The Right View: The living history that is Pearl Harbor

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I know the Maine Legislature is a madhouse these days, and there’s lots to talk about there. But I’ve just returned from Pearl Harbor, and am compelled to share the experience.

For those who have never been, you should put it on your bucket list. I don’t know if it’s possible to fully appreciate what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, without actually physically visiting that sacred place. I know I didn’t.

Some visitors will visit two particular places, the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri, all in one day. I had the humbling experience of staying on the naval base at the headquarters of the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, across the street from both historic sites, so I had the convenient ability to see them on separate days. This would be my recommendation, because it gives you time to absorb what you’ve seen.

I did it in what may be considered the “wrong” order, since I visited the Missouri first, and this of course is where World War II ended (ask your kids if they know what the USS Missouri is, and if they know what happened there). When I stepped off the bus that had taken us out to Ford Island and “Mighty Mo,” I instantly had goosebumps. For me, that usually means tears aren’t far behind, and that proved to be the case again this time.

To wander that mighty beast and see her firepower, the engine rooms, the bridge, the captain’s quarters, the command chaplain’s quarters, and so many others is an awe-inspiring experience.

But the showpiece, of course, is to visit the very spot on the battleship where, on Sept. 2, 1945, U.S Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme Allied commander, accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. Replicas of the surrender documents are encased just steps away from the spot where they were actually signed that victorious day in Tokyo Bay.

There was a tremendous amount of symbolism present that morning. For instance, the Japanese copies of the surrender documents were placed in a fairly worn looking canvas book. The Allied copies were placed in beautifully bound leather. Also, the direction the men on the ship were facing during the ceremony was crafted symbolically: the Japanese delegation faced aft, representing the past, and the Allied delegation faced the bow, toward the future.

Also on display was a United States flag with 31 stars that had been flying on Commodore Matthew Perry’s ship in 1853, when, in July of that year, he arrived in Tokyo Bay requesting a treaty to end 200 years of Japanese isolation.

The emotions wrought by visiting the USS Arizona Memorial are of course quite the opposite of those on the Missouri. Visitors are first brought into a viewing room to watch film footage of what happened that day. It was outstanding.

I learned, for instance, that two radar operators had picked up the first wave of Japanese planes headed toward Hawaii early that morning and forwarded the information to the Aircraft Warning Information Center. However, an inexperienced officer was on duty there, and he had no training in radar. He told the radar operators, “don’t worry about it,” thinking it was the arrival of an expected flight of U.S. B-17s.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

After the film, you board a boat that takes you out to the Arizona memorial. It is an active burial site and guests are asked to remain quiet out of respect for the remains of the men who went down with the Arizona. It is surreal to see parts of the great ship, just inches below the surface of the water, now covered in coral, with colorful fish and turtles making it their home. A now peaceful place that was once the sight of such horror. Oil slicks still dance on the waves, and you can still smell the odor.

At the memorial, which is directly over the Arizona, flies a United States flag. The plaque below, dedicated by Adm. A. W. Radford on March 7, 1950, reads, “Dedicated to the eternal memory of our gallant shipmates in the USS Arizona who gave their lives in action 7 December 1941. From today on, the USS Arizona will again fly our country’s flag just as proudly as she did on the morning of 7 December 1941. I am sure the Arizona’s crew will know and appreciate what we are doing. May God make His face to shine upon them and grant them peace.”

Inside, the names of all men lost that day, and the survivors who requested to be interred with their shipmates upon their deaths, are listed.

May we never forget.

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Julie McDonald-Smith lives in North Yarmouth. She is a registered nurse, former Capitol Hill staffer, and development chairwoman of the Cumberland County Republican Committee. Her column appears every other week.