The Arizona Revisited

Divers explore the legacy of Pearl Harbor.

USS Arizona porthole

Sixty-year-old air remains trapped between a porthole glass and the internal black-out cover.

Brett Seymour; National Park Service

On today’s dive I guide Dave McCampbell, MDSU’s headman, and Otto Orzech, the commanding officer of a U.S. Naval Reserve detachment, on a swim-over of the site so they can assess the problems their divers must face. Plasticized copies of maps trail from my gloved hand as I lead Dave and Otto on a surface swim toward the bow, where we will begin our dive. I no longer need the maps, but they will help orient my partners. Navy master divers I have previously taken on such tours of the ship have admitted they had not a clue as to their location at any particular point during the dive, although they could help identify certain features unfamiliar to archeologists.

We descend at the “bullnose,” near the very stem, or prow, of the ship. Looking up from a depth of about twenty feet, I notice that the two holes for mooring lines do look like the flaring nostrils of a bull. The Arizona is narrow at the bow, and even in poor visibility, one has the sense of looking at the front of a large ship.

Biofouling, marine organisms mixed with products of corrosion, covers the Arizona like a thick scab. Archeologists tend to see the substance as “the crud that covers the wreck”; to a biologist, though, it is a rich organic community that reveals much about environmental changes over time in the harbor. The hawsepipes, through which the chains for the four huge anchors used to descend, are heavily carpeted with sponges and other colorful life forms, but they are not so clogged that sunlight can’t make its way through the hawseholes on the deck. Rays of light from the midmorning sun pierce through the gloom from the starboard set of pipes.

Soon we pass a team led by Scott Henderson, a Navy civilian biologist. They are intently collecting a bulk sample of biofouling from the hull; one diver is chipping away with a geologic pick while another holds a makeshift funnel over a canvas bag. Later they will separate the critters in the sample into types and sizes and tabulate their relative numbers. The activity produced a cloud of silt in the area of major blast damage, where the thick metal plates are ripped and crumpled. One million pounds of explosives in the forward were detonated by a Japanese bomb, blowing out the lower decks and peeling back part of the forward hull; at least, that is our best guess.

There are eyewitness accounts from men who stood on the stern of the Vestal, a ship moored outboard of the Arizona on the morning of the attack. They swear that a torpedo traveled directly under them and struck the deeper-draft battleship, causing the massive explosion. One survivor visited me in Santa Fe to adamantly make this point after he learned of our conviction that a bomb caused the major damage. These men tell the truth as saw it, but the material record, the archeology, doesn’t confirm what they say. There simply is no torpedo entry hole where they say it should be. Possibly one exists below the silt line, but in that case we would expect to see “washboarding” (a rippled effect) above the silt or some other sign that the bull was compromised; nothing is there. This interplay of words from documents, people’s memories, and physical evidence of a site constitutes historical archeology, its answers and puzzles.

Grasping the remains of the gunwale with a gloved hand, I propel myself up and over the ship’s side and head aft, angling toward the center line of the ship. The cavernous barrels of the fourteen-inch guns in the number one (forward) turret start to take shape in the murk ahead of me. Before the first dives in our 1983 survey, park service and Navy officials in charge of the site thought this turret had been removed along with the others during World War II salvage operations. Other items of interest were found in our first dives, such as live ordnance for the five-inch guns lying right under the busiest part of the memorial.

I see the dim shape of the fourteen-inch guns because I expect them, but my Navy guests concentrate on watching me to keep from becoming separated—we are now swimming in a featureless void between the blast damage and the turret. I distract them with a few hand signals so they will not look up until they are close enough to get the full visual impact. By the time they look ahead to monitor their slow forward progress, the guns are staring them straight in the face. The effect on them is electric.

They have gone from a prone swimming position to bolt upright, their lights now shining at the gun muzzles, which seem incongruously large in the cloudy water. These encrusted steel tubes were once capable of heaving a 1,500-pound projectile about twenty miles. Only battleships had guns like these, and although their importance in naval warfare was soon to be overshadowed by the aircraft carriers, they were still the pride of the world’s navies in 1941.

The knowledge that the majority of the battleships in the Pacific Fleet “slept with the fishes” after only a few hours of fighting, with more than 2,400 Navy and other military and civilian personnel killed, had a galvanizing effect on the American public. That the Pearl Harbor attack was flawed, because it probably emphasized the wrong targets and was terminated too quickly, is easier to understand from a historical perspective. But in 1941, after news of the full damage leaked out—nineteen ships sunk or put out of action—the attack seemed devastating.

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