Pearl Harbor Remembered

December 7, 2007 · Print This Article · Email This Post

Uncle Gene in World War II

My father’s been gone 10 years now, but we remember how he always recalled December 7th, the anniversary of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as a day of great importance. He was 17 at the time. He and his two brothers joined the military: two uncles served in the Army while my father joined the Navy. They were worlds apart: Uncle Gene, seen at left, was among the American forces who reached Nazi concentration camps in Germany at war’s end to free American troops incarcerated there. What he saw left an indelible impression on his mind and, usually an adventuresome person, the only place this otherwise urbane nuclear physicist ever refused to go with Pajamadeen was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.

While my father sat on a ship in San Diego Bay, writing copy for the Navy as a precursor to his literary career and learning to loathe California (probably because he never actually got to see California), my future aunt, a nisei Japanese-American, was interned at Manzanar. Read more about the notorious Manzanar camp and the internment of Japanese-Americans which occurred as a result of Pearl Harbor. After the war, she and Uncle Gene met in London, England. They would marry during Key West’s infamous Halloween party and move to Virginia, which they were forced to leave due to miscenegation laws. Finally, they settled in Maryland.

None of those events would have occurred had it not been for the Pearl Harbor bombing. Prior to that, the United States had adopted an isolationist position and was happy to sit on the sidelines while a madman roamed Europe. But Pearl Harbor instantly changed that, plunging us into war overnight. President Roosevelt uttered his famous phrase, describing December 7th as “a day of infamy.”

Memorial Floating Above the Sunken USS Arizona

The USS Arizona was the most heavily damaged of the ships that day; 1,177 crewmen died, and all but 229 still rest there in a watery grave beneath the USS Arizona Memorial, which the National Park Service administers. She suffered four direct-hits from 800-kg bombs, the last one penetrating the deck starboard and detonating a powder magazine. She broke in half. It was the greatest loss of life in U.S. naval history. The memorial, dedicated in 1962, gently straddles the sunken battleship’s hull but doesn’t touch it. A United States flag, attached to the severed mainmast, flies in tribute to the Arizona and the lost. About 1.5 million visitors annually pay their respects — about 20 percent of them Japanese.

Metalsmith 1st Class Edward Raymer was the first diver to enter the Arizona, when the Navy was salvaging guns and hardware from her. In his Descent Into Darkness memoir, he wrote that thick oil covered everything in the harbor, from ship hulls to dock pilings to the entire shoreline.

The USS Arizona Ablaze After the Attack

Entering the battleship, he found that “the dense floating mass of oil blotted out all daylight. I was submerged in total blackness.” Groping his way along the third deck, he got “the eerie feeling again that I wasn’t alone. Something was near. I felt the body floating above me.” Floating corpses had been drawn to him as his movements created suction, their hands and heads picked clean by scavenger crabs. “Their skeletal fingers brushed across my copper helmet…The sound reminded me of the tinkle of Oriental wind chimes,” Raymer wrote. Medics wore gas masks to stave off nausea, but managed to collect only 229 bodies before the Navy decided to leave the rest in situ. And there they remain to this day.

Flowers Floating on Oily Water Near the USS Arizona Memorial

Also remaining to this day is the oil. The corroding Arizona eerily and slowly but steadily still leaks fuel oil, as a visible reminder of what happened and what became so very real for my father and millions of other families. Ultimately, 418,500 Americans died in World War II.


Listen to Roosevelt’s speech.


Read about Hiroshima.

Photo credit: David Doubilet / National Geographic

Copyright ©2007


Comments are closed.