HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — With the American flag billowing in the wind and “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing on the loudspeakers from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, the first boatload of tourists and residents in nearly 16 months stepped onto the USS Arizona Memorial on Sunday morning.
The 145 visitors on the Navy boat disembarked to spend a few solemn minutes within the white walls of the shrine at the same time, 8:10 a.m., that the Arizona was hit Dec. 7, 1941, also a Sunday, by an armor-piercing bomb that sank the ship and killed 1,177 men. The battleship suffered the greatest loss of life of all the ships and planes attacked that day. Among the dead were a father and son named Free and 23 sets of brothers.
“It was just terribly moving to be over there today,” said Minneapolis resident Patty Drake, 63, who was in Hawaii while celebrating her 27th anniversary with her husband, Bob. “All the death and the pain.”
She saw the oil seeping from the sunken ship that she recalled seeing the last time she visited the memorial while living in Hawaii more than 50 years ago.
“It was powerful,” Bob Drake said.
The oil the Drakes witnessed leaks from the million gallons of bunker fuel oil that was aboard the ship when it sank and is known as the “black tears of the Arizona.”
Visitors now can walk on the memorial and see the oil and the names of the dead etched into the marble wall as they reflect on the sacrifice of those who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the U.S. into World War II.
While the memorial was closed, the National Park Service, which overseas the site, offered a narrated harbor boat tour along Battleship Row and still showed a 25-minute documentary.
The memorial was closed in May 2018 after park staff found major damage to the anchoring system for the boat dock at the memorial. The damage — possibly caused by king tides in 2017 that raised the concrete blocks out of the ground — allowed too much movement of the dock and created a risk that the bridge to the memorial could collapse.
Originally, the memorial, one of the state’s top attractions with about 4,300 daily visitors, was set to reopen in October 2018. Frustration grew as the timeline was pushed back repeatedly— first to December, then to March and finally this October. After the March deadline was missed, Hawaii’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to the acting director of the National Parks Service that expressed the public’s disappointment and requested monthly updates on the repair project.
Jay Blount, Pearl Harbor National Memorial’s chief of interpretation, said that initially, there were plans to repair the concrete block anchoring system, but rather than risk a repeat of the problem, planners decided to go with a completely new anchoring system, which was one cause of the early delays.
The new anchoring system uses giant screws, some longer than 100 feet, that have been driven into the seafloor. Twelve anchors were installed and then were attached to the dock using synthetic rope as part of the $2.1 million repair.
In their letter to the Parks Service, lawmakers said the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, which is home to the Arizona Memorial, had nearly 1.8 million visitors in 2018.
Blount said it was unknown how large an impact the closure of the memorial had on park visitor arrivals, but recent park statistics show an annual visitor decline of about 8%.
Steve Mietz, acting supervisor of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, said reopening the Arizona Memorial was the top priority of the National Parks Service.
“Reconnecting the American public to the USS Arizona Memorial is very meaningful to me,” Mietz said. “People need to be there at that shrine to pay their respects to those fallen heroes. It’s such a moving sight.”
Mietz said the repair project involved working with several partners, including the nonprofit Pacific Historic Parks and the Navy, which had the equipment to support the parks department and helped compete the project faster and at a lower cost.
Blount said the memorial, which opened on Memorial Day 1962, stands as the symbol of American sacrifice in the Pacific theater during WWII.
For history buff Camden Koukol, 13, of Dayton, Ohio, visiting the sunken battleship was a key reason for coming to Hawaii, said his mother, Dominique Koukol.
In Ohio, Dominique Koukol had heard the memorial might be reopening soon, and because her husband was going to be in Hawaii for business, the couple decided it would be a chance for them to travel to the islands affordably as a family, with the hope that the battleship would reopen in time for their son to visit.
The couple pulled Camden out of school so he could make the five-day trip.
“This was the reason we came from Ohio,” Dominique said. “We threw the dice. We were just hoping.”
Camden, who learns about military ships and planes while building models for national contests, visited the memorial Saturday with his parents to scope out the park and returned about 5:30 a.m. Sunday to get in line for the first boat. They were the second group in line.
Camden said he wanted to visit the sunken battleship because it was an impressive ship when it was built, and he wanted to “see what it was like after the attack.”
Some at the memorial Sunday were surprised to find that it had reopened.
Brian Catron of Pearl City seized upon the idea of visiting the memorial after hearing it had reopened on the 6 o’clock news Sunday morning. He woke his two daughters and brought them and his wife down by about 6:30 a.m. It was a way to spend the day with family for free and finally gave his daughter, Kahealani, 10, a chance to visit the memorial, he said. The only other time she had visited — on a school field trip in 2018 — the memorial had closed to the public the day before.
“We’ve been looking forward to coming out,” Catron said. “This was a good opportunity.”