Pearl Harbor: How I experienced it

“Remember Pearl Harbor”

79 years ago, on 7 December 1941 just before 8 am local time, the United States was all of a sudden and without warning thrown into WW2. In just 2 hours, a raid by the Japanese air force wreaked havoc on the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor.

Preceding the declaration of war by a day, the attack destroyed 4 battleships and damaged 4 more, killing 2335 service personnel and 68 civilians in the process. The “day which will live in infamy” did more than material damage. It also shattered the belief that the US would stay removed from the battles that were already ongoing in Europe.

Pearl Harbor inscription

Experiencing remembrance

Remembrance can take different forms and be exercised in various places. From quiet contemplation at home to formal ceremonies, they all suit the same purpose: to remember certain events and the impact they had – and often continue to have – on our lives.

Personally, I like visiting actual places. One of my go-to spots years ago was the USS Arizona Memorial. As a young twenty-some year old, I had managed to bag myself a seasonal job with the Hawaiian branch of a tour company.

During my time in the Pacific, I made sure to visit all the islands (never made it to Lanai though ☹). However, Pearl Harbor was the perfect “short” excursion: the boat ride gave it the feeling of an actual outing! Picking the right time of the day to avoid the larger tour groups made it possible to have some time on board of the memorial for contemplation and to be mesmerized for a while by the escaping oil bubbles. Topping it off by listening to a friendly veteran or Park Ranger talk story really gave you the best value for money you didn’t even have to pay, because all of this came free of charge.

A flying lesson

Those of you familiar with my love for historical novels and attached searching for places mentioned in them in “today’s world” won’t be surprised that I found another way to look at the wider site of those devastating attacks 79 years ago.

I’m sure current regulations and economics have put a stop to this now. However, back in the day you could get a flying lesson for $20 somewhere at the back of the airport…

A different dimension of Pearl Harbor

No prizes for working out whether I jumped on the opportunity or not! Flying the single prop – from taxiing to take-off to actually flying it – was obviously an experience on its own. Continually having to correct the course of the small plane, both on a horizontal and vertical axis was intense. It didn’t compare in any way to driving a car, the only other form of motorized transport I was familiar with.

But my world! … Flying over Pearl Harbor, seeing what Battleship Row looked like in real dimensions rather than on a TV or movie screen and seeing the memorial from a completely different angle really drove home the enormity of it all.

It somehow gave me a clarity and insight I would never have gained from a book or video. There is something uniquely illuminating about being in a particular place of interest in person. It’s hard to put it in words exactly, but it is the bedrock principle of battlefield tours.

It is evidenced in the statement that I have most often heard from tour members over the years: “I read about this place/heard someone describe it/saw pictures of it, but now that I’ve seen it I understand”…

Pearl Harbor USS Arizona
USS Arizona Memorial

A new approach

Little did I know at the time that my Pearl Harbor excursions, together with the information panels at Fort DeRussy would bring about a serendipitous tour offer that reignited my interest in the Nisei story many years later. If anyone had told me back then I would end up running battlefield tours, I would have declared them stark raving mad.

And yet… Over the years, I have felt fortunate to have accompanied scores of families on their journeys of gaining clarity and understanding by taking them right to “where it all happened”.

This year has been a brutal interruption of that privilege and every remembrance event has had to find alternative formats to commemorate. So many organisations have come up with brilliant ways to bring their events online and therefore often in front of a bigger or even a new audience.

The conscious participation of a younger demographic is very encouraging in the grand scheme of preserving history as well as legacy. Letting the stories and significance disappear along with our veterans would mean the creation of huge blind spots in our collective history.  

Until brighter times return, we will all have to honour the fallen closer to home.

If, like me, you think the ultimate way to really grasp history is by putting yourself in the middle of where it all happened, take comfort: all those places will still be there for you when it is safe again to travel and meet people in person.

Until then, have a different approach to remembering Pearl Harbor, whatever form that takes.

Aloha oe.

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