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Pearl Harbor symbolizes nation's greatest defeat, greatest victory

Sunday, December 02, 2001

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

NAVAL STATION PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii -- On the shuttle boat over to the USS Arizona Memorial, I noticed that a woman in the next seat was crying softly.

I thought maybe she was the daughter of a sailor, Marine or soldier killed when the mighty battleship was sunk at its dock during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Or maybe she was a military wife or someone with a special emotional link to that horrific morning six decades ago.

If you go ...

Pearl Harbor

GETTING THERE: American, Hawaiian, Northwest, United and Continental fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $279.

THE MEMORIALS: The memorials can be reached from the same parking lot. The Bowfin is within walking distance. Open-air trolleys take visitors to the Missouri, moored off Ford Island.

The memorials were closed temporarily after the Sept. 11 attacks, so it's best to call ahead to confirm hours. The Navy has imposed stringent restrictions on what visitors can carry into the memorials. No purses, diaper bags, handbags, backpacks, camera bags, strollers with pockets or compartments or other items that offer concealment are permitted. Baggage storage lockers are not available.

USS Arizona Memorial, 808-422-2771, www.nps.gov/usar. The Arizona museum, bookstore and theater, open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., are close to parking. Shuttle boats to the memorial, filled on a first-come basis, run every 15 minutes. Admission is free.

Battleship Missouri Memorial, 808-455-1600, www.ussmissouri.com, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Self-guided tours are $14 for adults, $7 for children. The Captain's Tour, which includes a themed tour, access to the captain's cabin, a tour of the weapons systems and refreshments, costs $49 for adults, $39 for children 12 and younger.

USS Bowfin, 808-423-1341 www.bowfin.org The museum and submarine at Bowfin Park are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $3 for children. Tours are self-guided with audio headsets.

INFORMATION: Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 801, Honolulu, HI 96815; 800-464-2924; www.gohawaii.com

-- Tony Perry,
Los Angeles Times


Using my press card as an excuse for being intrusive, I struck up a conversation. Her husband gave me a stony look, but the woman seemed eager to talk.

"I don't know why I feel like this," she said tearfully. "None of our family was at Pearl Harbor. Maybe it's just because I'm an American, and this is all so sad."

Her name was Virginia Grassley, and she and her husband, Walter, were in Hawaii for a long-awaited vacation. They had not planned on coming to Pearl Harbor, she said, but after a few days on Oahu they felt an ineluctable pull to make a pilgrimage to the symbol of America's biggest military defeat and yet its greatest victory. "It's just the right thing to do," she said.

More than 1.5 million people this year will feel it is the right thing to visit the 184-foot-long memorial spanning the midsection of the sunken ship.

Only time will tell us whether that comparison is true. This much is known, however: Long after the day of infamy, interest in the Arizona and the Dec. 7 attack has never been higher, and its ability to bring tears and pain to Americans is undiminished.

Partly because of the release of the movie "Pearl Harbor" this year, the number of visitors to the Arizona Memorial and the museum and bookstore ashore increased by 10 percent this summer from the previous year.

As an accidental tourist -- in Hawaii to cover the aftermath of the collision between a U.S. submarine and a Japanese fishing trawler -- I made the 20-minute trip from my Waikiki hotel to the memorial complex twice during my three-week stay last spring.

Admittedly, I am drawn to cemeteries.

Maybe that's what drew me to the Arizona Memorial, which has the status of a national cemetery honoring the 1,177 men entombed in the rusty wreckage a few feet beneath the softly lapping water of this massive Navy base.

If you want to know about modern America, it helps to visit the Arizona and reflect on those brutal, chaotic 110 minutes that left 2,340 U.S. service personnel and 48 civilians dead and changed the world and our country's role in it forever.

I had first visited the Arizona in 1967 when I was on a summer frolic at the University of Hawaii, studying oceanography and native dancing. To be blunt, I hadn't been much moved by it or thought much about it.

Now older, if not wiser, I was spending my days in a press tent shoulder to shoulder with Japanese journalists covering the same story.

With a head buzzing with unquiet thoughts about two seafaring nations sharing the same Pacific Ocean and the inevitability of tragedy and misunderstanding between them, I set out for the Arizona Memorial.

The Navy shuttle boats that bring visitors to the memorial are often solemn affairs. Passengers ride in reverential silence, many in tears, sometimes for reasons they cannot explain. Although no longer considered an active-duty ship, the Arizona is guarded by the Navy with particular vigilance.

On one visit, I started to make a cellular call. A Navy petty officer assigned to the shuttle boat gave me a look that said, without a word, "Put it away, buster, or you and the phone are going overboard."

It's an anomaly that in a vacation paradise of warm beaches and swinging nightspots, three of the most popular attractions are relics of war.

Although not nearly as well known as the Arizona, there are two other memorials at Pearl Harbor to famous ships from World War II: the battleship Missouri, on whose deck the Japanese signed the surrender; and the submarine Bowfin, the "Pearl Harbor Avenger," which sank 44 Japanese ships, more than any other vessel in the U.S. Navy.

The three provide a kind of historic triptych of the war in the Pacific from the American point of view: the sudden and disastrous beginning, the long and costly middle and the triumphant conclusion.

The Arizona is ever present in the thoughts of its neighbors.

"You visit the Arizona, and it tears your heart out," said Lee Collins, an official with the USS Missouri Memorial Association, a nonprofit organization that runs the Missouri in cooperation with the Navy. "You visit the Missouri, and you know it came out OK in the end."

And the Bowfin? On one visit I met Bill Shaw, a World War II submarine veteran from Texas vacationing in Hawaii with his wife. Like a lot of submariners, he thinks their role in winning the war has never been fully acknowledged.

"The Bowfin shows you how much bravery and sacrifice it took to get from the Arizona to the Missouri," Shaw said, before turning and walking away.

On two of my visits to the Arizona Memorial, I was greeted by Everett Hyland, 78, a retired teacher who was critically wounded on Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the battleship Pennsylvania, also moored on Battleship Row. A cheerful, informative man, he's a docent at the Arizona museum.

Hyland knows that soon all the firsthand witnesses to the Pearl Harbor attack -- American and Japanese -- will be gone. I wondered aloud whether the Arizona Memorial -- and its lesson about the need for America to stay prepared -- would still hold the public's interest in the decades ahead.

"I hope so," he said. "Otherwise, America is in trouble."

Maybe someday the same will be said of a space in lower Manhattan and a government building not far from the White House.

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