December 7, 1941: The day that will live in infamy, the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. That day during the bombing, 2,390 were killed and 12 American ships sank. All but three of the ships that sank were recovered and returned to duty. The USS Arizona and the USS Utah rest where they fell, and are still submerged in Pearl Harbor. The USS Oklahoma sank offshore in the Pacific in an attempt to tow it to California to be salvaged for parts.
Now, the National Park Service works with the United States Navy in order pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the attack and to teach others about this important period in time that brought America into World War II, led to more death, and eventually, to victory. The USS Arizona memorial was constructed in 1961 to honor those who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, including the 1,777 crewmen lost from the USS Arizona. It serves as a symbol of remembrance to the ultimate sacrifice those brave men made for our country’s freedom. Today, the National Park Service conducts about fifty research and cultural dives a year to monitor and maintain these sunken ships.
The dive program here is much different from other diving programs in the National Park Service because of the direct relationship between the NPS and the Navy and also because the diving takes place on war graves. These are sacred sites that require respect and reverence. Also, since the USS Arizona is property of the US Navy, it alters the logistics of the diving done there. The National Park Service must inform and seek approval for all diving operations they conduct to make sure they do not interfere with anything the Navy has planned.
While I was visiting this park, I helped write up a dive plan to be approved by the superintendant of the Memorial and by the Navy. It included information such as the number of divers, emergency contacts, safety plans, and dive times, profiles, and objectives. Also, since the dive program here has recently experienced turnover of some important staff, I used the guidelines stated in the official National Park Service Diving Manual to draft an outline for hiring new National Park Service scuba divers onto a dive team.
After getting familiar with the administrative and planning projects, I helped gather our gear to prepare for our dive the next day. The divers at this park use full face masks, similar to the ones used by the underwater naturalists at the Channel Islands National Park during their Live Dive programs. However, at this park they are used for safety purposes due to low visibility and other hazards. With the masks, divers can communicate with each other and someone stationed at the surface during the dive.
My first dive was on the USS Utah. In 1944 after several attempts to raise the ship had failed, the Navy decided to leave it where it sank with the 58 bodies of the crewmen still inside. To this day, it remains on its side just off of the north end of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. Right before we got into the water that day a large ship on the dock next to the Utah was launched. It stirred up the water significantly so during the dive I followed volunteer diver, Mike Freeman, very closely as we were working in about 5 feet of visibility. The goal of this dive was to clean up buoy lines and to check and inventory the urns. Survivors of the bombings who were members of the crew on the USS Utah or the USS Arizona on December 7th, 1941 are given the right to have their ashes placed in the hull of their ship after they pass. The dive was truly a unique experience that evoked sadness for those who lost their lives, but I just wish I could have focused on more of the ship, instead of not losing my buddy in the silt.
Later that day I managed to get the chance to ride along on a Navy tug boat. It was admirable to see the organization and leadership of the crew on the ship and the tugboat drivers. Everyone worked together to get the huge ships moving gracefully in and out of tight spots on the dock. One boat was even parked right alongside another boat. I was quite impressed.
That weekend during my off time, I went snorkeling around the island and did a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. The USS Arizona Memorial is a frequently visited site with more than 1.4 million people from around the world coming to pay tribute each year.
On Monday, a Lieutenant that I met on the tug boat gave me a tour of the USS La Jolla, which is an active Navy nuclear submarine. It was neat to see the inside of the sub and I was amazed at the amount of equipment and people they can fit into such tight quarters. I love being underwater, but can’t imagine diving down in a space that tight for up to three months with no windows. Those who manage to do so certainly have a lot of courage and mental strength.
After that, I got the opportunity to ride in a boat with two Navy photographers to watch the aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan, come into Pearl Harbor. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that truly made me feel proud to be an American. Sailors dressed in their traditional white uniforms lined the deck, saluting as they came in while helicopters circled above and tugs surrounded the massive ship. Being on the water in the middle of it all with the USS Arizona in view was quite a sight that I will remember for the rest of my life.
The next day I dove the USS Arizona. The memorial above the ship is reserved for quiet contemplation out of respect for those who died for America. Diving the Arizona makes for a different kind of dive because it is in a sacred and public place so it is essential to not disturb or take away from the visitor’s experience. Our goal for the dive was to clean the buoys and their lines of marine growth in addition to picking up items the visitors dropped from the Memorial. We pulled up to the far end of the dock in a navy boat and quietly assembled our gear before rolling in. Coming up to the surface after the dive, I was speechless. I am still at a loss for words to describe the power of emotion that I felt on such a historically important site that serves as the final resting place for so many men. However, I will try to describe my experience the best I can. It definitely gave me chills to go underwater and see what remained of the ship in the warm Hawaiian waters. I could not stop thinking about the young men whose names are engraved on white marble just above me in the memorial—those aboard the ship who had so much life ahead of them, who had it taken away so early. I thought of all those who have fought and died in or lived through wars and what they endured. It was an especially powerful experience after working on a military base for the past week, gaining respect for how the Navy operates in order to keep our country safe. It was an incredibly eerie feeling to shine my light through an open porthole and see the remnants of ordinary, everyday things, such as a light bulb, for example. It made their lives so real to see it, imagining how they served together, walked on the wooden deck, laughed, and bonded. It made me think of a different era, of how things were then and how my grandparents lived. It also made me proud to be an American and gave me a strong desire to live my life to the fullest in order to give back as much as I can to my country and the world in a positive way.
All and all, while working with the National Park Service at the USS Arizona Memorial I was fortunate enough to have gained memories that will hold high honors with me until the day I die. It is with my deepest gratitude that I thank all of those who served and died for the freedom of our country, the NPS dive team Scott Pawlowski and Mike Freeman, the United States Navy, Lieutenant McKethan, Arthur Kropp, William M. Billups, and all of those who made this internship and these experiences possible for me.