodies rain down on many nearby ships. All that was found of the battleship's captain were buttons from his uniform and his Annapolis class ring. The admiral aboard also disappeared.

Arizona settles to the bottom in nine minutes and burns for three days; 1177 of her crew and Marine detachment are dead (and 334 survive, some of these because they were ashore). It is the greatest single loss ever sustained by the US Navy — including the death of the only American admiral ever lost to enemy action.

The United States is at war.

Of the more than 90 ships in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 18 were sunk or seriously damaged; all but three of these (Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona) were repaired and went on to take part in the victory over Japan. (Of the 31 ships in the Japanese attack force, none survived the war. As for PO Kanai, he was shot down by American fighter pilots over Wake Island 15 days after his sortie against the Arizona.)

There was hope, for a time, that Arizona might be salvaged. She rested upright on the bottom in less than 40 feet of water. Because she drew 32 feet, Arizona "sank" only about 8 feet. For a brief time, therefore, her flag still flew. The after half of her 600-foot hull was awash but appeared largely undamaged, big guns and all. Divers soon discovered, however, that fully 100 feet of the forward part of the ship had been devastated by the gigantic internal explosion. Steel plate was curled "like lettuce leaves." The concussion had been so great that personnel were killed throughout the hull.

So, the 14-inch naval rifles were removed to be turned into shore batteries; masts and superstructures were cut away; damage reports were compiled. It was apparent that Arizona would never sail again. She was left where she sank. About 40 bodies were recovered to be buried ashore; about 900 were left entombed. The more than 200 others? Most had simply been blown away — or apart. All that could be done had been done; there was a war still to be fought and won.

A year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan issued a commemorative postage stamp to celebrate the occasion. It depicts the Arizona and the other battleships being bombed.

Arizona's hulk haunted the harbor — and a sentimental US Navy would not let her memory fade. As warships entered or sailed from Pearl, they often "rendered honors" as they passed Arizona — their crews standing at the rail at rigid attention and saluting their fallen comrades. The carrier USS Bennington arranged 1102 of her crew to spell out A R I Z O N A on her flight deck while sailing by the old icon. (The 1102 number was long accepted to be the number of dead within Arizona's hull; more recent calculations have reduced the figure.)

After the war was won, this tradition continued. Passengers on sightseeing tours of the harbor clamored to "see the Arizona" — even though there was little to be seen above water by now but a few rusting ventilators and the great circular barbette of the #3 gun turret. Commercial tour boats were not allowed to stop for a closer look, however, nor to tie up at mooring bitts which the Navy had attached to Arizona's hull. (The prohibition continues.)

In 1950, the Navy built a simple platform to span the wreck and here, on March 7, Admiral Arthur Radford raised the American flag once again over the hull. He declared, "From this day on, Arizona will fly our country's flag just as proudly as she did on the morning of 7 December, 1941. I am sure the Arizona's crew will know and appreciate what we are doing." (It may be this ceremony which has led to the misapprehension that Arizona is still a commissioned ship; she is not.)

Despite some continuing pressure from next of kin to require the Navy to remove remaining bodies from the silt-filled hull (a practical impossibility), the ship was now officially considered a sailors' tomb.

Surviving members of Arizona's December 7, 1941 on-board crew are now entitled to apply to the Navy for burial with their shipmates within the hull. Sealed urns of ashes are interred with full honors within the submerged #4 gun turret by Navy divers. On these occasions, Navy chaplains pray for all the Arizona's dead. "May God make his face to shine upon them and grant them peace . . . ."

By 1956, the Navy yielded to public interest and started operating frequent ferries out to the platform over the wreck; the free-of-charge boats ran from an overcrowded pier next to a Pearl Harbor refueling dock. Waiting time on the pier was sometimes 3 or 4 hours as lines stretched between plain pipe railings under hot tin-roof shelters. It was a tribute both to the mystique of the Arizona and to the tenacity of tourists. Six days a week, for 26 years, the Navy did its best to keep up with the never ending lines. On most days, 600 visitors were ferried. (I made my second trip to the Arizona in this period.)

