Jack Ohman

Tangible reminders of Pearl Harbor

The USS Missouri, the ship on which the Japanese surrendered to end World War II, towers over the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Visitors to the memorial can look into the water and see outlines of the bulkheads of the sunken ship.
The USS Missouri, the ship on which the Japanese surrendered to end World War II, towers over the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Visitors to the memorial can look into the water and see outlines of the bulkheads of the sunken ship. Associated Press file

If you take the small U.S. Navy launch out to the USS Arizona, where 1,177 sailors and Marines died during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, you will see something that reminds you that Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, wasn’t that long ago.

Disembarking, you’ll see a long white floating structure inscribed with the names of the men who died there. Many of the crew members who survived the attack have their ashes interred in the ship with their comrades who died in 1941.

As you look down into the shallow aquamarine water, punctuated by tropical fish drifting by, you see the outlines of the bulkheads and the superstructure of the ship. The memorial is right over the galley, and you can see where the ovens were.

But you will also see something else: oil rings shimmering on the surface of the water, gently rising from a few feet below.

The oil is iridescent and beautiful in its own way; it escapes at a slow pace: about 2 to 9 quarts a day. There are 500,000 gallons of oil seeping from the remains of the USS Arizona. Eventually, the ship will rust away and disintegrate well before all the oil seeps out.

Some say that this tiny but visually perceptible oil sheen represents the tears of weeping sailors. It’s hard not to think of that imagery forever once you’ve heard the analogy.

Not far from the USS Arizona, the USS Missouri remains at anchor in an area called “Battleship Row,” permanently retired as the site of the signing of the Japanese surrender in 1945: the Alpha and Omega of the Pacific war. A short drive from the shore of Ford Island, where the Arizona rests and the Missouri is retired, is a Navy airfield.

Oddly, only one soldier perished that day in the attack on the airfield. As you walk along the runways, you can see the holes created by the Japanese Zero’s machine guns that pockmark the tarmac. They are only a few inches across, and an inch or so deep. I ran my hand across them.

The remaining hangars at the Ford Island airfield also bear visible bullet holes.

My great-uncle Harvey Gibbs, a Navy lieutenant commander and the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He flew the sub-chasing PBY Catalina, an ungainly flying boat.

My uncle Hal, one of the engineers on D-Day who helped build the enormous floating dock at Normandy, gave me Harvey’s medals and citations after he died; one was signed by Adm. Chester Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific Fleet. There were some odd trinkets included in the collection, including two small medals that weren’t awarded by the military. One was golden, round, with the inscription: “Honolulu Golf Club. Play Against Par.” The other was a lead-colored medal, with a tiny white ribbon attached to it, with a No. 1 with a hole in it.

His medals, citations and trinkets illustrated for me that life at Pearl Harbor can be about fun and golf one minute, and carnage and survival the next.

When I was going through Harvey’s garage after he died, I found a leather flight helmet, with the numeral “27” painted on the side with what appeared to be red nail polish. I put the helmet on, and the dust from the deteriorated foam of the headset earpieces stuck to my hair and sprinkled onto my shoulders.

It has been more than the biblical three score and ten since 1941, a man’s lifetime. And sometimes Pearl Harbor seems a very long time ago.

But if you pick up Lt. Cmdr. Harvey Gibbs’ soft leather flight helmet and hold his Honolulu Golf Club medal, Dec. 7, 1941, seems very, very tangible.

Like any Sunday. Like today.

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