During a recent visit with my family, I visited the World War II Valor in the Pacific Monument. This national monument is famously home to the USS Arizona Memorial; it also encompasses the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor. All the monuments and museums are home to military history and Hawaiian life before, during, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
While the latter exhibits require an entrance fee, the USS Arizona Memorial is free to the public and only accessible by boat. Why? Because the memorial is an American military cemetery.
Think about that for a second – it is still an active, American military cemetery.
I walked through the museums. I read the testimonials from survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I shed a few tears during the film with footage from the attack on Pearl Harbor. I quietly rode the boat to the USS Arizona Memorial, which rests on top of the hull of the actual ship. I reflected on the lives lost as I read each name, forever immortalized in many places around the monument.
As I read and witnessed, I felt extremely humbled.
These men, women, and children experienced war – war on their own soil. Many lost their lives, either on this day or during the war that followed. Their families endured hardships that I cannot imagine. There were rations, curfews, and blackouts. Every day conveniences like food and electricity were in short supply. Wives were lucky to receive a letter or two from their service member overseas. Children were forced to wear gas masks to school, if the school was even open. Most importantly, these people suffered through a massive, devastating attack and persevered.
Every story – the 16-hour workdays to rescue men trapped in the sinking ships and the 98-year-old survivor who would still go back to fight for his fallen friends – made me appreciative of a husband who is not currently in a combat zone.
Every picture – the flaming water of the harbor, the damaged ships and planes, and the images of war – made me grateful for a peaceful home and life.
Every preserved moment – a bloody hospital gown, a torpedo that was used in the attack, or the memorial itself – reminded me of the sacrifices made and how relatively easy my life can be.
War memorials take history and make it real to the visitor.
It is part of why we can and should visit these places. You can read about history, but standing where it took place is more educational than any book or class. Memorials and monuments honor the story of the people and their lives. Standing amongst the graves in a military cemetery or walking the grounds of a battle can force the visitor to truly think about war and sacrifice. These images and stories are not easy to see, and they can make one feel humbled by their greatness in the face of adversity.
This is not the first war memorial I have visited, and it will certainly not be the last. I will continue to take my family to see these battlefields; these memorials; these museums. I will still stand in awe and sobriety of the men and women of our history. I will continue to cry at the images of death and pain. I will still feel humbled at each and every war memorial.
I will honor these people by learning and remembering our history, one memorial at a time.
What war memorials have you visited? Did you share these feelings?