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Big guns

Agriculture.com Staff 01/07/2008 @ 7:16am

As a schoolboy, I was told that the USS Arizona, which has rested at the bottom of Pearl Harbor since December 7, 1941, continues to leak a quart or so of fuel oil each day.

Four decades later I finally got the chance to verify this phenomenon for myself.

The Arizona Memorial and Museum is run by the National Park Service, and admission is free. So is the ferry ride out to the memorial, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Prior to the ferry ride, visitors are shown a film recounting world events that preceded the Japanese attack on Oahu and the calamities that ensued on that day of infamy.

The narrator told how Japan had invaded China in the late 1930s, causing the U.S. to retaliate by cutting off oil exports to Japan. If it hoped to save face, The Land of the Rising Sun had no choice but to attack the United States. December 7 was a surprise, albeit an inevitable one.

After the film ended the audience filed quietly out to the waiting ferry. We were asked to bear in mind that we were about to visit a mass burial site where 1,177 of the Arizona's crew lay in a watery grave.

The crowd was appropriately reverential as we entered the memorial. At a side window I gazed down at the swells that gently wash over the Arizona. In a moment or so, a pencil eraser-sized black blob floated to the surface and blossomed into a rainbow. The sheen lingered for a few seconds, then dissipated.

A park ranger was answering questions near the center of the memorial. Somebody asked if a remote camera had ever been lowered into the Arizona.

The ranger said that this had indeed been done. It was sent to a place where they knew someone had been, namely, the admiral's quarters. He said that things looked fairly normal except for the admiral's wedding ring embedded in a wall.

Gives you an idea of the power unleashed inside the Arizona when that 1,800 pound bomb tore through the her decks and detonated her ammunition magazine.

Parked nose-to-nose with the Arizona is another super-dreadnought, the USS Missouri. Together, these ships bracket the beginning and the end of World War II.

I had to visit the Missouri, and not just because I've always wanted to do such a thing. It was also because my dad spent a good deal of the second World War aboard a similar vessel, the USS Washington.

It was awe-inspiring to stroll beneath those 16-inch guns and imagine what it must have been like when all nine of them were touched off at once. A brass plate on a turret said that those guns could hurl a 2,700 pound armor piercing projectile 23 miles -- a projectile capable of penetrating some 32 feet of reinforced concrete!

A deep sense of history overtook me as I stood on the exact spot where surrender documents were signed, bringing an end to that terrible war.

I went below to get an idea of what life was like there. A confusing snarl of cables and pipes ran along the ceiling and an oily smell filled the air. The ship was big, but it was hard to imagine that 2,000 souls could fit aboard her -- that is, until I saw the crew quarters, where six men slept in a space not much bigger than a phone booth.

After going every place I was allowed, I found my wife chatting with a little old lady from New Jersey.

The little old lady told my wife that she had an uncle who was stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was attending church services when the bombs began to fall and survived by staying put and praying until the attack was over.

"I was just 16 when the war broke out," she said. Tears began to roll down her wrinkled cheeks as she continued. "I had a boyfriend who joined the Navy shortly after December 7. One day, out of the blue, I got a letter from the War Department informing me that he had been lost at sea. I later learned that he had been blown off his ship when it was struck by a kamikaze plane."

At lunchtime, my wife and I went to a nearby diner. While there, we overheard a former Marine say of the Missouri, "She fired over the top of us at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Finally walking her decks completes a big circle for me!"

Fewer and fewer of these stories are told each day as more and more of the old veterans pass from the scene. Meanwhile, the Arizona continues to release one rainbow after another, slowly counting off the seconds into eternity.

As a schoolboy, I was told that the USS Arizona, which has rested at the bottom of Pearl Harbor since December 7, 1941, continues to leak a quart or so of fuel oil each day.

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