Shortly after my trip to Pearl Harbor, this essay appeared in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Pearl Harbor, My Experience
Dec. 7, 1941: The memories sear, the blame washes away
"War! Oahu Bombed By Japanese Planes." I read the shocking headlines, back in the eighties on a visit to Pearl Harbor, from a souvenir copy of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, dated Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.
I was waiting in line to board a tour boat to go to the USS Arizona Memorial. Finally, moving toward an empty boat, I noted that most of the people on the crowded platform were Japanese.
On the short ride across the harbor, I listened to a guide describe the events of that fateful day. As the small boat approached the white concrete building, the guide concluded, "The battleship Arizona still rests at the bottom of the harbor in 38 feet of water just eight feet below the water's surface. The memorial is an enclosed bridge that spans the sunken hull, but touches no part of the ship itself. Oil will continue to seep from the battleship for 38 to 39 more years."
When I stepped off the tour boat, I saw the American flag flying over a small part of the ship that is visible above the water. Inside the memorial, I was swept back to the day of the disastrous bombing. From the walls, pictures of the battleship in flames and sinking, looked down at me and seared themselves on my mind. I couldn't appreciate the mementos salvaged from the ship when I knew that 1,177 men were still entombed below in the battleship's blasted hulk.
A loudspeaker was effectively re-creating the day with the sound of bombs exploding and chaotic outcries. As I stared out an opening in the wall at the calm blue water, I was lost in thought for a few minutes. Then black oil gurgled to the water's surface. Though the temperature was 85, I turned away, chilled.
From the middle of the memorial, I could see the ship through a large opening in the floor. I thought of the many men and all the ambitions and dreams that had gone down with the ship. I thought of the mothers, fathers, wives and children who had been left behind with the burden of unanswerable questions. I wondered how the men would feel if they knew the memorial was filled with Japanese men and women.
Silently, I suffered their indignation. In the shrine room, where the names of the dead men are engraved on a marble wall, I stood in reverence, trying to wish away the horrors of war. Nearby, a Japanese gentleman left his group and gravely studied the wall. Over the speaker, the names of the men were slowly being read. Almost ceremoniously, the Japanese man removed an orchid lei from his neck and placed it next to several wreaths on a marble platform. He backed away and was lost in the crowd. Aboard the tour boat for the return trip, I tried to sort out my emotions. Before my visit, I'd thought of the memorial at Pearl Harbor as another tourist attraction. Yet, I'd been tremendously touched by the harsh realities of war and by the wasted lives and destruction.
Why, then, did I feel the need to condemn? Could I blame the Japanese man who had humbly offered the lei? Or the Japanese couple who sat on the boat in front of me? Or the somber young Japanese woman on my right? With tears in my eyes, I realized I couldn't blame anyone. I remembered Hiroshima.