Thursday, December 6, 2001


Richard Fiske honors lost comrades every month by playing taps at the USS Arizona Memorial. The Honolulu resident was a 19-year-old bugler on the USS West Virginia when it was bombed and torpedoed.

Fading Voices

Six decades dilute the echoes
of infamy, but the harbor bears
witness to infinite sacrifice

By Christine Donnelly

Herb Weatherwax is 84 now, but all he has to do is close his eyes, and it's there: the USS Arizona ablaze at Pearl Harbor, planes destroyed on the runway at Wheeler Field, a Japanese aircraft "circling, circling, circling way up high," surveying the destruction.

"It is still so vivid in my mind. I remember it like it was yesterday," said Weatherwax, who witnessed history as he rode a bus on Dec. 7, 1941, from Honolulu back to his post at Schofield Barracks, where he was a 24-year-old private in the 298th Infantry.

"The bus went up Aiea Heights, and we could see Pearl Harbor from up there."

Though the memories remain strong, time is fading the voices of the men and women who witnessed the Japanese attack that killed 2,390 people on Oahu and plunged the United States into World War II. With many military Pearl Harbor survivors well into their 80s, historians say the 60th anniversary of the attack could mark the last, best chance to mark their achievements and sacrifices while some remain to hear the accolades.

The sunken remains of USS Arizona are illuminated by shafts of sunlight passing through the memorial structure just a few feet above. A veil of oil floats on the surface, rising from the ship a drop at a time, day after day, for 60 years.

"We have been lucky that so many of the witnesses have banded together in the (Pearl Harbor Survivors Association) to keep the memories alive. But time is catching up with the living legacy of the Pearl Harbor survivors," said Daniel Martinez, National Park Service historian at the USS Arizona Memorial.

Part of preserving the meaning of Pearl Harbor for future generations means collecting videotaped recollections from as many of the survivors as possible, he said.

Two teams in the field have already collected more than 400 oral histories, each about 50 minutes long. They hope to collect another 60 this month from military survivors in Hawaii for anniversary ceremonies. The material should be available to researchers starting in March, Martinez said.

"We've collected all this stuff and now we're organizing it. It's quite a task" but will prove essential to future generations, he said.

It is also important to the veterans themselves, who through their interviews help ensure an accurate accounting of events and help determine their own legacies.

{ 1 } A cooking pot rests in the USS Arizona's galley area, a reminder of the activity on board the ship that fateful morning. Underwater archaeologist Matt Russell of the National Park Service examines the pot.

When asked how they want to be remembered, many Pearl Harbor veterans mention their generation's loyalty, willingness to serve their country and ability to triumph over adversity.

And they worry that the events of 60 years ago have already faded too far into history for tomorrow's schoolchildren. Future generations will not fully understand America's history, ideals and promise if they fail to learn about the era, they say.

"We're dying. We're dying pretty fast now," said Weatherwax. "And when we're gone, I hope you'll remember that we served willingly, we fought willingly and we died willingly" to preserve freedom and democracy.

Richard Fiske, 79, who was aboard the USS West Virginia as a 19-year-old Marine private when the ship was bombed and torpedoed, hopes that World War II memorials in Hawaii and across the nation "last forever as reminders to the younger kids that war is hell, but you do what you have to do for your country. It's not glorious -- it's sheer hell -- but we did what we had to do."

Ray Emory, 80, historian for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which numbers about 7,000 members nationwide, said it will be up to others to continue the work important to veterans.

Visitors pose under 14-inch guns at the stern of the ship in this photo taken in the 1920s.

"Who will carry it on when we are gone?" asked Emory, noting concerns ranging from getting proper grave markers for all Dec. 7 casualties buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater to refurbishing the Arizona Memorial and adjacent museum.

Emory, who was serving on the USS Honolulu the day of the attack, has been especially disappointed that Hawaii's city and state governments have "done so little" over the years to honor Pearl Harbor survivors, leaving the work to the survivors themselves, the military and the National Park Service. "What's going to happen in 10 years when we're all gone? It's kind of sad."

As for the historical record, Emory said myths already abound, with errors contributed by survivors who "embellish their own stories," by sloppy historians and academics and by the popular media.

{ 2 } Never fired at the enemy, the 14-inch guns of the USS Arizona rest in the murky waters of Pearl Harbor. Much of Arizona was salvaged during World War II, but these guns were not discovered until 1983, when the National Park Service began analyzing the condition of the ship. The guns could rain 1,500-pound shells as far away as 20 miles.

"It bugs me because there's too many good, true stories to be told about Pearl Harbor. You don't have to make up any," said Emory, a stickler for detail legendary among military history buffs.

Although history "inevitably becomes more shallow" once events move beyond the realm of personal experience, in the case of Dec. 7, 1941, "we have a very dense history, an enormous amount of oral histories" that recount events in a way that "really can only be told by the people who were there," said Geoffrey White. White is an anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, a senior fellow at the East-West Center and a member of the board of directors of the Arizona Memorial Museum Association.

Historians will rely on that trove to "interpret and reinterpret Pearl Harbor forever as the United States and other countries think and rethink their histories," he said.

"It's sad to think that someday people who go out to the Arizona Memorial won't have that special experience of meeting a survivor," White said. "There are a dozen survivors who volunteer. Many visitors find that a very riveting aspect, not really expecting it. There's no replacing that, the chance to shake someone's hand and say 'Thank you.'"

Special thanks

The National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center and the USS Arizona Memorial Association graciously provided the underwater images and artifacts, respectively, that appear throughout this special section. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin is grateful for their assistance.

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