Diana Sim­monds is moved by a visit to the memo­ri­als of Hawaii’s Pearl Har­bor

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

UN­LESS you are a war vet­eran or his­to­rian, war memo­ri­als are not high on the agenda when plan­ning an ex­cur­sion. But some­times, for the odd­est rea­sons, they turn out to be in­evitable. And mem­o­rable. When you land in Hawaii for the first time, one of the im­me­di­ately no­tice­able things in Honolulu is Ka Hae Hawaii, the flag of Hawaii. It bil­lows above pub­lic build­ings and from house­hold masts on zingy green front lawns.

For an Aus­tralian the flag is in­trigu­ing. It’s an amal­gam of the US and Bri­tish flags. And while it’s a re­minder that de­spite ev­i­dence to the con­trary, this is the US, it sig­nals that Hawaii is not the main­land. This is Bri­gadoon or maybe even Bali Hai.

James Cook named the vol­canic chain the Sand­wich Is­lands af­ter do­ing a clock­wise cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion and be­ing de­clared a god by the Hawai­ians. On a later visit, un­for­tu­nately, he mucked up the pro­to­cols and was mur­dered. Per­haps the lo­cals had by then dis­cov­ered what a dread­ful name he had be­stowed on them. I mean, re­ally, who would want to be known as a sanger?

So Hawaii it re­mained, be­com­ing an of­fi­cial US state in 1959, still sport­ing the Union Jack for old time’s sake. Un­like us, how­ever, Hawai­ians speak a mel­liflu­ous lan­guage of their own that con­tin­ues to re­sist Amer­i­can English.

But ev­ery month this his­toric slice of par­adise is shat­tered by the sud­den, deaf­en­ing howl of sirens. Make no mis­take, this is not your com­mon or gar­den war movie air­raid siren. The Hawai­ian sirens are so pierc­ing, they do the very thing you ex­pect an alarm to do: fill you with alarm.

And adding to the sense of un­re­al­ity is how no one seems to pay at­ten­tion to the racket. Peo­ple con­tinue to walk, drive, chew gum, sell cars and gen­er­ally go about their daily busi­ness.

The source of the din is clus­tered atop small, sta­dium light­ing-style tow­ers. Still no­body no­tices. Af­ter an eter­nity (well, 45 sec­onds), comes si­lence. It turns out that on the first work­ing day of each month the sirens are tested.

They were in­stalled af­ter the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor in 1941 by the Ja­panese and have been Oahu’s first line of defence ever since: 128 alarms ready to alert the pop­u­lace to hur­ri­canes, tsunamis, earth­quakes and ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Rather than run in a cir­cle with fin­gers in ears, Hawai­ians know it’s the sig­nal to turn on the ra­dio or television to find out what’s hap­pen­ing and what to do. They howled in earnest for the approach of Hur­ri­cane Iniki in Septem­ber 1992 and a tsunami in Oc­to­ber 1994. You know when they mean busi­ness: the real thing goes for three min­utes.

On a serene morn­ing, though, it’s some­how in­evitable that thoughts turn to a fate­ful day. ‘‘ Yes­ter­day, De­cem­ber 7, 1941 — a date which will live in in­famy — the United States of Amer­ica was sud­denly and de­lib­er­ately at­tacked by naval and air forces of the em­pire of Ja­pan.’’ The voice of pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt broad­cast­ing across the US ended its iso­la­tion and her­alded its en­try into World War II. The at­tack, of course, was on Pearl Har­bor.

Named for the pearl oys­ters that once lived in its pro­tected wa­ters, this is the largest nat­u­ral har­bour in the is­lands. An ob­vi­ous choice for the US Pa­cific fleet’s base, its big­gest war­ships were moored in eas­ily tar­geted for­ma­tion in Bat­tle­ship Row. This pic­turesque fac­tor alone made Pearl Har­bor a strate­gic hot spot, not that you’d have guessed. Ac­cord­ing to wit­nesses, it had been, un­til about 8am, like any other morn­ing, al­beit slower than usual: it was a Sun­day.

