June 28, 2017

The 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

In December of 2016, I finally got to fulfill a long-time dream. Ever since I first became interested in history, and especially after moving to the United States, I've wanted to visit the site of the Japanese attacks that propelled the US into World War II. Given Hawaii's close proximity to California, I had entertained the idea of making the trip out there for years, but never actually managed to make it past the planning stages. In early 2016, with the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor approaching, I decided that this was the year when I should finally commit to making my visit a reality.

I spent many a day (mostly while stuck at my perilously monotonous job, contemplating escape and the many places that I hadn't yet checked off my travel list) theorizing, planning and trying to figure out a way to sneak in a week-long vacation to Hawaii. I finally figured, that I could not miss the opportunity of visiting this time around. I had been putting off the trip for too long, the 75th anniversary of the attacks was coming up, and for once, I had a bit of a head start on ticket and hotel prices, having begun to plan the trip early in the year (instead of being startled into remembering the occasion every time December 7th would roll around, and the Pearl Harbor events would get their tiny share of media coverage). Without formally slotting in a vacation week, I went ahead and made reservations, figuring I had enough time to take care of the details later. And, just like that, I was finally booked to Oahu.

It just so happened that circumstances aligned perfectly to my plan, and come December, finding myself with ample free time at my disposal, I was able to properly plan out and accommodate my trip. I flew out of SFO, and already at the gate, I encountered my first, shall I say 'celebrity' sighting - an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, wearing a Pearl Harbor Survivor cap. I did not want to bother him, as it was early and he was with his family, but I realized that we were going to be sharing a flight. As it happened, at the end of the week, we ended up sharing the return flight to San Francisco also. It was only then that I found out who this man was. Virgin America airlines announced that we have Mr. Harold 'Hal' Conrad,  a WWII veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor on board, and were kind enough to update Mr. Conrad to first class, in gratitude for his service. It was a nice gesture to witness.

Upon landing in Honolulu, I picked up my car and headed to my hotel, where another surprise awaited me. The front desk clerk - quite the chatty and accommodating fellow - asked what brings me to Hawaii. When I told him that I was there to visit the Pearl Harbor sites and photograph the events surrounding the 75th anniversary of the attacks, he mentioned that there was a WWII veteran that he might be able to connect me with. This man, he said, was accompanied by his friend and the friend happened to be staying in the same hotel I was in the process of checking into. If I wanted to meet with him and interview him, I should leave my contact info, so he could pass it on, and see if they were interested. I left my card at the front desk, and said they could call me to schedule a brief meeting. I had barely begun to unpack, when my phone rang. It was thus that I got to meet Ed Heddy.

Ed was not at Pearl Harbor, but fought in Phillipines and was stationed at San Fernando. He was born in 1926, and enlisted in 1945, when he was 18 years old. Ed's service in the Philippines ended when he was he was hit by an American motorized vehicle. The accident left him with two broken legs and internal organ damage and badly injured both of his knees, but Ed eventually made a full recovery. Upon returning to civilian life, he became a successful building contractor in the San Fernando Valley (where he still lives today), working on many big projects, including repair work on Hearst's Castle and Henry Mancini's house. Ed told me that he is a Christian, and that his faith was very important to him during the war. Without it, he said he wouldn't have made it through. I found Ed to be a very nice and gracious man, who seemed very happy to have my company. We spent almost an hour talking about his life. I was glad I was presented with the opportunity to get to know a member of the Greatest Generation - it was certainly a welcome start to my trip.

I turned in early that evening, knowing that I had to get to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites very early the following morning if I wanted to see the USS Arizona memorial. Demand is immense, and the 4500 first-come, first served tickets issued at the visitor center are gone by mid-morning. I had to be at the gates at 6am at the latest, to be in line for a ticket when the doors to the visitor center opened at 7am. Having come this far, I did not want to miss out on visiting one of the most important memorials at Pearl Harbor.

Come next morning, having successfully made it into the compound and secured my USS Arizona memorial ticket, I took some time to look around before the scheduled time the boat was to depart for the monument.

