One of the reasons we came to O’ahu was to visit the WWII Valour in the Pacific Memorial at Pearl Harbour. It’s made up of the USS Arizona, the USS Bowfin submarine, the USS Missouri and the Pacific Aviation museum. Each could easily occupy a half day alone.
At school, WWII is a staple of history lessons. Understandably though, much of the focus is on the European campaign, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. As a result, I was in my late 20s before I really knew much about the war in the Pacific.
The Pearl Harbour Memorial honours not only those who died on the ships at Harbour there, but those in other armed forces bases on O’ahu who were also attacked that day, plus the civilian casualties. At 8am on Sunday December 7th, 1941, the first wave of Japanese bombers (a total of 320 aircraft, split into 2 waves), launched the attack which saw the US enter the war and 2400 Americans lose their lives. The raid was unexpected, but not without warning – radar was in its infancy, but radar operators picked up the incoming airplanes, the radar blip being the biggest the operators had ever seen. They were told not to worry, it was probably an American fleet due back from California.
From the Japanese perspective, the attack was strategic genius. American warships had been moved to Pearl Harbour when Japanese aggression in China caused increasing political unease. Tensions were high on O’ahu – the many residents of Japanese origin, whose ancestors had emigrated to Hawaii to work on the sugar or coffee plantations, were the focus of a lot of suspicion. Key military personnel expected an attack on Pearl Harbour, but not from the air – they thought it would come from the sea, or by way of sabotage. As a result, the American fighter planes were parked in the centre of the airstrip, wingtip to wingtip – a perfectly aligned target. The movie-famous quote, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” transmitted by the lead Japanese pilot as he commended the attack, is a repetition of the Japanese for ‘Tiger’ and signalled that total surprise had been achieved. One navy officer looked up and wondered why the Army was conducting an exercise on a Sunday. The cost, in lives, to Japan that day, was less than 40 men.
The Harbour itself is not deep. Standard torpedoes would have needed an additional depth of 20ft, but the Japanese engineers had modified them and trained their pilots to the skill level needed to ensure they would fire – the precise speed, altitude and angle needed for deployment. In addition, they developed armour piercing, designed to penetrate the heavily fortified ships. It was one of these armour-piercing bombs which landed directly on the USS Arizona, tearing into her magazine and igniting an explosion that ripped apart the ship. She burned for nearly three days. Utah and Oklahoma suffered badly too, with Oklahoma capsizing, trapping many men inside. All 8 battleships lined up on Battleship row, next to Ford Island, were sunk, or severely crippled, but incredibly all but the Arizona returned to active service in WWII. The Arizona was never raised and she remains at her dock, on the harbour bed, the bodies of over 90 servicemen entombed in her sunken hulk, slowly leaking oil. The memorial has been built perpendicular to her and a boat takes you out to the simple white structure where you can look down at what remains of the once mighty symbol of America’s maritime dominance. The names of all those who lost their lives are inscribed on the far wall. Silence is maintained within the monument. It is very moving.
Back on land, there is an excellent audio tour of the USS Bowfin. Submariners didn’t get much in the way of room, and this was one of the most dangerous ways to fight for your country, not least the most uncomfortable – hot, sticky, cramped and airless. The Bowfin was both lucky and deadly, with a long list of enemy kills accredited her.
A short bus ride takes you to the USS Missouri, moored next to the remains of the Arizona. Missouri wasn’t in Pearl Harbour that day, but she forms a fitting partner to this memorial, because it was on her deck that the peace treaty with Japan was signed. From the Surrender Deck, you can just make out Arizona’s low, white tombstone, the two weapons book ending such a costly, devastating war.
Finally, we walked round the Aviation museum, where, among other exhibits, is the yellow biplane that George Bush learnt to fly in.
The memorials do not glorify war, nor do they falsely lionise those who died. American servicemen sank many enemy ships, shot down many enemy planes, and killed many Japanese soldiers. The difference lies purely in the attitude and subsequent actions of those involved. This was perhaps best illustrated by what could have been total calamity aboard the Missouri. Nearing the end of the war, with Japanese fighters becoming increasingly desperate, a kamikaze fighter lined up his final dive. Sailors on deck fired at the plane which crashed into the starboard side of the ship and ripped in two. Miraculously, the bomb it carried did not explode. The body of the pilot was found on deck and two junior officers stayed up all night sewing a Japanese flag prior to his burial at sea the following day.