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Pearl Harbor, My Experience

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.


  1. Oh wow...
    You've gone done it! I got tears in my eyes!

    I've never been there, but you took me there as you described everything so well! I'd love to visit one day!

  2. I, too, have been to the Pearl Harbor memorial. I happened to be there with my brother-in-law who is Japanese, who served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. My father, also a Navy man along with two of his brothers, was a veteran of both WW II and Korea. It so happens that my father's birthday is December 7th. Had he lived, he would be 85 tomorrow.

  3. What a tribute this is, both to the men and their families whose lives were lost or changed forever on that day, and to the power of forgiveness.

  4. A beautiful, thoughtful essay.

  5. What a moving experience you have at the Pearl Harbor. I hope that through all these years that have passed, those souls have already found their peace. Kellie xx

  6. This was mesmerizing. I got into a discussion once with someone about this very same thing - Japanese tourists seeing the Pearl Harbor exhibit and how it made some people feel uncomfortable. The tourists could have been AMERICANS. And looks what we did to the Japanese Americans with the internments camps. I guess we all have to learn from our mistakes.

  7. I agree, Pat. I still can't believe the internment camps. What were we thinking? I guess we weren't. At least we continue to learn what is right and what is wrong. We'll learn to the day we die.
    Thanks for reading.
    Blessings all.

  8. What a moving essay, Barb.

    The Pearl Harbor Memorial made it into my parent's Christmas card letter this year since they were there earlier this year.

  9. Never been a bad peace or a good war, Barb. Saw that on a bumper sticker once . . .

  10. You did awesome Nana Barb. You are a wonderful writer and you have such a awesome talent to put words together to make a kick butt story. Love you sam

  11. My great aunt became a widow at Pearl Harbor. Her husband was a doctor and she was in Hawaii with him. That day, he went to Battleship Row during the attack to offer aid. My dad heard the radio of the attack on a ham radio when he finished his shift at a mine in Northern California. He enlisted, never went back to the mines, was wounded in Guam, and became an engineer on the GI Bill. I would love to see the Memorial. I love your writing, Barb.


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