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Bookends of war, with volumes of destruction in between

A stop at Pearl Harbor. A visit to Hiroshima.

ERIC MOTENSON June 2, 2024  || SUBSTACK

The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, straddles the ghostly wreckage of the battleship sunk in Japan’s attack on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack brought America fully into World War II. The “Atomic Bomb Dome” in Hiroshima is the shell of the building that withstood the world’s first use of a nuclear weapon, dropped from a B-29 bomber on Aug. 6, 1945. Much of the rest of the city was destroyed in the blast, which killed up to 140,000 people. A second atomic bomb three days later similarly flattened Nagasaki and killed about 80,000 more, forcing Japan’s surrender and ending the war.

The National Park Service guide was pretty stern about it. He said the USS Arizona is a national cemetery, and we ought to behave like we would at Arlington Cemetery or at Gettysburg. Don’t be acting like a jackass, is what he meant, although he didn’t use those words.

People were quiet on the shuttle boat out to the memorial. The guide had told us that the sailors taking us out, two per boat, were specially selected for Arizona duty. The two women who took us out — one black and one white, it seems important to note, and both crisp sailors — worked as an efficient team. All business and good at it.

The black woman operated the shuttle boat, gunning the engine and bringing us alongside the memorial’s entry about as slick and sure as you can do it. The white woman tied up the boat.

If you have some question about the people serving this country in the military, go see them up close. You’ll find they’re impressive people; that’s been my experience. I thought about telling the sailors that two of my brothers and our dad served in the Navy, and that my family members would be happy and proud to see how well the women were doing their jobs. I didn’t say anything, though, because it didn’t seem the place for small talk.

When the willowy woman started planning a trip to Japan — to Kyoto, mostly — I asked that she add side trips to Pearl Harbor and then to Hiroshima, too, and she did. I probably would have been a history teacher if I hadn’t found journalism, and although I’ve been to Hawaii multiple times, I’d never seen the USS Arizona or been aboard the USS Missouri, where the Japanese surrender took place.

As for Hiroshima, I told her I just felt, as an American, that I had an obligation to visit and to pay my respects to them, too. All those people we killed.

People heeded the park service guide at the Arizona Memorial. The ride out and walk within were somber ventures.

The attack killed 1,177 sailors and Marines aboard the battleship. It sank within minutes when a bomb penetrated multiple decks to a gunpowder storage area and touched off a massive explosion that killed almost everyone aboard. The dead remain within her; it’s for the living to mourn. Eerily, fuel oil still seeps from the wreckage 82 years later. People call it the “black tears” of the Arizona.

The last of the 334 Arizona survivors died a couple years ago. A park service guide said 44 of the survivors later chose to rejoin their shipmates and had their cremains delivered to the ship by divers. The divers place the cremation urns in the barbette of Gun Turret Four. The barbette is an armored cylinder that extends down several decks and supported the rotating turret.

The thought of that was like a gut punch. Imagine such an emotional draw, to be called back to that cemetery under the sea. To rejoin the crew. May they all find peace.

Then it was on to the “Mighty Mo,” the USS Missouri, the last U.S. battleship built and now a sort of floating museum at Pearl Harbor.

Those fearsome guns could hit targets 20 miles away with shells about the same weight of a VW Beetle. That kind of firepower is completely antiquated now in the age of drones and missiles, of course. Photos of the Japanese surrender aboard the ship show it was the kind of formal, dignified affair that also seems out of place today, with dignitaries in top hats literally signing documents that laid out the terms. Today we’d probably just go for destruction.

The Missouri tour is worth taking, a walk through crew bunks, offices, work areas of all kinds, cramped and crowded. Up top on the teak wood deck is a plaque marking the spot where the surrender ceremony took place.

A tour guide pointed out the spot where a Japanese kamikaze plane struck the Missouri in April 1945, starting a fire that was quickly put out. The bomb aboard the plane didn’t explode, so the damage was limited. Sailors found the 19-year-old pilot’s body and the captain ordered a burial at sea, complete with honor guard. Photos of the ceremony are displayed on board, and someone dug up family photos of the pilot, too.

