The USS Arizona is one of those iconic symbols in American culture that we remember even if we do not know much about the ship itself other than what we have seen in Pearl Harbor and World War II themed films. The ship, her entombed crew, and the Arizona Memorial are so much more than a film prop. The Pearl Harbor attack and her sinking marked the beginning of World War II, the end of the battle ship era of naval warfare, and a bond that has called the survivors back to join their ship mates. My October visit was also a chance to think about the dangers of military preparedness slipping into militarism.
The USS Arizona had a remarkable life before that fateful morning of December 7, 1941. She was a “super-dreadnought” which made her one of the largest, most deadly ships of her time. In addition to being a feared weapon of war, the USS Arizona also served humanitarian missions, accompanied President Wilson to the Paris Peace talks, and starred in “Here Comes the Navy” with Jimmy Cagney. She was transferred to the Pacific fleet in 1940 as a deterrent to Japanese imperialism.
Like most of the fleet she was berthed peacefully in Pearl Harbor on that quite Sunday morning. The attack started at 7:48 local time and was over in just a little more than two hours. When it was over, the USS Arizona was gone along with 1,177 members of her crew. The sunken ship would become their final resting place.
The boat ride to visit the Arizona Memorial takes only a few minutes but the entire world changes in those few minutes. You leave the lively, active shore where tourists and families are chatting, taking photographs and deciding which souvenirs to purchase. The boat slowly becomes silent as you approach the Memorial. As you dock you are reminded that photos cannot be taken from the landing area. The Memorial itself is somewhat neutral evoking neither the sadness of the lives lost that day nor the joy of the eventual triumph. It is somber. You might even call it austere.
The simple, elegant design heightens the impact of the shrine at the far end of the Memorial. The 21 windows you pass on the way to the shrine are a silent 21 gun salute to the dead below. A plain white marble wall bears the names of all those killed on the Arizona. It slowly overwhelms you as you try to take in all the names. To the left of the main wall is a small plaque with the names of 30 or so crew members who survived the 1941 sinking. Any surviving crew member can elect to have their ashes interred within the wreck. To date, all of those eligible to rejoin their brothers in the USS Arizona have elected the option to return. Some eight crew members remain among the living and all are in their 90’s.
Not far from the Arizona Memorial and parallel to the USS Arizona stands the USS Missouri. She seems to be standing guard over the fallen. It was on the deck of USS Missouri that the Japanese surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ending World War II. The two ships symbolize the beginning and end of the United States’ participation in World War II.
The return from the Memorial is almost as silent as the boat trip to the Memorial. The passengers speak in hushed tones or simply reflect silently on their experience. I could not help but think about militarism and military preparedness. I recognize the need to be prepared to defend the nation. Still, I am troubled by the calls for a larger and larger military to defend against a seemingly unending list of real and potential enemies. These calls often are accompanied by the view that a greater use of the military is also the best way to solve political problems. It was this type of thinking that resulted in the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor. It is one of the lessons of Pearl Harbor that should not be forgotten.