Submerged Cultural Resources Study:
USS Arizona and Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark
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Chapter V: USS Arizona: The Management Experience

Gary Cummins: The Project's Origins

When the National Park Service took over operation of the USS ARIZONA Memorial in late 1980, it was faced with two fundamental concerns: interpretation and management. The public was insatiably curious about the Pearl Harbor attack, but we lacked enough accurate information to satisfy this curiosity. We had wrongly assumed that the great volume of reports, surveys, eyewitness and historical accounts would enable us to answer all questions about the Pearl Harbor attack. But though we were able to handle most of the basic questions, the many gaps in the historic record left many others unanswered.

The second concern was resource management. Although the Navy actually owned the battleship USS ARIZONA, we found Navy officials relatively unconcerned about its preservation -- they had their hands full with floating ships. The public was concerned over the ARIZONA's up keep, and furthermore believed since the National Park Service operated the USS ARIZONA Memorial, it must own the battleship. In those early days the National Park Service had very little experience in preserving large, steel, sunken ships.

Another concern relating to interpretation was the view of the American people, who perceive the USS ARIZONA Memorial less as a historic site than as a shrine similar to the Alamo or the Custer Battlefield. This pervasive view made it difficult for park interpreters to separate myth from fact, and made it especially important that all interpretive information be absolutely accurate.

After a period of time, we were able to develop an interpretive program that combined verbal presentations, a documentary film and eyewitness accounts by survivors of the attack, which answered most visitor questions. Exceptions were the many questions about the ship itself, mostly variations of "what does it look like?"

During the 40th anniversary celebration of Pearl Harbor held in Honolulu in 1981, we had an opportunity to talk with several former crew members of the USS ARIZONA and the repair ship USS VESTAL, which had been moored alongside the ARIZONA during the attack. Several told of seeing torpedo tracks streaking toward the ships, running under the VESTAL and striking the ARIZONA near the bow. These accounts were at odds with official Navy records, which attributed all of the ARIZONA's damage to aerial bombs.

The alleged torpedo tracks could have come from either torpedoes dropped by the Japanese Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo-bombers, or launched from the two midget submarines that penetrated the harbor during the raid. It was an interesting issue that we lacked evidence to resolve.

I began to discuss the possibility of an underwater survey of the ARIZONA with Rear Admiral Stanley Anderson, Commander Naval of the Pearl Harbor Navy Base (COMNAVBASE) and his staff. COMNAVBASE controlled the waters of Pearl Harbor, so its permission was necessary for any work there. Admiral Anderson seemed amenable, but members of his staff were aghast.

The COMNAVBASE staff, like many other Navy officers, could not understand why we would want to investigate something about which "everything was known." When we told them the things we didn't know, such as the torpedo issue, general condition of the ship, and exact location of other damage, they were still puzzled. At issue was the basic difference between the Navy's mission and methods and our own. The Navy is used to operating in a atmosphere of security that insulates much of its activity from public scrutiny, while the National Park Service seems to operate under a microscope. The Navy felt that the public had no business asking such questions, and that we could simply refuse to answer them. "Why not leave well enough alone?" was the standard response.

Finally, Navy officials were worried about the sanctity of the site. More than 1,100 sailors and marines had gone down with the ship. The idea of conducting a survey amid their remains was repugnant. One officer -- who later strongly supported the survey -- warned that "poisonous gases" trapped within the ship, possibly from the decomposing bodies of the dead crew, would have lethal effects on trespassing divers. I recognized that I had to do more homework in order to present a proposal that would satisfy Navy concerns.

We decided on an interim approach. When a new commander, Rear Admiral Conrad J. Rorie, relieved Admiral Anderson, I requested permission for Park Service divers to sweep the ARIZONA to remove the thousands of coins visitors had tossed from the memorial over the years. These coins formed an inches-deep carpet covering the ship, clearly visible from the memorial. I appealed to the Navy sense of order by pointing out that the appearance was unseemly. I added that coins containing copper tend to kill marine organisms that cover the ship with a protective coral glaze. COMNAVBASE agreed with this view, and we began "clean up" dives in early 1983.

