Silent guns

Published 11:48 am Friday, March 4, 2016

by James D. Howell

They came from over there, from the north, racing through the central valley, past the pineapple fields of Dole Plantation. They swooped around the southern mountains. They flew low, just under the clouds, powerful engines breaking the Sunday morning silence. They lined up in a well rehearsed battle plan, torpedo planes broadside to battleship row, targets tied up two abreast alongside Ford Island. Bombers and fighters are assigned to other targets here at Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field or up the valley at Schofield Barracks. Everybody has a target. Everybody is a target.

It’s a little personal to me. My brother in law was here, his destroyer tied up alongside other destroyers in the East Loch of the inner harbor. Right over there, beyond the present day causeway. The skeleton crew managed to get underway, without major damage. They along with other vessels slipped through the harbor entrance, across the submarine nets and stood down close by. He relayed only a little of his ordeal to me and others. They were painful memories; I can’t imagine how painful.

Today, Japanese designed and built Toyotas, Nissans and others bring many of the visitors that are present. There seems to be a mixture of ethnicities, with a murmuring of many languages in the museum and display area. I take time to read labels on the many ship models, diagrams, and historical documents. As with my visits to historic places, there just is not enough time to read it all.

I take my place in line to board a US Navy shuttle launch. It’s expertly brought alongside the wharf and made fast. Visitors disembark and a new set embark; it’s just a few minutes and a lot of years away. The shining white Arizona Memorial straddles the remains of the Battleship Arizona, sunk in the World War II attack.

The short ride out sets the stage; the Arizona was no spring chicken. She had been a ship of the line for over 30 years; she spent the first world war at home in the United States. She carried the flag for American interests in the tenuous period between major wars. In 1940 she transferred to Hawaii. On December 7, 1941, she was sunk during the attack by Japanese aircraft. Some 1177 of her crew sank with her and died. Much of the ships armament was salvaged, but the hull was allowed to remain as a memorial and cemetery.

Our launch heaves to alongside the white, distinctively shaped monument. We disembark and climb the short steps.

The Memorial building is an open structure with an entry area, a larger visitors atrium, and a shrine to those that died aboard the Arizona. The atrium has openings to the sky, windows on either side and a protected opening to the water below. The hull structure of the sunken Arizona is visible through clear Pacific water. Just off to one side a few yards, an oil slick is still, after all these years, slowly fed, drop by drop, from storage tanks in the hull below. It somehow sharpens my concept of what happened here.

A short US Navy launch ride later, I reclaim my car from the parking lot and head for the causeway bridge to Ford Island to visit the mighty battleship, the USS Missouri.

From the wharf, she is imposing; from the water she must have been absolutely frightening to an enemy. She’s tied up now, subject to boarding and visiting by the masses. She carried the flag in many battles. Her commanding presence is the last for her breed; battle priority has been given over to aircraft carriers and their enormous potential for long range destruction and dominance.

I enter the still temporary gates and climb the gangway. I’ve been on some large vessels, but this aging behemoth is awesome. Even though she’s a couple of hundred feet shorter than today’s aircraft carriers, the aspect from deck level is the same perspective. I make the turn and head for the foredeck.

Sixteen inch guns could lob a ton and a half shell about twenty miles – accurately. The Missouri has nine of them. I stand on the foredeck, staring at the stars painted on the massive barrel end caps. Six of these barrels face forward; all could be turned and fired broadside. I can’t imagine the firing concussion or the shell explosive force.

I return to the main superstructure and climb to the veranda deck. Here, on the starboard side, at this exact place, where the commemorative plaque is cordoned off, the Japanese surrender ended the Second World War. The Missouri was in Tokyo Bay; her guns were silent.

I leave this monument to history a little subdued, a little bit awed, at peace.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at