Submerged Cultural Resources Study:
USS Arizona and Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark
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Chapter VI: SIGNIFICANCE: Memorials, Myths And Symbols

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan . . . The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost . . . Always we will remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory . . .

(Franklin Delano Roosevelt December 8, 1941)

The underwater survey of the Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark mapped and photodocumented the USS ARIZONA and the USS UTAH. The survey team also searched for a Japanese midget submarine sunk by the USS WARD in the defensive zone, Japanese aircraft, and parts from American vessels damaged or sunk on December 7, 1941. The scientific recordation of these war remains, while fulfilling a management need, also allowed archeologists to compare the physical aftermath of one of the most dramatic events in 20th-century American history to the historical record. The fabric of history could be viewed against the back drop of contemporary perceptions and now-fading memories of the "day of infamy."

While the archeological evaluation of the Pearl Harbor attack fascinates many Americans, it is the event itself that so ingrained itself in the nation's consciousness. Pearl Harbor, particularly the USS ARIZONA, has became a national shrine. Pearl Harbor and every trace of the American forces that defended it are now imbued with an almost religious significance. As such, the ARIZONA and the UTAH, along with pieces of other battleships are relics of considerable cultural value, while artifacts associated with the attacker have their own special emotional impact for citizens of both nations. The conclusion of the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941 left behind a range of traces, artifacts and relics that form the most significant site associated with the Second World War in the United States. Pearl Harbor is one of the most emotion-laden and important war sites in the world for two generations of Americans and Japanese.

The late Gordon W. Prange, assessing the impact of Pearl Harbor, notes, "Not all the tragedy . . . could be measured in terms of lost men, ships and aircraft, nor all its glory in terms of courage, unity and the seizing of a new day. With the events of December 7, 1941, something happened to the American spirit. The flames of Pearl Harbor burned away a certain national innocence" (Prange 1986:604-605). Prange believed that Pearl Harbor's primary value lay in warning future generations about being caught unprepared and by surprise. For many visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial, the memorial is a "silent protest against smugness and unpreparedness" (Prange 1986:598).

Although cultural values are diverse and often intensely personal, certain sites carry obvious transcendent values. Decades of increasing tensions between the United States and Japan erupted in the attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The attack, a tactical coup for the Japanese, followed their longstanding tradition of surprise attack. To many Americans, the surprise and shock of suddenly being plunged into a world war after two decades of isolationism was a brutal awakening. It was attended by horror at American unpreparedness, the near destruction of the battleships of the Pacific Fleet, and the death of thousands of servicemen and civilians. Almost any American not an infant on December 7, 1941 remembers with clarity where they were and what they were doing when the news of the attack was flashed to an unsuspecting nation. Shock turned to indignation, then rage, and finally a steely determination to wage total war. The slogan was 'Remember Pearl Harbor!"

The United States Naval Base, Pearl Harbor, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 because of its role in American expansion into the Pacific. Although still an active naval base, the harbor is prominent because the United States recognizes the importance of those historic events. The attack of December 7, 1941 was one aspect of the base's history and significance. In 1978 further study of the Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark indicated that specific aspects of the attack deserved additional attention and designation, and a number of nearby sites including Wheeler, Kaneohe and Hickam Field were designated National Historic Landmarks on the basis of their roles on December 7, 1941. These designations were part of a larger study of sites associated with the War in the Pacific specially requested by Congress and prepared by Historian Erwin Thompson. As part of that study, a number of vessels that served in the War in the Pacific were separately evaluated by National Park Service historian Harry A. Butowsky. Butowsky's "warship" study identified more than 25 vessels, including aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and submarines. On January 22, 1984, 21 of those vessels were designated as National Historic Landmarks, including the submarine USS BOWFIN, on display at Pearl Harbor (Butowsky 1985).

No vessel present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 became a National Historic Landmark until recently. Of 97 U.S. vessels present at Pearl Harbor, and of the 31 Japanese vessels deployed in the "Hawaii Operation," only two American and two Japanese vessels are known to survive. The United States Coast Guard cutter TANEY is now a museum ship in Baltimore, Maryland; the only surviving U.S. Naval vessel left afloat is the former yard tug HOGA (YT-146), now the fireboat CITY OF OAKLAND, in Oakland, California; and two Japanese midget submarines lost during the attack. HA. 19, a midget submarine that washed ashore at Bellows Point on December 8, 1941, was exhibited in Key West, Florida, after the war. Another midget, discovered sunk in 1960, was raised and returned to Japan. It is a memorial on display at the Japanese Naval Academy at Eta Jima.

Of the other vessels present that day, all were removed except two: the USS ARIZONA and the USS UTAH. Some of these vessels exist as shipwrecks elsewhere. Of these, only the wreck of the USS PENNSYLVANIA -- the ARIZONA'S sister-ship and the flagship of the Pacific Fleet, which was slightly damaged in drydock at Pearl Harbor -- lies in deep waters off Kwajalein, where it was sunk after postwar weapons tests. TANEY was designated a National Historic Landmark on January 27, 1988. HOGA and HA. 19 were assessed in late 1988 and designated NHLs on June 30, 1989. Another Japanese midget submarine may have been located in 1988 during the NPS/Navy submerged cultural resources survey.

