The Arizona Revisited

Divers explore the legacy of Pearl Harbor.

USS Arizona wreck
December 7, 1941: Settled on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona burns following the major explosion of its forwards. (USS Arizona Photograph Collection, National Park Service)
USS Arizona wreck
A stairway that once led below decks to the captain’s cabin now encounters the marine growth and sediment that fill many of the ship’s passageways. (Brett Seymour; National Park Service)
USS Arizona wreck
Much of the Arizona was salvaged during WWII, but these 14-inch guns were left in place. They were forgotten after the war and not rediscovered until underwater archaeologists with the National Park Service began researching the wreck in 1983. (Brett Seymour; National Park Service)
USS Arizona wreck
A broken ceramic bowl and fork lie where they fell in the galley area. (Larry Murphy; National Park Service)

A June day finds us once again diving around the battleship USS Arizona, whose sunken remains lie in Pearl Harbor. Larry Nordby surfaces beside me clasping his large plexiglass slate; a piece of mylar taped to it is covered with scribbled notations from his dive. “Navy’s here,” he announces. I look toward the boat ramp where a small landing craft full of “mudzoos” is tying up to the dock of the memorial building that straddles the wreck. Mudzoos are navy divers assigned to the Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) based at Pearl Harbor. We have a symbiotic relationship with these men, whose primary mission is as far from science and historic preservation as ours is from ship husbandry and underwater construction. Our allegiance instead is to the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, whose bureaucratic title refers to a group of diving archeologists, artists, and rangers employed by the National Park Service to promote preservation of historic shipwrecks and other underwater archeological sites.

This unit was formed in 1980, when the agency leadership decided to establish a mobile team that could help park managers “maintain responsible stewardship” over such sites. Coincidentally, I had just completed a large project in the Southwest, researching prehistoric sites flooded by reservoirs, and had pulled together in Santa Fe an effective team of park service diving archeologists. Unlikely as it seems, I found myself the first chief of a team of professional research divers based in the arid mountains of New Mexico.

In 1983 we began to survey the Arizona and subsequently the one other vessel still lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the Utah, a battleship that had been converted for use as a training ship. Over the years we have found that our skills are complementary with those of the Navy. They have boats, heavy equipment, youth, brawn, and large numbers; we know shipwrecks. As older, more experienced divers—the “park rangers,” they call us—we have a kind of underwater street savvy that the Navy personnel respect.

No diver who works on these ships is unaffected by them for long, particularly Navy divers. They are aware that there were new faces on the Arizona and Utah fifty years ago, when the Japanese war-planes caught a major portion of the Pacific Fleet at port. Those men had worn the same uniforms and entertained many of the same hopes and aspirations as their modern counterparts. They are part of the silt now, on the other side of the steel bulkheads.

As we clamber up onto the dock with our equipment, the Navy is raising its dive flags to warn boats that there are divers in the water. A red and white “diver down” flag and a blue and white “alpha” flag (a similar international sign) are soon flapping toward the southwest from the boat dock. From the mast on the memorial, the same colors appear in a more familiar form: Old Glory, the wind keeping her parallel to the others.

On that Sunday morning in 1941, the flags were just being raised on many of the ships when the men standing at attention were distracted by what they took to be some show-off flyboys buzzing the fleet below the altitude permitted by regulations. Even when the first bombs tore into the ships, there was still a sense of there having been some sort of accident. Not until the Rising Suns started to become visible on the planes did the full realization take hold.

Moments before, Flight Commander Mitsuo Fuchida had led, with what must have been great relief and satisfaction, a complete surprise attack. Many things could have gone wrong; some did. A flotilla of five midget subs had been deployed in the early hours of the morning and some had been spotted by U.S. patrol planes and ships. The destroyer Ward had even attacked and sunk one of those midgets more than an hour and fifteen minutes before the planes made their first strike. Why this incident didn’t tip off the Pacific Command to the impending attack is still not clearly understood. There was also the Opana radar station on the north shore of Oahu, which picked up the first wave of attacking planes. When the operators reported to their superiors what their then-developmental radar technology had detected, they were told to disregard the contact because a flight of B-17s was expected from California at that time.

The strange series of events that preserved the element of surprise seemed so unlikely to some historians that they developed a “revisionist” theory of the attack. Advocates of this point of view maintain that President Roosevelt knew the attack was about to take place but let events take their course so that the nation would be outraged and fully united in its response. In any event, Mitsuo Fuchida knew as he glanced down from his rear seat in the cockpit of his command plane that he had been dealt a winning hand in the most serious of games.

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