Day 6: History alive today

Another early – very early – start to the day (meeting the bus at 6:35 a.m.) for a day-long tour of Pearl Harbor.  We left the hotel in darkness and rain, and returned in darkness and rain. But the hours in between were filled to brimming with history and interesting facts about the Day That Will Live in Infamy.

We first went to the Arizona Memorial and procured tickets for a 9:15 launch over to the memorial. Unfortunately, the memorial itself could not be entered because of necessary repairs being made on the launch dock that allows entry to the memorial. This was disappointing, indeed, but the Navy launch did take us over to the Arizona and allowed for multiple opportunities for pictures from the water. The experience was quite moving and the aura of reverence was palpable. I do remember from being on the memorial once before in December of 1971, that the wreck of the Arizona itself is visible through the clear waters and the view is unspeakably emotional. We missed that part today as we could not go into the memorial and look out over the sunken ship. However, it was still quite moving and we were so glad for the opportunity to view the memorial and see the wreaths and flowers that were left just three days ago for the 77th anniversary of the attack.

We visited the museums and viewed films that were all part of the National Park that is Pearl Harbor now. The USS Bowfin, a submarine that had the most “kills” of Japanese ships was open for visiting, and I had to take the tour. My travel companion decided to try and tour the sub, but he only make it to the first bulkhead before turning back. Crawling through a submarine door at 65 is not what it would have been at 19 or 20. Much safer to simply view if from the deck and conning tower.

Each time I have had the opportunity to visit a submarine, I am overcome with appreciation for those who served in this special way. I could never have done it. The quarters were too small; the spaces too tight; the air too precious; and the fears beyond my imagining. The brave men who chose this service were brave men, indeed.

From the Arizona and Bowfin, we took the bus over the recently constructed bridge (well, in the last 30 years) to Ford Island itself. Ford Island was the site of the Army air field and housed the planes that were all part of the air defense of the harbor. Most of the planes were also destroyed on that December day in 1941. But hangar 37 and 79 saw minimal damage and still stand to this day, although they sport some bullet holes in several windows that have never been repaired after the attack.

Lunch was waiting for us at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. We sat with a group from Australia and enjoyed conversation about the Australia film industry. An Asian salad was the entree and it certainly did replenish our energy to complete the rest of the afternoon.

Entry into the Aviation Museum was next on the agenda. I overheard some folks talking at lunch that hangar 79 was closed today because they were moving aircraft back in after a large event that had been held there for the anniversary on the 7th. I became immediately concerned because I knew that hangar 79 housed the only plane I really wanted to see . . . the only plane I had come to see, The Swamp Ghost. She is a B-17 E that had been crash landed in a swamp in New Guinea and had remained there for almost 70 years before being removed and brought to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

Concerned that I might not get to see her, I asked the nearest docent if the hangar was open. “Well, it should be by now. But they were moving aircraft earlier and so they might not be done.” “But what if I really need to see the B-17 that’s in there?” I asked politely. “Well,” he offered, “If it is closed, just find one of us in a black shirt and tell him you really need to be able to see it and they’ll probably take you in.” I could not have asked of a more compassionate and creative response.

We decided not to tempt fate and moved directly to hangar 79. And, yes, it was closed. So I found the nearest man wearing a black shirt and told him what his colleague had told me. “Well, we are closed,” he explained, “But tell me a little bit about why you need to go in and see her?” I shared how I was on a quest to see all the remaining B-17s in the country and if I could see Swamp Ghost, she would be either my 26th or 27th B-17 that I’ve seen and have been able to photograph. My travel companion added some bits of information, sharing that I was doing this for research for a book . . . . Well, that seemed to do the trick. He took us over to another colleague of his and told him my story. The guy just said, “I’ll take you over there after we talk about the B-29.” I was overjoyed. We got a personal tour of the aircraft that were in hangar 79, with a detailed story of Swamp Ghost, how she got her name and how she got to this museum. I took pictures to my heart’s content. We thanked him multiple times and he wished me happy writing! Now, I really do have to get to that book.

After that little thrill, we visited hangar 37 and the rest of the museum. Meeting back at the bus the driver was apologizing that hangar 79 was closed and we weren’t able to see The Swamp Ghost. My travel companion asked, “Should we tell him?” “No,” I answered, “There’s really no need to upset anyone.” I was just so grateful I had overheard the guys talking during lunch so I had enough of a tip to ask about it before finding out it was off limits. The kindness of the docents was commendable, and I truly appreciate someone sharing their excitement for history and its artifacts as much as I do. Thank you, guys.

Back on the bus, we took the short ride farther down Ford Island to visit the USS Missouri, where WWII was officially concluded. Surrender papers were signed on the deck of the Missouri on September 2, 1945. Two hours were required to take the self-walking tour through the giant battleship. It’s quite amazing and always humbling to walk the decks and passageways of a Naval vessel. Everyone should do it at least once, and imagine while doing so what it must have been like to live and work aboard during a conflict. There is gratitude in my heart each time I have the privilege of visiting one of our Naval giants.

We returned back to Pearl Harbor to retrieve our bags. (Well, I forgot to say we had to stow away any bags we were carrying with us because of security measures while at the memorial. Thankfully, I had made a split-secord decision this morning not to take my big camera – for what reason, I can’t even say. Yet, I knew in an instant I was grateful for the inclination when I learned we could only take with us into the memorial grounds and onto Ford Island, what we could fit in our pockets!)

On the way back into town we drove up into the National Cemetery, The Punchbowl, where many victims of that horrific day are laid to rest. I was looking forward to taking some pictures, but by that time in the day everyone was getting antsy (including me) and the driver didn’t want to stop or let anyone out for any reason. Hence, I have only drive-by shots of this very moving memorial to the many, many men and women who lost their lives in service to their country.

A tour through downtown Honolulu was the last attraction of the day. We were driven past government buildings; the Queen’s palace; and other historical sites particular to Hawaiian culture and history. Unfortunately, by this time in the day the skies had opened and the rains obstructed any opportunity for pictures of any kind. Still, the tour was interesting, but our brains were getting full and all of us were thinking about dinner and a little peace and quiet

Our drop off was the second one and we immediately walked across the street and down the block to Cheeseburgers Waikiki for a hot sandwich and some ice cream cake for dessert.

Our feet ached; our heads were full; our memories overflowed and our appreciation for our freedom and the sacrifice of others to preserve it, greatly enhanced. What a day it has been. One that will live in memory.