The USS Arizona's anchor was recovered and is now displayed on site.

Quotes by those connected with the Pearl Harbor events are inscribed into metal plates all around the compound. I found the one by Ensign Paul H. Backus from the USS Oklahoma, particularly powerful. The USS John C. Stennis is in the background.
It was at last, time to join the line for the USS Arizona memorial tour. We were first led into a theater where we watched a very well-made short film on the history of the battleship. Afterwards, we were ushered into the boat, which was to take us to the memorial itself.

Our escorts:

It's quite powerful when the white outline of the memorial finally comes into sight.
And then a somber entrance under the white arches and into the memorial shrine.

The barbette of one of the USS Arizona's gun turrets remains visible above the water line, as a stark reminder of the magnitude of the disaster and the size of the battleship itself
Another interesting thing about the wreck is that the USS Arizona is still seeping out oil, 75 years later. The 'tears of the Arizona', though toxic and a source of pollution for the harbor, form beautiful patterns on the surface of the water.

Upon our return, I set out walking about the historic sites complex, and contemplated where to head next. Many Pearl Harbor veterans were around for the occasion and I was glad to see them. This is Mr. Jack Evans of the USS Tennessee.

Most, if not all Pearl Harbor veterans are in their 90s, and inevitably, their numbers are decreasing with every passing year. So, I was especially glad when I noticed a line of people waiting to meet a few of the survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona, as they are an especially exclusive group. I joined the line, and after a bit of a wait, I got to very briefly talk to Mr. Louis Conter:

And Mr. Lauren Bruner, whose story you can read in this excellent article. And you can purchase his book about his experiences during the war and on the USS Arizona at his site

Mr. Don Stratton, whose book, 'All The Gallant Men', I ended up purchasing, was also present. His book is very well written and presents an excellent first-hand account of the attacks on the USS Arizona and the aftermath for the author who was badly injured but managed to survive.

As I had purchased the 'Passport to Pearl Harbor' ticket, I next decided to head to the USS Bowfin submarine museum, admission to which was included in the deal. The Bowfin is very well preserved and it feels like stepping back in time. All the compartments, like the galley, still very clearly convey the presence and energy of the people that served on the ship.

The torpedo room:

The GE engine controls:

And back on top. where the guns, though long-silenced, still aim off into the distance.

When I got back to land, I got to take a few more portraits of the veterans that were on the grounds. I regret that I was not able to get this gentleman's name, although I believe he was part of the crew of the USS Arizona and was also in the process of writing a book about his experiences at Pearl Harbor and during the war:

This man was also very nice and kind enough to let me take his portrait. Unfortunately, I did not get his name, either.

Next, I headed over to the submarine museum, right across the way:

I then proceeded to another part of Ford Island by bus, to see the USS Missouri, site of the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Admiral Nimitz greeted us on the way in, perched amidst throngs of tourists and rows upon rows of Old Glory:

The ship herself is a sight to behold, especially when bedecked in celebratory finery, with the view of Oahu in the background:

Active or not, the guns are fairly imposing also.

Spot over which the formal surrender of the Empire of Japan took place:

Marine detachment headquarters:

Ship's kitchen:

Dentist's 'office':

Sherman's immortal quote:

And, of course, the computer center (the Missouri was in service until March of 1992, well into the personal computer era).

The views from the ship are breathtaking:

Time was running out and I wanted to make it to the Pacific Aviation Museum before it closed at the day's end. I headed over to another boarding area, where buses were ferrying loads of visitors to Ford Island. There, the museum sits amidst the same hangars, buildings and flight control towers that witnessed the events of December 7th, 1941. I was looking forward to seeing those very same places and structures and entering the time machine once more, if only for a short while.

Stepping out of the bus, we were greeted by the control tower. The tower and the S84 Operations Building were both brand new at the time of the attacks. In fact, they were not even finished. The tower was restored in 2011. You can read its story here.

Since time was of the essence and I could not afford to miss the last bus back to the visitor center, I decided to forgo the main museum hall and instead, chose to wander around the buildings and see the outdoor exhibits. I headed toward Hangar 79.

