When I was 12 years old, during the 25th anniversary year of the "date that will live in infamy," my father, Val Adams Jr., took me to Pearl Harbor. Dad was a Pearl Harbor survivor; he had been a Navy radioman third class at the time of the attack. Early on 7 December 1941 he was precariously perched 160 feet above the center of Naval Station Pearl Harbor. On duty on top of the station's signal tower, he had a ringside seat for the Japanese attack. Our trip was his first return to Pearl Harbor since the end of World War II. For me, it was the first of many experiences there.
Later, my father would write that as our plane flew over Pearl Harbor he had misgivings about bringing me to Hawaii. He worried about my "great interest in the excitement and adventure of war and guns and military matters." He could not have anticipated that I would have a career as a Marine Corps officer and sail in and out of Pearl Harbor numerous times. Then, through life's twists and turns, I became an underwater archaeologist with the National Park Service, stationed at the USS Arizona Memorial. Following in my father's footsteps as a writer, I wrote about the battleship, the Pearl Harbor attack, and my experiences at the memorial.
It was during the initial visit to Pearl Harbor with my father that I began to appreciate what the drama of 7 December 1941 meant to those who survived the attack. When I was young, Dad simply and quietly told me his experiences. As I grew older, by reading and rereading his insightful memoir of the attack, my understanding of the emotional imprint Pearl Harbor had made on the survivors' lives became more acute. My father had quickly written down what he witnessed and felt while the taste and smell of the battle was still fresh in his mind:
After Japanese aircraft had raided Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, I stood atop the navy yard signal tower, first gazing upward at the fascinating overlapping hues of inland mountainous Oahu; then I lowered my eyes to the destruction and death of Pearl Harbor. When the last bomb had burst, when our own anti-aircraft fire had ceased whizzing past the signal tower, I looked out over the harbor at the huge flames. I felt the thick, oily smoke blackening my face as the island winds blew it past the tower.
The thought came to me that I must have been killed and gone straight to hell. When the attack began, I remember distinctly my first thought: so this is it. Through my mind ran instantly newsreels I had seen, eyewitness stories of blitzkrieg warfare, countless articles I had read of war-torn London, such reading having taken place while I was propped up with severa1 pillows in my own little comfortable bed. . . .
Japanese aircraft made a dramatic entrance over Pearl Harbor. They came in over Diamond Head, down out of the rising sun in their attempt to turn a peaceful Sunday into the darkness of a Monday morning. At the exact moment the first bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor, colors were being made. While bombs were exploding the American flag went up, and I find consolation in observing that flag is still flying.
I regarded diving on the Arizona as a sacred duty, a privilege. A restricted dive spot, not for sport or open to the public, the battleship is a war grave. Strict protocols are followed when diving on her. The activity is only for research needed for the management and preservation of the ship. For me, every dive was personal, emotional, and reverent. During my dives, I would reflect on the attack and recall my father's descriptions of it: "The aged battleship Arizona became an inferno and during the second attack she blew up, a terrifying sight. Her bow came out of the water, huge flames spread out, upward for a hundred feet, then she sank."
While swimming around the sunken battleship, I often thought of my father's friend "Willie" Wilson, a radioman on the Arizona. Dad and Willie had gone to radio school together, and they spent liberty together in Waikiki the night of 6 December. When they departed, Dad nonchalantly said, "So long, Willie." My father thought of his friend the next day as he watched the Arizona die. He first told me about Willie when we visited the Arizona Memorial. Inscribed on its marble back wall are the names of 1,177 Sailors and Marines killed on board the battleship.
I'll never forget Dad, with tears in his eyes, reading there the name of his friend, B. M. Wilson RM3/c. He knew that Willie had died that day, but this was the first time he'd seen confirmation. Years later, whenever I left the memorial, I would first go to the shrine wall and find his name for Dad. I do not know if Willie has any family; I never knew him, but I remember him.
In the days following the attack, while emotions were still raw and not fully defined, my father recorded his perspective:
To the men of the United States Navy under fire I shall always bow with respect. The attack came so suddenly that many of them ran past their own dead to get to battle stations. At gun stations they fought with lifeless bodies torn and ripped, lying at their feet. In two minutes after the raid began, our antiaircraft batteries went into action. I saw a Jap plane shot down in flames. In the newsreel, it would have been a thriller, but on this occasion, it gave me no emotional effect. Another plane was hit and the fuselage left the wings fluttering in the air. I saw a torpedo plane shot down just before it released its deadly charge.
