SUDDENLY ONE MORNING
Diana Simmonds is moved by a visit to the memorials of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor
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.visit-oahu.com www.PearlHarborMemorial.com
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