Even for those of us who have served, there are some places where our fellow servicemen have been laid to rest or memorialized that are more haunting than others. The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is one of those places for me.
I went there for the first time in the mid-eighties. I was a lieutenant in the USAF, young and full of myself. I was in Hawaii for the first time and I went to the memorial in a hurried visit as a “required stop” on “the tour” and I don’t think I really had the time to appreciate it. When I went back again in the summer of 1996, this time as a major in the USAF, the effect was profoundly different.
In between, I went to Arlington National Cemetery and paid my respects to the thousands who had fallen and were buried there. I also went to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in Cambridge, England and paid my respects to the soldiers and airmen who died during World War II or went missing during the Battle of the North Atlantic. I even went to the cemetery at Omaha Beach in France where many of our dead from the D-Day invasion are buried. I went to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC as well. My visits to these cemeteries and memorials were very moving and I treasured each one.
But something about the Arizona was different for me when I went back there in 1996.
Those buried in the cemeteries knew we were at war and to the degree any of us are, they were prepared to give their lives.
But the sailors on the Arizona died when we were technically at peace. The sailors on the Arizona went to bed on the evening of Saturday, December 6, 1941 thinking all was well with the world and wondering how they were going to spend the following day. And they woke up in the middle of a war – a war that didn’t last terribly long for them when the one fateful bomb penetrated the deck beside the Arizona’s forward turrets and caused a catastrophic explosion which ruined the ship. Over 1100 men died on the ship that day, many of whom remained entombed in the wreckage and what struck me as the difference between the men who died on the Arizona and those who lay in our cemeteries is what I would best described as the lack of “closure.”
Those who have been laid to rest in our cemeteries, in many cases, had their bodies prepared for burial and were laid to rest in caskets with appropriate ceremonies where possible. The closure of their lives seems proper. But for the men on the Arizona, they still lay where they fell, their lives suddenly and brutally interrupted and their bodies remaining where those lives ended. It seemed “unfinished” to me somehow and that made it feel even more tragic.
Standing on the Arizona Memorial and looking down at the hull of the ship, you can still see diesel oil floating to the surface. The ship took on some 500,000 gallons of fuel on December 6th, 1941 – fuel which still leaks out to this day. There are those who call these “the tears of the Arizona” or “black tears.” These “tears” add to the sensation of suddenness, of tragedy and of lives interrupted.
So today, 70 years later, we should all take a few moments and commemorate these interrupted lives and thank God for them. Every one of them is a true American hero and every one of them deserves a place in the highest annals of honor.