'Touching the Arizona is touching history'
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By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
It's not much to look at, really, just a large pile of rusting steel with no resemblance to a battleship.
Guarded by wasps and the thorny resolve of fast-growing kiawe trees, the brown steel has a languid look. From end to end, it's a little longer than a city bus and nearly as tall as one, too. It sags in places and many of its surfaces are covered with a thick layer of tiny, yellowed leaves.
But this is sacred steel — a section of the USS Arizona — safely hidden at a Pearl Harbor scrap yard at the tip of Waipi'o Peninsula, beyond a few miles of dirt road, a pair of locked gates and the public.
And despite unlikely surroundings, this is the birthplace of exhibits and memorials — 94 so far.
Military officers and dignitaries will mark the 64th anniversary of the attack with ceremonies this morning above the broken hull, most of them unaware of how close they are to the rusted remnant on the other side of the harbor.
At this quiet, tree-shaded point, pieces of the famous dreadnought are carefully cut and then shipped all over the country. The pieces are received with reverence and displayed with great affection.
Cities, museums, schools, restored U.S. Navy warships, patriotic and fraternal organizations, a veterans hospital in Phoenix and children of Pearl Harbor attack survivors have received a piece of the Arizona for display.
"This is a special thing," said Daniel Martinez, historian for the National Park Service's USS Arizona Memorial.
He recently walked alongside the section of the ship, occasionally touching it. Beneath his shoes, the only sound is the crunch of quarter-size flakes of rusted battleship.
"To have a part of this is to have a part of history," he said. "A keepsake from the tragedy."
AFTER THE ATTACK
The vast bulk of the Arizona still rests on the bottom of Pearl Harbor — at once a national icon graced by the gleaming white memorial above it and a tomb to hundreds of sailors killed on Dec. 7, 1941.
In 1942, large portions of the damaged Arizona were removed and most of it was shipped to the Mainland to be melted down and used in other war materials, Martinez said. A small wooden memorial was built in 1950 atop the boat deck and the galley below.
To allow for the current memorial, which opened on Memorial Day 1962, the Navy cut away wreckage that was too high off the battleship. Several tons of steel — the boat deck, galley and even the old memorial — were moved to the Waipi'o scrap yard, Martinez said.
The most recognizable section is "the potato locker," a vented room that held vegetables.
"The Navy, from early on, knew this was important," Martinez said. "They could have dumped it in the ocean. We don't know who decided this, but someone said let's keep it and preserve it."
Some surfaces have an oily, black residue that comes from ship oil embedded into the steel by the fierce heat of fires that raged over the Arizona for three days, Martinez said. The steel there is roughly twice as thick as rusting areas elsewhere.
It is slowly disintegrating, though.
Ships from this era were riveted — stitched together, Martinez said — and many rivets have rusted to the point where they have popped out. Some sections of steel are rusting in layers and flaking.
"This stuff is sharp," he said. "It's like a razor. It will cut you."
Still, there is no urgency to parcel out pieces of history before they vanish.
"The metal here is in a very dry area, so that's a plus," Martinez said. "The wreckage is in a secure place, so that's a plus. And it's not widely known it's here, and that's a plus."
REQUESTS BEGAN IN 1994
The rusting wreckage remained largely undisturbed until 1994.
At that time, survivors of the attack who knew of its existence were asking for pieces. Because it belongs to the Navy, it took approval by the secretary of the Navy and a notification to Congress before anything could be turned over to civilian groups.
The Navy and the National Park Service began to work together to ensure that all requests were legitimate.
The first piece went to the Arizona Capitol Museum in Phoenix in 1995.
Curators there revised the existing USS Arizona exhibit to accommodate the 7-by-8-foot "relic," said Joel Ayala, an exhibits designer at the museum.
Ayala has never visited the memorial in Pearl Harbor, but he sees the Phoenix display nearly every day. Visitors who have seen both describe similar experiences, he said.
"We get some of that from the survivors who spend a few moments with the relic," Ayala said. "They get quiet and I am sure there is a lot going through their minds. They pay their respects."
Several other pieces went to Arizona organizations.
Members of the American Legion in Yuma obtained a hatch cover and stuck it in a concrete display in front of their offices.
The veterans painted it battleship gray.
"This was rusty as heck when we got it, but we kind of redone it and cleaned it up and it looks pretty good out there in front of the post," said Korean War veteran and former post commander LeRoy Conrad.
Another piece is on display in Phoenix in a lobby at the Carl T. Hayden medical center, a hospital run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The hospital carpentry shop designed a wooden base for the triangular-shaped piece of steel, which is about 18 inches to a side, said Kristi Miller, administrator for facilities services for the center.
A pair of red, velvet ropes guide visitors to the small memorial.
"We did not put glass or anything on it because we wanted people to be able to actually touch it, which they do," Miller said. "They go up very considerately and put their hands on a piece of history.
"We're really proud of it."
Many of the pieces released early on found a home with the help of 81-year-old Lorraine Marks-Haislip, former historian for the USS Arizona Reunion Association.
Even now, she has a piece stored in its original shipping crate in her garage in Sun City West, Ariz. Marks-Haislip wants to give it to the city of Surprise.
She first wrote to the Navy about obtaining pieces in 1992. A year later, she was standing on Waipi'o Peninsula, speechless at what she was looking at.
"It makes me sort of cringe," she said. "Those pieces that were below the boat deck where all those bodies burned to ashes. Their blood is there. Their blood is still on those pieces."
All requests for pieces are carefully scrutinized by the Navy and the National Park Service to ensure that the groups truly plan to honor the memory of the Arizona.
One of their biggest fears is that someone would obtain a piece of the wreckage and put it on eBay — which happened in 2001. The Navy intervened and the piece was returned.
The lure of the wreckage is undeniable, yet none of it is on display at the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center.
Park service historian Martinez believes a piece of the battleship that a person could touch would be popular among the memorial's 1.5 million visitors. The park service hopes to include just such a display when it replaces its visitors center with an expanded facility, he said.
The wreckage has a powerful message. Each piece of steel represents the story of Pearl Harbor.
"Touching the Arizona," he said, "is touching history."
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.