The sunken hulks of the USS ARIZONA and the USS UTAH were merely mentioned in the initial National Historic Landmark documentation of Pearl Harbor. The 1978 NHL reassessment determined that the two vessels, as well as their memorials, were contributing elements to the NHL. The two hulks were not assessed or documented under the criteria of the National Historic Landmarks program until 1988, following five years of archaeological documentation. Substantially intact, the USS ARIZONA and the USS UTAH were nominated on July 9, 1988 as properties of exceptional national significance worthy of individual designation as National Historical Landmarks. On October 24, 1988, the National Park System Advisory Board, meeting in New Orleans, reviewed the studies and formally recommended them to the Secretary of the Interior for NHL designation. Both the USS ARIZONA and the USS UTAH were designated National Historic Landmarks by Secretary of the Interior Manual P. Lujan on May 5, 1989.

The Secretary's designation recognized the ARIZONA's exceptional national importance, both as a historical property and as a national shrine. The battle-scarred remains of the submerged battleship are the focal point of a memorial erected by the people of the United States to honor all American servicemen killed on December 7, 1941. The ARIZONA's burning superstructure and listing foremast, photographed in the aftermath of the attack epitomized to the nation the words "Remember Pearl Harbor," and is one of the best-known images of the Second World War in the Pacific. One war poster graphically presented the image of the shattered, burning ARIZONA, exhorting viewers to "Avenge December 7" while a seaman shook an angry fist (Figure 6.1).

war poster
Figure 6.1. This war poster illustrates the role of Pearl Harbor as a national symbol used in accelerating the war effort.
(NPS photo)

The USS ARIZONA and the Arizona Memorial have become a major shrine and point of remembrance not only for the lost battleship but also for the entire attack. The explosion that destroyed the ARIZONA shook the harbor, blew debris and parts of bodies for thousands of feet. It was the central event of the attack and remains central in the reminiscences of most survivors. Indelibly impressed into the national memory, the ARIZONA is visited by millions who quietly file through, toss flower wreaths and leis into the water, look at the rusting hulk through the oil-stained water, and read the names of the dead carved on the marble plaque attached to the memorial's walls. Perhaps more important than the modern memorial that straddles ARIZONA is the battleship itself, which is the ultimate shrine. Resting in the silt of Pearl Harbor, the USS ARIZONA is a naval memorial and a war grave. It was the scene of tragedy, triumph and heroism. The wrecked ARIZONA is also a crystallized moment in time, its death wounds visible and still bleeding oil, the intact hull holding most of the crew.

The wreck now serves as a "temporal touchstone," drawing visitors who reflect on the tragedy of the Pearl Harbor attack: the loss of many of the ARIZONA's crew and more than a thousand other Americans on December 7, 1941, and the heroism of those who died defending their country. Among the honors awarded to Pearl Harbor survivors and victims were sixteen Medals of Honor, 48 Navy Crosses, 7 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Army Distinguished Service Medal, 1 Navy Distinguished Service Medal, 3 Legions of Merit, and hundreds of commendations (Ross and Ross 1988).

The other victim of the attack still left at Pearl Harbor, the USS UTAH, was also designated a National Historic Landmark. Less known than the ARIZONA, the UTAH has been called the "forgotten victim" of Pearl Harbor. The UTAH was not an intended target of the Japanese, and the mythology is incorrect that says the former battleship turned target ship was sunk after a mistaken identification as an aircraft carrier. The UTAH did not explode dramatically. Torpedoed, it capsized, killing 64 of its crew. Chief Watertender Peter Tomich stayed at his post and helped save other men's lives by laying down his own, posthumously winning the Medal of Honor. After unsuccessful attempts at salvage, the outdated target ship was left as a tomb for 58 members of its crew behind Ford Island. Neglected, the UTAH was recognized with its own memorial in 1971. Although its sinking did not capture the public imagination like the ARIZONA, the target ship was by far the more historically significant at the time of sinking.

The UTAH's career as both a battleship and target ship spanned three decades and included nationally significant service with international implications. The UTAH was the primary U.S. warship involved in the American landings at Vera Cruz, Mexico in 1914 and participated in the First World War. Its alteration from battleship to target ship because of conditions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was part of a program that had considerable impact on the U.S. Navy, as well as many other nations' navies. Ironically, Japanese anger over what they perceived to be unfair treaty ratios contributed to the war that followed. As a target ship, the UTAH trained naval gunnery and bombing crews. Its use as a platform for antiaircraft weapons was of particular importance: Many of the gunners who shot down Japanese aircraft in the opening stages of the war were trained aboard the UTAH. The intact battleship's hull, still armed with 1941 state-of-the-art antiaircraft weapons, is a unique, well-preserved entity with considerable architectural integrity. Grouped with the National Historic Landmark battleship USS TEXAS (1913) at San Jacinto, Texas and the ARIZONA, the UTAH (1909) is one of only three surviving pre WWII American super-dreadnoughts. The three battleships recall an earlier arms race when power was measured in battleship tonnage and the diameter of shells in a ship's main battery of guns.

The significance of the ARIZONA, also a World War I participant, clearly focuses on the events of December 7, 1941 and its aftermath. "ARIZONA is best remembered for the nature of her loss, perhaps the worst single naval disaster in our history, and certainly the best known symbol of the attack on Pearl Harbor" (Friedman et al. 1978:39). Thus it is fitting that it be the focal point of memorialization and remembrance. The ship is the basis of a special type of memorial that focuses on ultimate victory against initial bad odds, on death not in vain, of sacrifice and honor. A malleable symbol, a national shrine and a historic property, the USS ARIZONA's significance is not that of a historic vessel, as is the UTAH. The significance of the ARIZONA more closely relates to its status as a naval memorial, a war grave and a national symbol.

Last Updated: 27-Apr-2001