Tuesday 6 December 2016

Remembering Pearl Harbor, minus 1

Honolulu traffic is surprisingly dreadful. Even before 6am it’s a thing, and then just gets worse. Still, we got to Pearl Harbor in good time to queue up for entry at 7am, and on hearing that yesterday the quota of 2,000 tickets had been allocated by 8am, the relief-cum-smugness was real compensation for the early start.

There’s a lot to see – we didn’t finish there till 2.30pm and that was by dint of rushing a bit at the end. Of course, it’s all so well presented, and the rangers and docents are so helpful and informative that you just can’t rush. We started with a movie about the attack on the harbour, along with a bit of history to set it in place. They even had footage of the bomb dropped on the USS Arizona, which was amazing.
Then we were ushered onto the boat for the short ride to the Arizona Memorial, passing under the immense bulk of the aircraft carrier Stennis which looked more like a starship than a nautical one, it was so breathtakingly huge. The memorial sits over the wreck of the battleship, still visible under, and above, the water, and still leaking oil after 75 years. The docent in the shrine described the interment procedure for the ashes of the crew’s survivors – two are being put to rest tomorrow – and it sounded very solemn and studied, the diver in charge dropping down under the water holding the urn above his head, so it’s the last thing to disappear.
All around the memorial gardens are plaques and storyboards for contemplation, though perhaps not always provoking the expected reaction: the more I see of such memorials and museums – and boy, I’ve seen a lot – the more dismayed I am at all the lives, effort, inspiration and money squandered on war; and the more I wonder how different history might be if it had been women in charge instead of men. Even Macarthur might have been dismayed: he's quoted on the Missouri as saying, "It is my earnest hope that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past - a world founded on faith and understanding - a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfilment of his most cherished wish - for freedom, tolerance and justice." Chew on that, Donald.
There’s a shuttle bus to the USS Missouri, the battleship where the Japanese surrender was signed in a 20-minute ceremony, the last man to write his name being Air Vice-Marshal Leonard Isitt for New Zealand – after whom our street at home is named. It’s quite something to stand on the very spot where it happened, under the big photo of the event. The Japanese tourists on board – and there are many, everywhere in Honolulu, right now – were particularly intent.
There was a pipe band, of course – when is there ever a vaguely military event anywhere that bagpipes don’t get in on? – as well as lots of setting up and rehearsing for tomorrow, choirs and youth groups parading around, and lots of veterans, including some from Pearl Harbor itself, being royally fussed over and signing books.
At the Aviation Museum there were some terrific stories and old planes, including a little civilian Aeronca that happened to be in the air on a joyride when the Japanese Zeroes arrived. Imagine that! I liked that the mannequin inside it looks rather startled. There was also a letter from an airman to his girlfriend written in 1939 saying not to worry, the only danger at Pearl Harbor would be from an air attack, and that wasn’t likely. One original hangar remains, still with bullet holes in its glass panels.
Finally, the USS Bowfin finished the air, sea and underwater trifecta – claustrophobic, naturally, and full of dials, copper pipes, brass wheels and challenging hatches to clamber through, though the polished brass tips on the torpedoes were a sight to behold (not particularly authentic, I’m guessing). The museum there had lots of interesting things too, including of course something about U-505, which I’ve poked through with huge interest inChicago.
So that’s Pearl Harbor done. Tomorrow it’ll be heaving, with big and little ceremonies happening all over the place, all day long, and a parade through Waikiki later in the afternoon. By then we’ll be gone, heading north, having done our serious duty and ready for a bit of R&R.

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