In 1962, Arizona became an even greater tourist attraction when the present gleaming white Memorial (authorized by President Eisenhower and paid for in part by private donations) was dedicated on Memorial Day. The graceful, 184-foot concrete structure straddles, but does not touch, the Arizona's hull. Crowds immediately became bigger and the Navy — which was never eager to be in the tour business — had to put new, larger boats into their sightseeing fleet.

Then, in October 1980, the National Park Service came to both the Navy's — and the public's — rescue with the opening of a new Arizona Memorial Visitors' Center on the site of the old covered sheds on shore. It is a low, airy building that has palm trees growing in a central courtyard. One of Arizona's 10-ton anchors is displayed; for those who may never have seen a battleship, this immediately establishes BB39's enormous scale. A heroic portrait of the Arizona under full steam stretches 50 feet along one wall. A spacious front lawn, swept by breezes from the harbor, is planted with towering palms.

Between 450 and 600 people per hour — up to 4,500 per day — are moved through the Center in an orderly program which culminates with a Navy ferry ride out to the Arizona. Upon arrival at the Center, visitors check in and are given a ticket which establishes their tour number (there are 24 to 30 tours per day). Waiting time can still be an hour or two, but there are no lines and visitors are free to roam, buy a snack, browse through a nonprofit bookstore/gift shop (the most popular souvenir is a reproduction of a December 7 front page proclaiming W A R!) or visit a museum where the story of December 7th — and of the Arizona's sacrifice — are told in documents, photos, models and artifacts.

Arizona visitors defy classification. They are simply everybody — young and old, American and foreign (including many Japanese), reverential and profane, studious and indifferent. I have seen Buddhist priests, tarty girls, school groups, disabled veterans, Hawaiian-shirted tourists, nuns, Japanese Navy cadets — and not a few sleepy-eyed types who are bussed straight from the airport to the Memorial early on the day of their arrival in Hawaii — because their tour leaders know that rooms at Waikiki hotels won't be ready for occupancy until noon. (The Park Service and the Navy are not flattered to play baby-sitter.)

About 25 minutes before boat time, each group of 150 persons is called by number and assembles at one of the Center's two theatres. A 20-minute film traces both the world events which led to the Japanese attack and the poignant history of the Arizona, from her launching in 1915 to her moment of immortality.

Although objectively intended, the film originally stirred some criticism for seeming to excuse the Pearl Harbor attack as an act of desperation forced upon a "back-against-the-wall" Japan by a too-tough US foreign policy. There were also public protests for the film's characterization of Admiral Yamamoto's planning and execution of the attack as "brilliant."

Visitors exit the theatre and immediately board Navy launches for the 15 minute ride to the Arizona. (Children under 6 are not allowed on Navy boats; those under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. Shoes must be worn, no bathing suits are allowed and everyone must remain seated while under way. Photography is unrestricted.) It is a pleasant, all too short jaunt over the water, but there is an element of suspense for most visitors.

What am I going to see now?

In 1983, a division of the National Park Service known as the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit took the first steps in mapping and photo-documenting the remains of the Arizona. What was down there? What condition was it in? How long before it might fall apart? Was there unexploded ordnance? Was it still a suitable tomb for the dead? Nobody really had the answers to such questions.

After two years of diving and archaeological-style mapping and research, the SCRU released a series of fascinating drawings depicting the external condition and appearance of the ship. (No attempt was made to enter the hull, which is treated as a sanctuary.) New insight into the dimensions of Arizona's massive mortal wound was gained. (The damage was worse than anyone guessed.) Studies of the hull and its condition were made. All forms of sea life were found: oysters, sponges, tube worms, barnacles, snapping shrimp. And a pathetic list of artifacts seen on the decks was compiled: a wash basin, a wine bottle, rope, medicine cabinet, deck chair, kettle, beer bottle, crockery, pickle jar, ladder, canvas hose, eating utensils, Coke bottle . . . .

Teak decks were found to be sound and smooth beneath a covering of silt. So was a white, hexagonal-tile floor in the galley. Even the sweet morning air of December 7, 1941, is still trapped between heavy glass and porthole blackout covers. The ship's rudder is nearly submerged in mud; the giant propellers are buried out of sight; the lettering, USS Arizona — a name which no other Navy ship will ever bear — is still legible at the stern.