I thought about the respectful formality of that, the humanity — honoring a worthy foe who had chosen to die for his country, and all. I wonder if the Missouri’s captain and crew would have been so solicitous if the kamikaze had hurt anyone or caused major damage. Maybe they would have just shoved the wreckage and the body into the sea without a second thought. Idle thought; no way to know.

Other photos on board show the surrender ceremony. What struck me was the way sailors and officers crammed every space above and around, watching the officials signing the documents. This wasn’t a jeering, cursing crowd like you might get now. There was a dignity to it. The men recognized it was a major moment in history and they were part of it. The war was over.

I’d like to leave Pearl Harbor with one more image. The USS Missouri, a tour guide pointed out, is anchored in a way that it looks out upon the USS Arizona Memorial. The Missouri stands eternal guard over its fallen sister ship, the guide said.

Japan, and Hiroshima, was an eight-hour flight away from Honolulu and Pearl Harbor. For me, wanting to visit Hiroshima wasn’t some “apology tour” like the trumpian right wingers like to sneer. But as I said, I did feel an obligation, as an American, to pay my respects there. We are the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in war, and we used them to flatten two cities and kill just about everyone in them.

I’m familiar with the arguments over whether we should have dropped atomic weapons on Japan. My own sense is that the military and President Truman believed it was the best option. Invading the main islands of Japan, including Honshu, where the capital Tokyo is located, would have resulted in a bloodbath. Tens of thousands of allied troops most likely would have died, in addition to Japanese forces and civilians. Give up, we told Japan’s leaders, or face “prompt and utter destruction.” The demand for surrender was ignored. Boom. Give up. Boom. Give up, for God’s sake.

Then, surrender aboard the Missouri and peace, at long last. And an awareness among the nations of the world that mutual annihilation lies down the road of nuclear war, although we prepare for it just the same.

Our hotel in Hiroshima was within an easy walk of the city’s peace park, where the Genbaku Dome, Japanese for “Atomic Bomb Dome,” sits in silent reminder.

The dome in August 1945 was a mundane government building, used over the years to exhibit and promote products made in the prefecture. The building shell survived because the bomb exploded almost directly overhead, and the dome was spared the worst of the horizontal blast wave that flattened nearly every other structure in the city. The people inside the building and thousands of others were incinerated, or died of hideous burns or radiation sickness in the months that followed.

The park built around the dome is a place of understated beauty and peace, planted with rose bushes from many other nations. Everywhere we turned were school groups on field trips, boys in white shirts and dark blue pants, girls in white blouses and dark blue skirts.

I was pleased to see the kids. Surely this is ancient history to them, because of the way young people view time. I don’t know how the destruction is taught in Japan’s schools.

I don’t know if the kids shrug. I don’t know if the gravity of it settles upon them as they walk the grounds. They are young, they live in a nation that pulses with accomplishment, a nation that somehow blends technology, courteous order, centuries-old tradition and modern whimsy. Blends them easily, blends them with grace and reverence and with a twinkle in the eye.

I don’t know what I expected to learn at Hiroshima. There was no jump to insight or outrage or even an ah-ha moment demanding to be absorbed. Instead, the lesson was subtle, even gentle: “Know this. Know our loss. Remember us.”

We kept hearing an intermittent gong sound as we walked the grounds of the Genbaku Dome. In a clearing, we came across it — a peace bell with a swinging hammer that anyone could ring. One by one, people stepped up to do so.

I took a turn and gave the bell a solid strike. I said a prayer, a hope, a wish, for the people of Hiroshima, Ukraine, Israel and Gaza.

It occurred to me that we’d seen the USS Arizona’s bell, recovered from the wreckage and displayed at Pearl Harbor. Now here was a bell for Hiroshima. First bell to final bell. Know this. Know our loss. Remember us.

Eric Mortenson is a Pacific Northwest writer who worked 37 wondrous years as a reporter at Oregon newspapers. I write about Oregon, family, journalism, politics, pets, bad golf, gardening, cooking and running.
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