I made the first surface dives on the ARIZONA, accompanied by Chief Ranger John Martini. Using masks, fins and snorkels, we loaded many pounds of coins into plastic buckets hung from the memorial for subsequent disposal. These coins, incidentally, became a major issue. Technically they were accountable federal property. However, when we tried to deposit the coins, banks refused to accept them. We approached the Treasury Department for advice but it never responded. As time went on we accumulated thousands of coins from all over the world, which we diligently stored in bags in the basement of the USS ARIZONA Memorial visitor center.

While gathering coins, Martini and I took the opportunity to swim over the entire ship to get an idea of its appearance and condition. The presence of silt and oil leaking from the ARIZONA's wreckage made it obvious that surface diving would not be adequate for our needs. Toward the bow, once past the remains of the superstructure and crew's galley, we could make out no more than a ghostly outline of the hull and the two main forward gun turrets. Toward the stern, in shallower water, we could brush aside silt and find the teak decking in good condition after more than 40 years.

Although the surface dives were inadequate for our needs, they did provide useful information from which to develop a broad research design for an underwater project. From the beginning I wanted to treat the ARIZONA as an archeological site, and to use archeological methodology to get at the information we needed for management needs and decisions.

In August 1982 Dan Lenihan, Chief of the National Park Service's Submerged Cultural Resources Unit in Santa Fe, visited the Arizona Memorial. It didn't take much persuasion to get him into the water on another coin expedition. After Dan's introduction to the USS ARIZONA, the concept of an underwater archeological project really began to take shape.

Dan's concept was to use terrestrial archeological methodology underwater to recover data that would meet the park's management needs and advance the science of underwater archeology. In formulating this concept, I gave Dan a list of management issues lacking data. He then developed a strategy that would meet the most rigorous archeological standards while providing the park with the needed information.

The list that I passed to Dan was as follows:

1. Overall ship condition: What does the ship look like?

a. Battle Damage: Was the ARIZONA hit by a torpedo? If so, where? Locate bomb damage sites.

b. Overall Integrity: How is the hull and decking holding up? Chart points of specific deterioration.

c. Locate specific points where oil is leaking from the ship.

d. Develop an archeological base map of the ship from which an interpretive scale model of the ARIZONA's wreckage could be manufactured.

2. Ordnance: Is there any Japanese or American unexploded ordnance on or near the ARIZONA?

To answer the Navy's (and the public's) concerns about the sanctity of the ARIZONA, we agreed that under no condition would divers enter the hull. Thus we could reassure everyone that the remains of more than 1,100 sailors and marines would rest undisturbed.

Dan also recommended that the survey be conducted over a two-year period, with the first year devoted to approximately two weeks of initial survey that would concentrate on the ARIZONA's bow section. This would permit a better estimate of the manpower, time and money needed to carry out the entire project.

When we took the refined proposal to Admiral Rorie at COMNAVBASE, we were much better received. No problems had occurred with our coin-recovery dives. Admiral Rorie and his staff were impressed with Dan Lenihan's credentials and overall approach to the project. In fact, COMNAVBASE asked us to help find a solution to its own USS ARIZONA problem!

During the 1942 salvage operation, the Navy had cut away structure from the ARIZONA and stored the pieces at a remote location within the base. Over the years, entrepreneurs had made several attempts to obtain fragments of the ship for such uses as manufacturing religious items for the tourist market. The fragments were too badly cut up and corroded for use in the visitor center museum. COMNAVBASE decided the safest course was to remove the several tons of steel from the storage site, barge them to a point near the memorial and "bury them at sea." Admiral Rorie asked if we could map a spot as near as possible to the ship where the scrap could be dumped. In return, he offered us the support of Pearl Harbor's Mobile Dive and Salvage Unit One, complete with a sizeable dive boat! We promptly agreed, and we added location of a suitable site for the ARIZONA wreckage to our list of project goals.

The Arizona Memorial Museum Association, the USS Arizona Memorial's cooperating association, agreed to underwrite the entire cost of the project, with assistance from Carol Lim, the Arizona Memorial food concessioner. Finally in the early fall of 1983 we were ready to begin a project that would provide information for our two fundamental concerns -- interpretation and resource management, while addressing our "shrine" concern by not violating the sanctity of the last resting place of the ARIZONA's crew. The rest, as they say, is history.

Last Updated: 27-Apr-2001