Saturday, December 24, 2016

At Pearl Harbor

I've watched Band of Brothers. But that's about the European theatre of World War II. I also tried to watch The Pacific, which featured the Pacific theatre of WWII. However, I couldn't stand it because I felt that it was too close to home. I mean, I saw tropical beaches, grasslands, houses... basically the scenes typical of my home; and there was war happening there, right outside my neighbourhood. I also watched Pear Harbor, which maxed Hollywood's fictional license in depicting how the attacks happened. It may be fiction, but it bore Pearl Harbor into the minds of those who were born way after WWII... when we feel that it's in our distant past.
But since I was in O'ahu, I wanted to visit Pearl Harbor, where the USA was forced into joining the fray of WWII on December 7, 1941. Coincidentally, this year is the 75th anniversary of that event, so I thought it is just fitting to pay a visit... a few days after the commemoration. And so at the crack of dawn, I found myself in a long queue of tourists waiting to visit this place.
Little did I know that Pearl Harbor is the site of three war memorials: USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, and USS Utah. All of these were US battleships that were bombed by the Japanese pilots during the surprise morning attack on that infamous day. Many died in Pearl Harbor... in the USS Arizona alone, there were more than 1000 people who died. 

The memorial I was visiting during my trip to Pearl Harbor was the USS Arizona's. From the visitors' centre, it was visible as a white bridge-looking structure on the water. A few meters from it is the USS Battleship Missouri. The Missouri, which is fondly called the Mighty Mo, is where World War II ended. The Instrument of Surrender was signed by representatives of the Japanese Empire and by the Allies (represented by General Douglas MacArthur) in Tokyo Bay. So basically, the USS Arizona memorial and the USS Missouri denote the beginning and the end of World War II. It's an interesting placement, a mark of the USA's love for symbolism. And I remarked on that because in the Philippines, sites where our national heroes have been martyred are hardly treated as memorials. Luneta is a tourist spot, sure, but it is rarely treated by regular tourists as it truly is: a cemetery. More recently, hallowed ground for national heroes has been tainted by the ceremonial burial of someone who people have cause to revile rather than to revere.

My tour group took a short boat ride to the USS Arizona. We were told to treat this location not as a tourist spot but rather as a cemetery. No cellphones, no horse-playing. Well, it truly is a cemetery. At the far end of the memorial was the list of people who died with the ship. For someone like me, a foreigner, the list didn't mean anything but a list of names. But in the bigger scale of things, I salute these people because their lives and valiant deaths have caused Americans to join (and eventually contributed to the Allied Forces' victory) in World War II.   

Here's a puzzling thought for me however: Why didn't the Americans get the USS Arizona out of the water? I asked one of the staff at the memorial this and he explained that the technology that can be used to identify remains were not existent back in the 1940s; hence, they left the USS Arizona where it sank. To me, this sounded illogical because there had been an attack and America was about to jump into a world war; it was not the time for sentimentality and symbolism. I'd thought that the armed forces needed all the metal (guns, artillery, etc) it could scrap out of the battleship so that it could start retaliating right away. 

And so after my day of exploring O'ahu, I went straight to the Pearl Harbor website to find out what the real reason was. It turns out that the military did get as much out of the fallen battleship as it could during the war. The USS Arizona might not have participated in full capacity during WWII but it was used to arm the other surviving battleships and other military facilities. That left whatever's above water for us (future tourists) to visit and to ponder on. And the real reason why the USS Arizona wasn't lifted? It wasn't because of the fallen crew at all; the officials back then decided that they didn't have time to recover the battleship in the midst of the war. After the war, they decided to make it a memorial for the fallen soldiers.  

The memorial had taken the shape of a floating bridge over the Arizona. It was such a solemn place that I wasn't sure whether smiling for pictures was an appropriate behavior. During my brief stay there, I also saw the oil that has been constantly but slowly seeping into the sea. Tears, they call the oil... and it is said that it will take around 80 more years before all that oil has seeped out. Environmentalists may be worried about the pollution implications of this oil. The staff at the memorial was quick to point out that scientists are studying how to minimize the detrimental effects of the oil to the environment. Probably they'd find a way to recover the oil from the ship or they could slow the seepage even more. I also saw a photo that documented the underwater burial of an USS Arizona survivor. The ashes are put in an urn that is then released by divers in one part of the submerged ship. That way, the late survivor is united with his fallen crew-mates.

Back on Pearl Harbor's visitors' centre, I learned that the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri are located in what is called Battleship Row. This part of the US base was where all the battleships were docked in Pearl Harbor. And this was one of the Japanese pilots' main targets when they attacked. The destruction of these ships ended the era of the battleship and pushed forward the era of stealthier fighting styles, methinks... like submarines and aircraft carriers. And while I haven't seen an aircraft carrier in real life just yet, I can now say that I have actually had my second submarine sighting. Yes, second. The first one was in Sydney's Darling Harbour around 10 years ago. 

Unfortunately, I really didn't have time to explore the submarine on display (which, I understand, also saw action in WWII). Instead, I perused the American perspective of the war that changed the world. It's an interesting take too because as a student, most of the lectures in history class focused on what happened to the Philippines during WWII or the European theatre of the battle. It was a real treat for me to see a global view of the war... even if it's just an image:

What made this image interesting is the way that the countries in the Pacific theatre were named: French Indo-china, Netherlands East Indies, Portuguese Timor... France, the Netherlands, and Portugal were some of the colonisers back in 19th century. The Philippines was under Spanish rule back then, of course, and then got transferred to the USA in the late 19th century. The Netherlands and France were invaded by Nazi Germany while Portugal managed to stay out of the war. As the colonising countries capitulated to Germany, the colonies ended up under Japanese control. Portuguese Timor became occupied by the Japanese too, though Portugal was a neutral country. This was when I started understanding (a bit more) what my history teachers meant by the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
This certainly was a unique and somber way to start my day. But there were so many other things to see and to do in O'ahu so I had to shrug off the solemn mood. Still, that visit to Pearl Harbor set the tone of the rest of my vacation: history lesson!