On the way, I couldn't help but notice that not much had changed in the 75 years that had passed. The buildings looked more or less the same as they did in 1941. It was quite surreal to wander around - truly, a small trip back in history.

Air strips were once crisscrossing these same grounds. The turbulent tropical atmosphere provided a fitting backdrop of weather for my images and for the occasion. Oddly, there was a strange peace about in this environment - a place marked by such a tremendous and violent conflict that changed the course of history.

The Pacific Aviation Museum features a C-47 Skytrain!

These are the same buildings that withstood the Japanese attacks.

Outside Hangar 79, I ran into a fascinating 'graveyard' for vehicles waiting to be restored for display in the museum.

I could hardly tear myself away from the machinery, but now it was really time to get moving, as Father Time shows no mercy and I was cutting it close. Hangar 79 was just around the corner.

It was time to see what the inside of this enormous structure held. The hangar was a maintenance and repair facility for aircraft serving in the Pacific Theater. It was fully functioning in that capacity throughout the duration of the war and its capable crews worked 24-7 to keep airplanes in the fight. Hangar 79 and its crews were key to winning the war in the Pacific. It is still a fully functioning shop today, with a focus on restoration and maintenance of aircraft that are to be featured in the museum's collection.

The windows of Hangar 79 still bear the marks of Japanese strafing!

A B-17 Flying Fortress is waiting to be restored! Very cool to encounter one of those - a true classic. This B-17 has the serial number #41-2446 and was piloted by Fred Eaton of the Royal Australian Air Force. The bomber was recovered from New Guinea and has quite the fascinating story. You can read it in the full gallery, at the very end of this post.

I didn't want to leave, as I felt I had run across a treasure trove. There was so much more to see at the Pacific Aviation Museum and Hangar 79, but the working day for the historic sites was drawing to a close. I had to head out.

It would only be fitting to close with a few shots of the Pearl Harbor parade that took place in Waikiki the next evening. I was glad to see that a few of the 'Rosies' were also there, as they were a big part of the war effort and made a huge contribution to its successful outcome. Many of them, right next door in Richmond, CA!

Cliché as it may sound, my visit to Pearl Harbor was truly an unforgettable one. Maybe the long wait, all these years, had something to do with it. But most of all, I believe it was the living presence of the place, which still feels like a veritable time capsule in so many ways (before seeing it in person, I was kind of hoping it would!). It easily conveys to the visitor the memories and atmosphere of an unique place and an unique time in history. I was surprised at how little seems to have changed since the war years (to me, a good thing!). Buildings, vehicles, roads, fields and infrastructure, still bear the marks, sometimes obviously physical, other times more implied or felt energetically, of the war that changed the world and the generation that fought it. The added bonus of coming in close contact with the people that were actually present on December 7th, 1941 and lived through those momentous days and years, further intensifies the experience and brings to reality the fabled annals of history, recent as they may be. For people my age, far too young to have really come in contact with much 'living proof' that World War II even took place, it is fairly surreal to encounter, in person, remnants of that era that are still very much alive. It brings the concept of time and space into perspective and, on a more material level, it presents a reminder that the events of 1939-1945 took place not all that long ago. Even though they are in the dawn of their earthly lives, numerous veterans of that conflict worldwide, are still living witnesses to the war that nearly buried civilization as we know it. But today, it is hard to remember. It is often, even hard to appreciate what happened, how momentous it was, and how grateful we should be to those that helped to bring about a desirable end to a very grave conflict, at the expense of life and limb. Paying a visit to places such as Pearl Harbor, that still do well to keep the memory alive, definitely helps. To me, it is something that everyone should experience at least once. In a lot of ways, subtle and informal an occurrence as it seems, coming in close contact with all of this, really is a life-changing event. I always had a feeling it might be. And, I suppose that's what made the long wait sometimes difficult to bear. But I wait no longer, and though perhaps it goes without saying, I am more than glad that I finally took the time to check this one off my list. It was well worth it.

Til' next time, Pearl Harbor!


You can check out the full gallery below:

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