Author: Nick Capo
Nick Capo is an associate professor of English at Illinois College. He earned an M.F.A. in English at Pennsylvania State University and lives with his wife, Beth, in Jacksonville, Illinois. Currently on sabbatical and working on a book manuscript, he will assume the duties of associate dean at Illinois College in July 2011. He delivers speeches and publishes essays in a variety of forums, including the forthcoming This I Believe: On Fatherhood,
and writes regularly for the Jacksonville Journal-Courier
and Illinois Times.
Finding My Way to Pearl Harbor
You can smell the leaking oil.
That fact is my second strongest memory of my visit to one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. In early January 2011, after traveling from Jacksonville, Illinois, to Honolulu, Hawaii, I visited the USS Arizona Memorial. From my reading of history, I had some knowledge of what to expect. I had viewed pictures of both the sunken ship and the white memorial that marks its devastated and rusting hull, I had read accounts that mentioned the "black tears" of the sunken battleship or stated the rate at which oil was leaking from the hull, and I knew that most of the dead crewmen's remains were still entombed where they fell.
Since the memorial rests within an active U.S. military base, the U.S. Navy controls access to it, ferrying boatloads of tourists across a short stretch of water to the memorial's location on the historical site of Battleship Row, near Ford Island. The memorial marks a place of terrible carnage; 1,177 crew, or just over half of the U.S. military personnel who died during the attack on Pearl Harbor, died on this single ship attacked during the first fifteen minutes of our first World War II battle. The Pacific War might have lasted from September 30, 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, to August 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito circumspectly announced his decision to surrender to the Japanese people, but for most of these 1,177 men, it lasted one quarter of one hour.
The thick sweet smell of the leaking oil surprised me. It was a reminder that once this tomb had been a living place of young men and powerful machinery. The carefree behavior of some visitors among our boatload of tourists, though, attested to decaying public memory and fading historical knowledge. My impression is that many visitors to the site know surprisingly little about the battle or the war. The memorial has become a routine stop on a list of sites-you-must-see, but I wonder how many of its visitors see it as a commemoration of an avenged defeat or a great victory, instead of a warning against the shared tragedy of war.
Given the amount of intellectual attention devoted to this single brief battle, its fading familiarity and memory also surprise me. The story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is well and frequently told in the annuals of military history, and any curious reader might start with the meticulous At Dawn We Slept
by Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, and Katherine V. Dillon. More recently, the battle receives a thoughtful treatment in John W. Dower's Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq.
For people who survived or witnessed the attack, it became one of those shocking and painful memories that stay with you for the rest of your life.
In Thurston Clarke's book Pearl Harbor Ghosts: The Legacy of December 7, 1941,
Ruth Flynn, a woman who worked as a secretary for the FBI and who had met many of the officers and seamen of the Arizona at social events, explains why she stopped taking visitors to the memorial. "It's gotten to be too much," she says, "looking at that list of names and seeing so many people I knew."
The list of names is my strongest memory of my visit to the memorial. The memorial is a large white structure that straddles the middle of the sunken ship. Divided into three sections, a dock and entry room, a viewing area, and a shrine room, the memorial's construction was approved in 1958 by President Eisenhower, after its supporters overcame determined opposition, and opened to the public in 1962. Among the many U.S. Navy officers initially in opposition to the memorial was Admiral Chester Nimitz, who called Pearl Harbor "a great defeat for us."
In fact, the memorial's designer -- Alfred Preis -- originally wanted to build an anti-war memorial, one designed as an underwater crypt. The concept was quickly rejected and Preis needed to offer a second design. In the National Park Service brochure, he explains the second design's logic: "Wherein the structure sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory . . . the overall effect is one of serenity. Overtones of sadness have been omitted to permit the individual to contemplate his own personal responses . . . his innermost feelings." Even this compromise design (perhaps as Nimitz feared) became a very popular site for Japanese tourists, at least some of whom view Pearl Harbor as the location as one of their country's great victories. But the list of names filling an entire white marble wall in the shrine room riveted itself into my memory, and perhaps this list reclaimed Preis's original intent.
I learned one important fact as I studied the list of names. Surviving members of the ship's crew now have the legal right to request the burial of their ashes on the ship, and since 1982, thirty-three men have done so, the most recent man in 2010.
I also made one important connection. Most would agree that the Vietnam Memorial and the USS Arizona Memorial are two of our most moving memorials to our veterans. But it is each memorial's inclusion of the names of the dead -- all of them -- that adds so much power to their visual designs. You cannot view either of the memorials without seeing these wars -- perhaps any war -- as a collection of individual tragedies. In the shrine room at the USS Arizona, years after the last living veteran has died, a visitor can look at the names on the wall and know that each man was a son, a brother, a husband, a father, or an uncle. Each man could be any man. Each life represents a portion of the cost of war.