Hawaii: Tribute to lost souls

By Heather McCracken

The memorial to lives lost in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor is a moving and dramatic place to visit, writes Heather McCracken.

The USS Arizona memorial lies atop the wreckage, some of which protrudes from the sea. Photo / Thinkstock
The USS Arizona memorial lies atop the wreckage, some of which protrudes from the sea. Photo / Thinkstock

In 1941, Hawaii's Pearl Harbor looked very different from what visitors see today. Instead of being circled by the suburbs and freeways of urban Honolulu, the surrounding land was largely sugar fields.

On the harbour, the scene was quite different, too. Today a handful of vessels are docked at the US military base. On December 7, 1941, however, more than half the US Pacific Fleet was in Hawaii - 150 vessels, including all but one of the fleet's battleships. Most were moored at quays on Ford Island, in what was known as Battleship Row.

The surprise Japanese attack on the morning of December 7 sunk or crippled 21 vessels and killed more than 2400 people - almost half those lives lost on the battleship USS Arizona.

At 8am, an 800kg armour-piercing bomb penetrated the Arizona's hull, setting off a massive explosion in its ammunition magazine. It sank in minutes, killing 1177.

Fittingly, the key site at Pearl Harbor today is the USS Arizona memorial - a floating tribute over the sunken wreck of the battleship.

Visitors reach the memorial by boat, with a specific shuttle time allocated with your entry ticket. Before you board your shuttle, you're obliged to watch a 20-minute film about the attack - but it's well worth it. The footage from that morning in 1941 is extraordinary and makes the visit to the memorial even more eerie.

It's a dramatically beautiful space: a stark white structure floating above the wreck of the Arizona. Parts of the hulk are still protruding above the surface around the memorial, and oil sheen on the water shows where the wreck is still leaking.

Having just watched the starling images of the ship exploding and lying crippled in the water, it's incredible to stand on that same spot and know most of it lies there still, including those who were lost with it.

The remains of most of the dead are still in the Arizona, including some who survived the bombing but died of their injuries and had asked to be returned to lie with their fallen shipmates.

White markers on the harbour show where the other ships were moored in Battleship Row at the time of the attack. So many vessels, so close together - and the damage caused was devastating. But, remarkably, afterwards all but three were salvaged and able to rejoin the fleet.

Still sunk at Pearl Harbor along with the Arizona are the USS Utah and USS Oklahoma, which lie on the far side of Ford Island and also form part of the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Memorial.

Also on site are the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, the battleship Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Tickets are available for each individually from the National Memorial visitors centre or online, or a two-day pass is available for all four sites.

Military history buffs will want to allocate plenty of time, but more most visitors half a day is fine for a visit to the USS Arizona memorial, along with a wander through the two museums and other outdoor memorials.

For me, one of the most moving was the small monument honouring the survivors of the Arizona, in recognition of the unique anguish suffered by those left behind. It notes they carried the mantle of survival with "grace and reluctance", and that many were haunted by the loss of their friends and shipmates.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Honolulu from Auckland.

Further information: DiscoverAmerica.com, gohawaii.com/nz and nps.gov/valr.

The writer travelled to Hawaii courtesy of Air New Zealand and the O'ahu Visitors Bureau.

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