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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 18, 2001

Visitors Scene
History without the hype at Pearl Harbor

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hollywood's "Pearl Harbor" opens May 25, but the real story can be found at the Arizona Memorial, marking the spot where 1,177 crewmen died Dec. 7, 1941.

Advertiser library photo

Arizona Memorial
• Off Kamehameha Highway, between Pearl Harbor Navy Base and Aloha Stadium
• 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; last program begins at 3 p.m. No reservations. First come, first served. Because tours are limited, waits of one to two hours are not uncommon
• Free
• 422-0561

Jean and Walter Schwarz are planning to see "Pearl Harbor," the movie. First, though, they went to see Pearl Harbor, the real thing.

"I'm glad we came here now, before the movie comes out," Jean said, minutes after she and her husband finished their first trip to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. "We're dying to see the movie, but there's nothing like coming out here and facing the reality of what happened."

The couple, from Sun City West, Ariz., are just two of about 1.5 million people who stop at the memorial every year, seeing firsthand the site of the Japanese attack nearly 60 years ago that launched America into World War II.

For most, the visit consists of a brief talk by a National Park Service ranger, a 20-minute film documentary on the Pearl Harbor attack, a short boat shuttle ride and then a few moments on the memorial, which spans the sunken battleship Arizona, final resting place for many of the ship's 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives Dec. 7, 1941.

Nearly everyone visiting the Arizona these days knows that Disney's $145 million "Pearl Harbor" movie is coming to a theater near them May 25. But many, on a recent day, said they'd be at the memorial anyway. It's a chance to see history, not Hollywood.

"There's nothing like being there," said Robert Hellend, a mechanic visiting from San Diego. "You don't know what the movie is going to be like, but this is the real thing."

Herb Weatherwax is the real thing, too.

Weatherwax, 84, was a private in the Army's 298th Infantry Division stationed at Schofield Barracks in December 1941, assigned to guard Windward O'ahu against a sea invasion by the Japanese. He was on weekend pass in Honolulu on the morning of Dec. 7 when he heard the explosions and saw thick black smoke rising skyward from the harbor. An hour later he was on a bus, passing through 'Aiea Heights, rushing to get back to his base.

"We had a panoramic view of the destruction as we passed Pearl Harbor," he said. "It was unbelievable, you can't imagine."

Weatherwax, a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, spends several days a week at the Arizona Memorial, sharing his war-time experiences with young and old visitors alike.

He tells them how he saw Pearl Harbor enveloped in flames, dozens of U.S. planes destroyed at Wheeler field, the Japanese reconnaissance plane he saw circling Schofield hours later and about the night a little later when he almost got shot by a nervous buddy while on patrol in Maunawili.

That's the kind of personal touch you won't find in any movie.

"It's very emotional meeting people like him," said 76-year-old Aubrey Pridgen from San Antonio, Texas, who served on the USS West Virginia and saw action in Okinawa, Iwo Jima and the Philippines in World War II. "I just hope the movie isn't too Hollywoodized."

For those who insist on authenticity, the visitor center at the memorial also offers artifacts and interpretive exhibits that put the whole history surrounding the "Day of Infamy" into perspective. Historic pictures, clothing, models and art work tell the story of Pearl Harbor.

For some, though, just standing at the edge of the shoreline beyond the visitors center is best. From there you can see all the way across Pearl Harbor to Battleship Row, Ford Island and the Arizona Memorial, and reflect quietly on a day 60 years ago that still has the power to move some people to tears and inspire others to make a blockbuster movie.

"It's very sobering," Jean Schwarz said. "I don't think people can realize how impressive this is until you see it in person."