Remembering Those Who Remembered: The Pearl Harbor Survivor Volunteers at the USS Arizona Memorial
April 29, 2017
When I first came to the USS Arizona Memorial in the late summer of 1984, I was surprised to see a handful of Pearl Harbor Survivors volunteering at the visitor center. Their interaction with the visitors and the staff was simply amazing. Their presence validated the historic site as living eyewitnesses to the “Day of Infamy.” As veterans of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Army Air Corps, many of them had just retired and were in their 60s and 70s. Part of their duties then were to help out at the front desk, either handing out tour tickets or answering questions. Some, not all, gave talks about their military experience on the back lanai of the visitor center. Others gave a short introduction to the park film shown in theaters. The more adventurous ones went to the Memorial for a few hours to partner with the park ranger to answer questions or to assist in the loading or unloading of visitors who came to or departed from the Memorial.
In 1987, I became the Volunteers-In-Parks coordinator for the Memorial. I felt that we needed to grow the ranks of our Pearl Harbor Survivors, but how? I understood that the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association met once a month at a restaurant in downtown Honolulu. At that meeting, I appealed to them to volunteer at the USS Arizona Memorial. Over the next few months, we were able to recruit 17 survivors, thus ensuring that every day of the week there would be survivors at the visitor center for the public. It struck me one day that a true “living history” was taking place at the cherished Memorial.
In his book Memorializing Pearl Harbor, Dr. Geoffrey White noted, “Like most museums located on the historic sites they represent, the memorial’s exhibits, artifacts, and volunteers are emplaced in history by virtue of their location in the very landscape that is itself the object of representation … Until recently, the most distinctive element among this array of historical icons has been the veteran volunteer as a living link to the Second World War.”
It is very rare that living memory of a bygone event is present at our national historical parks. Some national historic sites like Manzanar, Martin Luther King Jr.’s home and Tuskegee Airmen are among the few uncommon places that have “memoryscapes.”
The earliest recollection of Pearl Harbor veterans volunteering at the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center was in 1981, one year after the center opened as the National Park Service took over operation of the USS Arizona Memorial. Gary Cummins was the park’s first superintendent. He recalled in his oral history about the first use of the survivors at the site: “I decided early on … I wanted to put these Pearl Harbor Survivors on the Memorial, someone who was actually there during the attack with the instructions, ‘Hey look, don’t tell everybody your life story. Just respond to questions.’”
And respond they did. For more than 36 years, the Pearl Harbor military and civilian survivors have given thousands of hours of volunteer service. At this modern date the following individual volunteers present are: Everett Hyland, U.S. Navy seaman, USS Pennsylvania; Alfred B. K. Rodrigues, U.S. Navy seaman, Section Base, Bishop’s Point, Pearl Harbor; Sterling Cale, U.S. Navy pharmacist’s mate third class, Yard Dispensary, Pearl Harbor; Jimmy Lee, a civilian near Pearl Harbor; and Robert Lee, a civilian at his home located along the shoreline of Pearl Harbor.
Their legacy is now part of history. From talks given to conversations they have engaged in, they gave witness to a day that changed their lives and passed on that history to the generations of Americans that came after them. They made the moment of Dec. 7, 1941 real to those who heard them. In a sense they touched history, and in turn it touched us. And that is why we remember those who remembered … our living witness to Pearl Harbor … the survivors of that fateful day.