Then & Now: Dispatch from Pearl Harbor

Dispatch from Pearl Harbor

By Manuel L. Quezon III

TODAY Newspaper

THE startling thing about actually being at Pearl Harbor is that it looks so small. Perhaps I grew up on too concentrated a diet of World War II movies and documentaries, designed to impress on the viewer the enormity of the disaster and the magnitude of the feat accomplished by Japanese aviators, but I always thought the place was much bigger than it actually is -otherwise, how could the Americans have crammed in all those enormous World War I vintage battleships?

Cram them in they did, though. Perhaps this makes the enormity of the success of the Japanese bombing more understandable. Because the Americans crammed in all those ships, which ended up being berthed so near to each other, the Japanese had an easier time picking off their targets. When you have targets lined up in close proximity to each other, they become that much easier to hit (the U.S. Army Air Corps had a similar bad habit, which is why it’s air forces were decimated both at Honolulu and Manila). If the Americans could call one of their naval and air battles against the Japanese the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” Pearl Harbor for the Japanese was a stupendous elephant hunt.

Of the naval elephants slaughtered at Pearl Harbor, only one wasn’t salvaged or scrapped after the attack. The U.S.S. Arizona, which had been bombed and capsized, trapping over a thousand of her crew, was left where she had sunk to serve as a memorial. She remains there to this day, still oozing oil, a strange, convex white memorial building built over her.

As for the battleships of the US Navy, they’re all gone, except for a few that have been converted into war memorials in their home States (all US Battleships were named after States of the Union). The United States, of course, was the last great power to use battleships. the Missouri and the New Jersey, which, after having served in Korea and Vietnam, were mothballed, taken out of retirement to serve in Reagan’s projected 600-ship navy, mothballed again in the era of post-Cold War austerity, and are said to be destined to be converted to memorials themselves (the Missouri, where the surrender of Japan was signed, is rumored to be destined to be permanently moored in Pearl Harbor).

However Pearl Harbor itself continues to be an important US Naval Base. On a typical day, visitors can see close to a dozen Los Angeles Class nuclear submarines moored there, in various stages of refitting and replenishment. Hospital ships and tankers loom over the jetties, while little speedboats carrying Navy brass shoot past, provoking naval whistles to toot homage to whatever Rear Admiral happens to be on the boat; and on each ship there are corresponding whistles to acknowledge the boarding or leaving of the officers. There are ships here that have been newly-commissioned, about to undergo their first sea-trials, and suitably decorated with enormous artificial leis draped on their bows; and elderly ones whose active lives are drawing to a close. All proudly fly the US Naval Ensign, a (suitably) Navy-blue flag with the fifty States of the Union, on their bows.

One of the newly-commissioned ships is the USS Hopper, a multimission AEGIS guided missile destroyer, which happens to be the newest ship in her class. Five hundred and half feet long, with a beam of sixty-six and half feet, and a draft of thirty-two and a half feet, she is an all-around type of war vessel. She can shoot down planes and missiles, she can fire missiles at naval and land targets, she can bombard coastal defenses and lay mines, and she can go after submarines.

And she is named after a woman, Read Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), who was a computer wiz. She helped program the first large-scale computer, the Mark 1. She coined the term “bug” (“after restoring the Mark II to service by removing a moth from the switching contacts”); she was a pioneer of the COBOL computer language. She was, it seems, the first woman techie.

The Hopper is a fully self-contained ship: in case of nuclear war or if biological weapons are used in her vicinity, she can maintain a fully pressurized hull which keeps contaminated air out; the crew, dressed in protective clothing, have to through elaborate air locks and decontamination areas when going to and from the outer deck. The Hopper can produce 24,000 gallons of fresh water a day from her own desalinators.

Her bridge is used for navigation; but as far as fighting is concerned, the nerve center of the sip is below decks. We’ve become familiar with the appearance of these places from the movies we see: it is a tribute to Hollywood that someone who has seen enough movies is instantly familiar with the layout and even equipment used in these rooms when you get to see the real thing.

There are no teak decks on this ship. Everything is painted gray, with many surfaces coated with a rubbery sort of tile meant to make the ship invisible to radar. Her guns are almost vestigial ornaments (almost, not quite: her Gatling guns fire hundreds of rounds per second): the rest of her armaments are missiles, either hidden away below deck or removed from view when she’s docked.

Pearl Harbor is one of the last of the great naval bases still in use. Every day, ships manned by what could have been the grandsons of those entombed in the Arizona move in and out of the harbor, their propellers churning the waters and sending vibrations that must rattle the bones of the dead. What is remarkable about Pearl Harbor is the opportunity it gives people to see the workings of a navy that remains at the peak of efficiency, and whose servicemen are secure in the knowledge that their navy is a force to reckon with and not in decline. No other navy can revel in this mixture of living tradition and expectancy of adventures to come. Most of the bases of the Royal Navy, from Scapa Flow in Scotland to Singapore are gone. The Russians are letting their ships rot in Vladivostok. The other navies of the world are either in decline, or just beginning to grow. Who knows what surprising fates await this naval base.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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