The source of an oil leak from the hull was found. Through a small hole in the after deck, a globule of oil the size of a jelly bean has been rising to the surface approximately every 10 seconds for 60 years. When the tiny blob reaches the surface, it spreads in a rainbow of colors. There may be enough oil trapped in the hull for this process to continue for centuries. Even visitors who admit an initial indifference to the idea of going to see a rusting artifact of an old war acknowledge a gulp of emotion as they take first steps across Arizona's memorial bridge to confront the white marble wall where the names of 1,177 young men are engraved into history.

I have made this short walk a number of times over the years and I never fail to feel a powerful tug at the heart. The open, airy structure reaches over the Arizona at midships; the shadowy outlines of the hull are visible on either side, only a few feet below; schools of small fish dart in formations across the submerged deck; leis of flowers tossed on the waters by visitors float lazily over the ship in brilliant contrast to the silty background. Only the rusting base of the battleship's #3 gun turret protrudes prominently from the water — that and the stub of a steel mast to which the new flagpole is attached. Here, it has been promised, the Stars and Stripes will fly each day "for all time."

An old photograph from the early years of this century always comes to mind when I visit the Memorial now — a black and white picture of a spanking-new Arizona leaving her Brooklyn shipyard for sea trials, being nudged along New York's East River by a half dozen tugs. In the background, the towers of Manhattan (as they looked then) and Brooklyn Bridge (as it still looks today). Puffs of white steam rise from the tugs; the water is rippled by a breeze; the air seems clean and smog free. Arizona's old fashioned "bird cage" masts look like small Eiffel Towers; her guns point resolutely ahead; her crew stands the rail. Do I also hear ships' horns wailing a greeting? Do I see citizens on the shore waving at this stirring symbol of a young, powerful America? Is George M. Cohan singing Yankee Doodle Dandy? I think so.

Then the 1915 flashback fades and I look down into the waters of Pearl Harbor today and at the faint rainbows of oil that still escape the great sarcophagus — "the tears of the Arizona."

I stay aboard the memorial until the last boat is ready to take the last of us ashore. Later, at sunset, when all visitors are gone, a Navy color guard will lower the flag. Then Arizona will sleep.


Jim Blach, an Arizona survivor and now a sort of unofficial historian of the vessel. He can be reached at (714) 630-1608. He has done a lot of calculation regarding the number of dead, the number of bodies later removed for burial at Punch Bowl cemetery, and the number presumed to remain in the hull.

An excellent source is Daniel J. Lenihan, chief of the Park Service Submerged Cultural Resources Unit in Santa Fe. His number is (505) 988-6750. He is a diver and has explored the Arizona many times in recent years.

James D. Harpster is a former Navy man, also former Park Service, now in charge of the 50th Anniversary events at the Arizona Memorial. (808) 422-2771. Very knowledgeable and helpful, but also very busy.

Man in charge of Anniversary events for US Navy is Dick Brady, (808) 471-0281.

Man in charge for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn is its president, Gerald Glaubitz in Maryland, (301) 735-9086.

Man in charge of USS Arizona Reunion Association (they are all survivors of the ship) is Joe Langdell in Yuba City, CA (916) 674-5790. He can sometimes be reached in Hawaii at (808) 623-3034.

Ray Emory is a volunteer guide and amateur history buff at the Arizona Memorial. Has many stories to tell. (808) 732-2510.

See also the three Gordon Prange books — At Dawn We Slept; December 7 1941; Pearl Harbor, Verdict of History.

Also, "And I Was There," by RA Edwin T. Layton.

Also "Day of Infamy" by Walter Lord.

Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, Volume I, 1959 edition.

Mr. John Rielley, Head, Ship's History Division, Historical Center, Navy Yard, Washington, DC (212) 433-3643

Also at same address and number, Dr. William Dudley, senior historian.

The Librarian who helped me at the Navy Yard was Jean Hort. She supplied clip files and other raw, unpublished data.


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