When I landed in Honolulu on the night of Friday, August 12, it was great to be greeted by the familiar face of SRC Archaeologist Jessica Keller. As we drove to where we’d be staying, Jess and I had a chance to catch up on how things had been going for the past two months. It was clear that I hadn’t been the only one having fun traveling the country and diving. After working with minority youth in Biscayne National Park to document a shipwreck with the Youth Diving With a Purpose program and a trip up to Grand Teton National Park for her EMT-B refresher course, she arrived in Oahu last week to help Brett out with a documentary filming project on the USS Arizona Memorial. When prompted about how her first dive went on the shipwreck that sparked her interest in marine archaeology, she struggled to find the words to describe the experience. Her response made me that much more eager for the week ahead!
The following day, Brett, Jess, and I headed over to Pearl Harbor to get some underwater filming done, but first we needed tanks. As I am not a federal employee, I couldn’t get on to the joint Navy-Air Fore Base where the park gets their tanks, so they dropped me off at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to wander the museum exhibits and displays.
Outside, missiles, bombs, anti-aircraft artillery, and other artifacts were on display along an interpretative walking tour route that paralleled the harbor. I stopped at the Waterfront Submarine Memorial and walked past the anchor from the USS Arizona on my way to the galleries, Road to War and Attack. Timelines and newspaper clippings pieced together the events that lead up to the Attack on Pearl Harbor, while personal possessions, hand-written letters, and other artifacts brought life to those that were there that day and dioramas, photographs, and audio-visual recordings evoked a series of emotions from those of us not present on December 7, 1941. I am really glad that I got the opportunity to walk through the galleries prior to my time out on the memorial in order to gain a deeper understanding of the significance of the work we would be doing that week.
When Brett and Jess arrived with tanks, we met up with Scott Pawlowski, Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources for the monument, and headed over to the USS Arizona Memorial. As we approached the memorial, the American flag fluttered in the wind. Pieces of the ship were visible protruding from the surface of the water. The modern memorial straddled the mid-deck of the USS Arizona, like a bridge, connecting the past with the present. Its sleek white design gave the memorial an air of serenity while still demanding solemn respect.
Inside, the entry opened up to the assembly room with a series of seven windows on either side, reminding visitors of the date of the attack, and allowing viewers to look out toward the bow or the stern. A viewing well cut through the floor offering a view of the sunken decks that sit just below the surface. At the far end, a marble wall bore the names of the 1,177 sailors and marines who lost their lives on the USS Arizona during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Leis and flower arrangements lined the floor, placed by visitors and family members to offer their respects for the fallen. With nothing to give, I sat on the floor of the shrine and read off each individual name engraved on the wall as my way of paying tribute to the men who lost their lives that day.
Back on the dock, we geared up for our dives. Brett and Jess were going to dive the stern of the ship to film some video clips, while Scott was going to lead me around the ship on an orientation dive. With a full-face mask communications system, Scott was able to talk to me as we swam around the ship’s main deck. Below the surface, the water was murky and the visibility was barely 10 feet. When the ship finally emerged into view, I was filled with a reverent sense of awe at seeing the famous vessel up close and underwater, a perspective few people get to experience.
Bowls, light bulbs, Coca-Cola bottles, a shoe, and a cooking pot were scattered across the deck. Once used by those who called this vessel home, they sit there today in the same place they have been sitting for 75 years, now overgrown by algae and coral. We peeked into the open portholes, into the rooms of admirals and first class officers, into the past. I could visualize a sailor in his room – the rotary phone on the desk, the open dresser, the mirrored vanity cabinet above the sink – but a thick layer of sediment covered the floor and a fish swam casually in the cabin.
One can’t help but notice the remarkable juxtaposition between life and death. Home to a plethora of marine life, the USS Arizona has become a part of the natural ecosystem. Fish swam amongst the corals. A seahorse hung on to a sea cucumber for support. Sponges and feather duster worms lined most metal surfaces.
As we continued to make our way towards the bow of the ship, the forward guns from turret No. I began to materialize. Staring down the three 60-foot barrels as they disappeared back into the muddy water offered a glimpse of the formidable capability of these powerful machines. Further forward, the deck suddenly dropped out and the steel hull peeled back like a banana. Known as the blast peel, this was where the bomb pierced the battleship within the first few minutes of the surprise Japanese air raid. I couldn’t begin to imagine the devastating power it took to rip apart inches of solid steel like paper, but seeing the chasm in the body of the ship and the scattered shrapnel made the tragic events of December 7 more tangible.
Despite this, I came up from the dive renewed. I felt honored to have been given the opportunity to dive on such an important piece of American history and I was filled with a sense of excitement for the work week ahead.
Over the course of the week, I got to be a part of the large-scale collaborative research operation coordinated by Brett and Scott. Collectively, they brought together an extremely qualified international team of engineers and scientists and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment in an effort to learn more about the USS Arizona. With the goal of evaluating the condition of the shipwreck, the operation had several components.
