Day Trip of Infamy

I grew up near a bit of World War II history. In 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced and shelled an oil facility about 15 miles from Santa Barbara. There was some damage but no casualties. The jubilant sub commander radioed back “West coast in flames!” before fleeing.

Good for him. In the hell of war, playful hijinks like this should be encouraged. Alas, the event gets little, if any, mention in most history books. When I visited the site of the attack, there wasn’t so much as a commemorative plaque. This was the first Axis attack on the US mainland but because of its ineffectiveness, it registered nary a blip on the infamy meter and Pearl Harbor’s star billing went unchallenged.

So when I was in Hawaii, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I got on the bus that went from Waikiki to the memorial. It was a fairly long ride so I amused myself by staring out the window or reading the sign reminding passengers that defecation and urination are forbidden on all transit vehicles. Who knew?

With a potential terrorist threat existing pretty much everywhere these days, I had to check my backpack prior to admission. There was a two-hour wait before I could get to the Arizona so I went on a tour of the USS Bowfin, a WWII submarine.

Launched on the one-year anniversary of the attack and touted as the “Pearl Harbor Avenger,” the Bowfin lived up to its promise. It sank over a dozen enemy vessels during the war. Unfortunately, one of these happened to be passenger ship full of schoolchildren. To be fair though, the kids were being evacuated to Nagasaki so it’s not like they were destined for longevity anyway.

The tour itself was quite edifying. Actually being inside the sub gave me a feel for how cramped it must have been for the sailors and thanks to the abundance of other tourists, also how crowded. As I moved through the interior of the vessel, the audio-tour filled my ears with informative commentary from Bowfin veterans and enough “owooga” dive sirens to give the presentation that extra pizazz.

After touring the submarine and its adjacent museum, it was time to head back to the Arizona. Before heading out the memorial proper, we were herded into a theater to watch a short introductory film. The movie was pretty good. It described the history of the USS Arizona, it crew, and how it was sunk. It also told of the situation in the Pacific before the attack and why the Japanese did what they did.

For those of you who are wondering, it wasn’t because they “hated our freedom (and comparative lack of overbite).” It was largely because of oil. We wouldn’t give them any of ours because we thought they were acting like assholes, which they were. The Japanese figured that if they crippled our Pacific fleet, they would be able to secure their empire, including petroleum fields in Indonesia, unmolested. A bloody-nosed America wouldn’t be up for engaging them in a long-term war. We all know how well that line of reasoning worked for them.

After the film, we loaded a boat crewed by two naval petty officers and rode out to the memorial, which sits perpendicular astride the Arizona’s sunken hull. It is a solemn place and visitors are expected to behave accordingly. Comments like “The should have called it the USS Vasectomy Cock because it’s full of dead seamen” do not go over well.

On the far wall of the structure are the names of the 1,177 who perished. Staring at the list, I found myself curious about who they were, what they doing before the war, and what they would have done with their lives if they had not been killed. I didn’t think about the infamy, only the dead sailors.

Thinking about the loss of life brought on by war almost made a pacifist of me, but knowing what I do of human nature kept such a silly notion from taking hold. Lay down your swords at your peril, for there will never be a shortage of people and nations willing to take what they want by force. At least that’s what the hawkish side of myself was saying.

Truth be told, I don’t know if the Arizona is meant to impart any wisdom to visitors other than “they served, they died, shut up and appreciate that.”