On your av­er­age day in par­adise there is a strong pos­si­bil­ity that the sun will shine be­nignly. Breezes rang­ing from balmy to ze­phyr ban­ish any­thing re­sem­bling hu­mid­ity; spindly co­conut palms flut­ter their fronds. Colours are vivid: lush jun­gle, dark rows of pineap­ples and ma­genta bougainvil­lea foun­tains, while hibis­cus grows in pro­fu­sion in shades of pink, peach, scar­let and yel­low. All the while, a mil­lion sparkling wave­lets ruf­fle the cobalt sur­face of Pearl Har­bor.

For the young sailors go­ing about their chores, the view from the great battleships en­com­passed all this, I re­alise, stand­ing on the pon­toon of the Ari­zona Me­mo­rial. For them, the war was some­thing hap­pen­ing some­where else to other peo­ple. Then the sound of a small air­craft would have been heard. Just as, right now, the drone of a pro­pel­ler en­gine be­comes au­di­ble. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise.

Af­ter a mo­ment the plane is vis­i­ble. Like the Ja­panese fighter bombers of 1941, it is com­ing in from the north, just be­neath the moun­tain ridge that was sup­posed to pro­tect from ae­rial at­tack. It’s a paralysing sight even though it’s ob­vi­ously a civil­ian plane with all the hos­tile in­ten­tion of a la­dy­bug. It takes a cou­ple of min­utes for it to reach this spot in the mid­dle of the har­bour. The un­pre­pared sailors and air­men didn’t stand a chance.

Be­neath the pon­toon, eas­ily vis­i­ble in the clear wa­ters, is the mas­sive hull and su­per­struc­ture of the USS Ari­zona, the grave of 1777 crew­men. Silent vis­i­tors drop flow­ers or gaze into the mid­dle dis­tance; some pray, a few weep. All are sub­dued by the con­tra­dic­tions of the beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings and the poignant knowl­edge of what lies so close be­neath our feet.

Pearl Har­bor’s mu­se­ums and memo­ri­als are nei­ther Hol­ly­wood blar­ney nor the stuff of jin­go­ism. The com­men­tary ac­com­pa­ny­ing the doc­u­men­tary ac­count of events is re­mark­ably hon­est. Watch­ing it is rec­om­mended be­fore board­ing the naval cut­ters that ferry vis­i­tors to the Ari­zona.

It’s prob­a­bly de­lib­er­ately ar­ranged that way: the ef­fect of learn­ing, with no em­bel­lish­ment or ex­cuses, what a ter­ri­ble stuff-up it was is to si­lence and sober up day trip­pers and pre­pare even smirky teenagers and noisy chil­dren to be­have in a man­ner ap­pro­pri­ate to grand tragedy.

Part of Pearl Har­bor’s ex­cru­ci­at­ing beauty is its or­di­nar­i­ness. Ev­ery­day things con­tinue much as they did in 1941: flags flut­ter, hal­yards ping against masts and the plock­plock of ham­mer on metal tells of rust and paint re­moval on the war­ships that still call the har­bour home.

Rid­ing at an­chor and open to vis­i­tors, only a bo­sun’s whis­tle from the Ari­zona, is the bat­tle­ship USS Mis­souri. A 50-year ser­vice vet­eran, on Septem­ber 2, 1945, its main deck served as the site where gen­eral Douglas MacArthur re­ceived the un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der of the Ja­panese, mark­ing the end of World War II.

Ashore once again and the is­land of Oahu beck­ons. If bit­ter­sweet irony is some­thing to savour, then a visit to the Izumo Taishakyo Shrine is a restora­tive com­fort.

It’s in Honolulu’s Chi­na­town and built in the tra­di­tional style. This tim­ber Shinto shrine is so ex­pertly crafted that not a nail mars its struc­ture.

It is also an ap­pro­pri­ate place to ponder the 55 Ja­panese air­men and 2500 Amer­i­cans who lost their lives in the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, never mind the mil­lions who’ve died in con­flict since.

There’s nowhere bet­ter to lay an of­fer­ing of poin­set­tia and hibis­cus, as did the sur­vivors of 1941 on the graves of the war dead. Add to it a plea for peace, for­give­ness, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and the eter­nal beauty of sunny morn­ings on Pearl Har­bor. www.Pearl­Har­borMemo­

Peace is the mes­sage: Vis­i­tors to the USS Ari­zona Me­mo­rial Mu­seum at Pearl Har­bor with the air­craft car­rier USS John C. Sten­nis in the back­ground

Sur­ren­der site: USS Mis­souri’s gun tur­rets

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