Early in the week, eTrac Inc. came out to the memorial in order to map the exterior of the ship. Specializing in hydrographic surveys, Mike and Greg of eTrac Inc. brought out a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) with onboard multibeam and sidescan sonar systems to do the job. From land, Greg maneuvered the small inflatable catamaran with a remote controlled motor. Watching the live feed of the sonar data appear on his computer, Mike guided Greg as he made his passes over the shipwreck, making sure there were no sections of the vessel left unscanned. After post-processing the data, to account for wave action, wind speed, etc., the generated data will be compared to the data from a previous scan in order to see if there have been any major changes in exterior structure of the wreck. While, no visible structural collapses have occurred, the USS Arizona has a slight tilt to port and any change over the last few years could be calculated by comparing the data sets and would be pertinent to know for maintaining the structure and memorial.
Dave Conlin flew into town on Wednesday and brought with him two water quality sondes for some sampling both inside and outside the wreck. With significantly different conditions, such as decreased light levels and reduced water flow, the interior of the ship would be expected to have different water chemistry than the exterior of the ship. From this data, underwater archaeologists like Dave and Jess, could estimate the corrosion rate of the structure as a whole as well as note any differences between the interior and the exterior structures. This data is extremely important for the protection of this historic place and will provide information on how best to preserve it so that future generations can continue to visit and pay their respects.
However, in order to first get the sonde inside the ship, Dave enlisted the assistance of Amanda and Sam from Deep Trekker and their portable ROV. About the size of a basketball, Deep Trekker’s ROV could easily fit in some of the open hatches on the main deck. From the dock, Dave and I watched over Sam’s shoulder as she directed the ROV, equipped with a 270-degree camera, towards the shipwreck via a handheld remote control. After a few tries, she managed to maneuver the ROV and sonde down the hatch to the 3rd and a few meters into a passageway. The sonde was then left to collect data for a few days, along with the one on the exterior.
The next day, Scott brought USS Arizona survivor Don Stratton and his wife out to the memorial. He is one of the 5 living survivors remaining. Before he walked onto the memorial, he stopped and saluted his fallen crew. Then the crowd parted, let him pass, and erupted in applause. He continued making his way to the shrine room, stopping to salute the ship every few feet. When he entered the shrine room, the memorial fell silent. He scanned the wall of 1,177 names. These names meant more to him than to any of us in the room. They were his crew, his friends, his family.
When he stepped away, we escorted him back to the Ranger Room where he and his wife took a seat and talked for a bit with Brett and I. We talked about the weather, the flight, his kids and grandkids. I described how it felt to dive on his ship and he told me the story of how he survived, climbing hand over hand across a length of rope suspended over the fire to a nearby ship, his body covered in burns. Before he left, Brett explained to him the project the NPS was working on and invited him to come and watch when we were going to send the ROV into the USS Arizona. He was excited for the opportunity to get to see his ship again. As we shook hands, a solemn feeling of honor rushed over me as it finally set in who he was and what the USS Arizona and December 7 means to him. It was absolutely delightful to meet and talk with Don.
On Friday, the main attraction arrived to the dock. Specifically for this project, Brett had commissioned the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and Marine Imaging Technology (MITech) team of Evan, Marianne, Billy, and Mike to build a custom ROV to penetrate the USS Arizona. Previous expeditions into the battleship with ROVs had been limited because of the problem that arose from pulling a tether (the wires and cables required for operation) behind the ROV. Imagine walking around your house with the garden hose. Inevitably you have to yank on the hose because it gets caught on the corner of the house. Similar scenario here, other than the yanking can damage the tether and the shipwreck itself. To avoid this issue, the WHOI team designed the first ever self-spooling ROV – meaning an ROV that can carry its tether with it and drop it as it goes, much like a trail of breadcrumbs.
Unfortunately, during the in-water test, various technical difficulties presented themselves. Quick fixes on the deck would correct one problem but cause another. The cameras didn’t rotate, the lights didn’t turn on, the thruster wasn’t working, and the buoyancy was not quite right. Finally, after a few rebuilds and more in-water tests, it appeared that the WHOI team would be spending all night attempting to locate and fix the problem.
As you can see, the research operation was quite complex. To add icing to the cake, a production team from Story House Media Group was filming all of the week’s proceedings for a PBS documentary they will be producing for the 75th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor which will air on November 23.
Unfortunately, a Kelp Forest Monitoring cruise at Channel Islands National Park had to pull me away mid project. So I never got to see whether or not the ROV got up and running and if Don got to see his ship again. I guess I’ll just have to wait until the documentary comes out…
I would really like to thank my SRC family – Brett, Jess, and Dave – and Scott Pawlowski for diving with me and sharing with me your passion for the history of the USS Arizona. Thank you also to Brett’s wife, Elizabeth, and their kids, Chase and Cameron, for keeping me updated on all the Olympics happenings I missed while we were at work. And a big thank you to WHOI, eTrac, Deep Trekker, and Story House crews who welcomed my inquiries and got me involved in the entire production. This was truly a unique experience!