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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 17, 2001

Study of USS Arizona decay set

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

They don't expect to find answers on this trip. Or even the next.

Concerns about the decay of the USS Arizona will be addressed tomorrow, when Donald Johnson, professor emeritus at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, begins a study into the structural stability of the ship.

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But a single intriguing question continues to draw a team of divers and metal experts to the rusting wreckage of the USS Arizona: How much longer will the hull stay together — and hold back whatever remains of the million-plus gallons of oil that went down with the Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor almost 60 years ago?

Donald Johnson, a professor emeritus from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln school of engineering, plans to begin a third study of the Arizona's structural stability tomorrow.

"It's been there for a long time," Johnson said. "Eventually, all things corrode away."

The answer will lead to even more serious questions: Will there be an environmental disaster when the Arizona finally gives way in the murky waters of Pearl Harbor? Is there anything that can be done to prevent it, and at what cost?

"We're responsible for it," said Don Boyer, a spokesman for the USS Arizona Memorial, which is run by the National Park Service. "You know over time this thing is going to deteriorate and disintegrate. But when?"

The Arizona Memorial has become the national symbol of the Navy's worst disaster and a reminder of the moment when America was pulled violently into World War II.

On Dec. 7, 1941, a 1,760-pound Japanese bomb slammed through the deck of the Arizona, setting off the ammunition in the forward magazine.

The Arizona sank in less than nine minutes, taking 1,177 sailors along with it. It continued to burn over the next three days.

The technology didn't exist in 1941 to raise the Arizona, Boyer said. And Navy salvage efforts were focused on trying to get the 20 other damaged battleships salvaged and ready for war.

"You could take one look at the Arizona and know it would never go to sea again," Boyer said. "Definitely the decision was made to just leave it be."

Park superintendent Kathy Billings took over the Arizona six years ago and wanted a clear idea of what she had lying in nearly 40 feet of water.

In 1998, a team of scuba divers from the National Park Service's Submerged Cultural Resources Unit came from Santa Fe, N.M., to resurrect earlier efforts to map and catalog the remains. Two years ago, they were joined by Johnson and others from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

They started by studying the Arizona's superstructure, the top of half of the battleship that was cut away in the 1960s to make room for the famous white memorial. What's left of the superstructure has been sitting in a weed-choked field at O'ahu's Waipio Point and someday might offer important clues about the rate of decay for the Arizona's bottom half, which has been exposed to salt water, marine life and the oil leeching from within the ship's hull.

Last year, the divers took samples of the mussels and barnacles that have attached themselves to the Arizona and left hard deposits behind. Mechanical problems prevented them from getting samples of the actual metal.

Tomorrow, Johnson hopes to resume measuring such things as oxygen and pH levels, "all those things that relate to corrosion."

And he hopes to find a way to get a good metal sample of the Arizona's hull.

"At this point it seems to be taking a long time," Johnson said. "But it does take a long time to get it right."

Dan Nakaso can be reached by phone at 525-8085, or by e-mail at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.