Under the fire that Pearl Harbor knew on the morning of December 7 those men there literally became brothers. I saw it, felt it-all hands did. I don't think there is a word in any language to describe what I mean. It's something that can only be felt, and no other emotion in the world can be felt quite as strongly. It is the reaction that occurs when all men present are struck with the realization that they all were emitted from the womb of Mother Destiny and that all are united in a common cause. For the thousands who were there and survived, Pearl Harbor will always be "just yesterday."
Time has not lessened the bond Arizona Sailors feel with their ship. Many of her surviving crew have chosen to have their cremated remains interred inside the battleship, when the time comes. Only Arizona survivors who were present on the vessel at the time of the attack may be interred in the wreck itself, and their remains are placed at the bottom of the empty barbette that once held turret four, which mounted three of the battleship's 14-inch guns. They are returning home to their Arizona family, to remain with their shipmates. Choosing this final resting place and not a traditional family plot says much about the special bond these men have with their ship and shipmates.
For each such veteran, a full military funeral is held in the Arizona Memorial, which spans the battleship's submerged remains. It is a private event reserved only for family, guests, Park Service rangers, and Pearl Harbor survivors. The Navy or Marine Corps provides a rifle honor guard and bugler.
During one Marine Corps assignment, I was a casualty notification officer. I handled the burial details and conducted military funeral services. One always feels a solemn duty when participating in these time-honored traditions. During my tenure at the memorial, I participated in the burial of seven Arizona survivors. As the diver, I interred the remains in the sunken battleship.
When they stand for the first time at the memorial's railing, many visitors are not prepared for the thick odor of oil in the air. The water surface's oily sheen features kaleidoscopic colors, and while looking down, the eye is tricked into seeing ever-changing images of faces, tears, and rainbows. Some believe the oil will stop bleeding from the Arizona's heart when her last survivor passes on.
One of her Sailors, former Seaman First Class Grady Nelson Jr., was reunited with his shipmates on 7 December 1993. His widow carried an urn containing his ashes to the edge of the dock at the memorial where I was waiting in the water.
The park superintendent had to assist her as she leaned over to hand me the funeral vessel. She did not want to let go of it, but after she finally surrendered the urn into my hands, my dive partner and I swam on the harbor's surface till we were over the Arizona. While we were carrying the remains of the former Arizona Sailor to his final home, an honor guard fired three rifle volleys from the memorial.
As the widow and family watched, we slipped under the murky water and from the main deck swam down inside turret four's barbette, a deep cylinder about 70 feet in diameter. It was like swimming through a fog bank with only 10 to 15 feet of visibility. At the bottom was mausoleum stillness, quiet except for the melodic swooshing sound as we breathed through our regulators. I pushed the urn deep into the silt, where it will rest undisturbed. We then each rendered a final hand salute and returned to the surface, where we watched the U.S. flag being lowered, folded, and handed to Mrs. Nelson. There is no easy way to describe the feeling of pride and honor we felt.
Boatswain's Mate First Class Harold Woodson Gaut's battle station had been inside the Arizona's turret four. After the ship sank, he made his way through interior passageways to turret three and escaped. On 9 June 1995, one of his granddaughters carried an urn containing his cremated remains to the water's edge at the memorial and lowered it down to me. Boatswain's Mate Gaut was returned to his battle station after nearly 54 years.
On a later reconnaissance dive inside the Arizona, I entered barbette three and followed the passageway connecting turrets three and four. In the dark, with dive lights providing the only illumination, I thought of Boatswain's Mate Gaut. He had escaped by exiting through this same passageway, which was now nearly filled with debris and shoring timbers left from the Arizona's salvage operation. My somber transit was the first time since World War II that anyone had traveled the passageway.
I assisted with the burial of five more Arizona Sailors. The remains of Paul Egan, fire controlman third class, were interred inside the battleship on 12 January 1993. On 5 June 1995, the ashes of Kenneth Norton, seaman first class, were scattered over the surface waters near the Arizona. Then, on the 55th anniversary of the attack, 7 December 1996, for the first time a multiple burial was conducted. My dive team interred three Arizona Sailors: Seaman First Class Norman Coplin, Gunner's Mate Third Class James Green, and Ensign Frank Campbell.
The U.S. military pays great homage to its deceased members. The ceremony is never treated lightly. I am proud and humbled to have participated in the burial of these Arizona Sailors.
I learned from my father the importance of remembering the story of Pearl Harbor, and I feel obligated to continue the legacy. We give meaning to the lives lost that day and honor the men who survived by remembering their heroism and keeping the legacy of Pearl Harbor alive.