On my last day at Northwest Airlines just over a year ago, a coworker told me that I could use my fee-waived, confirmed-space passes even after my separation, as long as travel was completed within 6 months of my separation date. So I set out to book some travel, on a whim. I figured the worst that could happen is I wouldn’t go and someone else would get my seat. No harm, no foul.
I chose to go to Hawaii, because I’d been there 13 years ago with my family but we’d spent nearly the entire time on Kauai, and as I saw the Pearl Harbor memorial in the distance while we drove to the airport for our flight home, I was heartbroken that I hadn’t gotten to visit the site.
I found some odd dates in May, 2 weeks shy of the last possible day I could go, and set up my flight. A few months into my unemployment, I figured I may never have a better opportunity, and started seriously considering actually going. By the end of February, I had booked a hotel, and one of the “add-ons” after I booked the hotel was an Arizona Memorial and City Tour, so I checked the box.
I flew to Honolulu on May 15th 2012. It was a Tuesday. Two days later I was on a tour bus at 6 a.m. headed to Pearl Harbor with 50 or so other “visitors” (what Hawaiians call tourists). We passed under the flagpoles bearing the American flag, and a flag for each branch of the military, National Guard and Coast Guard.
We entered the facility and I was struck by the serenity of this place that had been the site of a massive air attack, and the horrific deaths of thousands of American servicemen. There are many benches on which to sit and reflect, and small monuments with quotes from some of the important figures of that time. One in particular struck me:
That was only the first of many times I would choke back tears that day.
At our predetermined time, we lined up to enter the theater, where we were shown a film highlighting what led up to the attack, and footage from the actual attack that has never been released to the general public. I struggled to hold back tears as I thought of my Grandpa D, who had signed up to serve in WWII after this attack, but was unfit for duty due to a circulation problem with his legs. Instead, with his welding experience, he was sent to Seattle to work on warships. After he passed away in 2010 we found the letters he’d written his parents and his sweetheart back home (my Grandma who is now in her own final days) along with immaculately preserved newsletters from the company he worked for about how their work was affecting the war effort. I couldn’t help but think of that young man, and the thousands like him, who wished to serve in any way they could, and the thousands that never made it back home to their sweethearts.
When the lights came up the crowd was a different kind of quiet. We filed onto a ferry which took us past an aircraft carrier in port, the U.S.S. Carl Vincent, which had docked a few days earlier. I overheard the young man in front of me talking to his mother, and discovered he was serving aboard that ship. It was awesome being so close to this ship from which Osama Bin Laden’s body was reportedly sent to its final resting place at sea, and to gauge the immensity of the ship by the aircraft parked on her deck.
As we neared the Arizona Memorial the sound of camera shutters clicking was almost overwhelming.
We quietly disembarked the ferry and filed into the memorial, where a tour guide told us the significance of the design- the ends higher than the middle, to signify America’s rise from her darkest day, the three sets of seven “windows” signifying a 21 gun salute at a soldier’s funeral, and the fact that the monument was built so that the American flag would once again fly over the main mast of the now sunken Arizona. He pointed out the slick black spots of oil on the surface, still leeching from the ship after over 70 years, but deemed “acceptable” levels by environmental officials and those in charge of maintaining the memorial.
To each side, in the distance, markers of other battleships that had been sunk on December 7th, 1941 dotted the harbor.
To one side is the restored battleship Missouri, which I wish I’d had time to tour as well.
It is amazing to see the size of that ship and recognize that you are standing above a similar ship completely submerged. It is even more amazing when you walk to the back of the memorial and see the wall etched with the names of all the servicemen who died aboard her that day, and the smaller area where new names are added, when a man who served aboard her that day and survived the initial attack dies and chooses to have his ashes interred with his fallen brethren.
If you lean out one of the windows below the flagpole, you can see down into an area with a ladder that was once used to climb the mast, which is now covered with lei’s.
Several small plaques inside the memorial bring attention to the date the memorial was approved, funded and dedicated.
If you look up you will be greeted with what I feel is one of the greatest sights to an American- our flag flying against a brilliant blue sky.
And if you use your cell phone to do ANYTHING except take a photo, you will be quietly reprimanded by a member of the Coast Guard, whose duty is not only to ferry visitors back and forth, but also to maintain the reverence of the site and respect for all who perished there.
Everything else I did on this trip was pretty meaningless in comparison. And for that, I will be forever grateful to my former coworker who urged me to use my passes. Without his prodding, I would not have had the experience of a lifetime.