Few single events in history truly deserve the descriptor “The day the world changed forever.”
My top candidate? December 7, 1941.
As the son of a World War II naval veteran, I had long heard about the impact of that day on my parents as well as my aunts and uncles – most of whom served in the war. When I became a student of history, I read about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and felt the sacrifice made by the men and women who woke up on a beautiful Sunday morning in Hawaii and then – at 7:52 a.m. when the first bombs landed – had their lives shattered forever.
And as I think of the years that followed that “date which will live in infamy” – the engagement of the entire world in a horrific war; the dawn of the atomic age; the rise of the United States, the Soviet Union, and China; the growth of the military-industrial complex; the changes in how we view civil liberties – the impacts seem infinite.
Earlier this week – prior to the Memorial Day holiday – I was at work with colleagues and partners in Hawaii, trying to save a memorial from an earlier war – the Great War. When 10,000 citizens of the territory of Hawaii joined in the defense of our country during WWI, their sacrifice was recognized with a beautiful memorial – the Beaux Arts-style Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial. As a saltwater pool situated at the foot of Diamond Head in the beautiful ocean waters, the Natatorium was designed as a living memorial: a place from the past that would be relevant today and help provide repose and reflection for future generations.
Unfortunately, the Natatorium has been allowed to deteriorate, and the cost of rehabilitation is open to question, as is the expense of demolition and replacement of the beach. Adrienne LaFrance, writing for The Atlantic, has a beautiful essay about the importance of the Natatorium in The Improbable Persistence of Swimming Pools Built in the Ocean. Near the end, LaFrance notes:
Many of those who long supported saving the pool have died. And so: stories of the old Natatorium are disappearing. And yet the architecture itself contributes to a narrative that is otherwise unavailable. It is a steady, hulking memory of the past that lives with us in the present. In the shadow of the volcano Diamond Head on one side, the Natatorium feels puny and new. But looking the other way, toward the modern hotels that crawl up the coast, the old memorial is like an anchor that keeps a piece of the past from being swept out to sea.
Memorials are about memory, which is “an essential part of consciousness” as quoted in my colleague Tom Mayes’ series of essays on Why Do Old Places Matter?
Places are key triggers for both individual memory…and collective memory, the memory shared by the larger society. Diane Barthel, in Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historic Identity, captures the relationship between individual memory and collective memory in a discussion of religious buildings: “Religious structures play a specially significant part in the collective memory as places where moments in personal history become part of the flow of collective history. This collective history transcends individual experiences and lifetimes.” One need only think about important national sites to see the blending of the two types of memory and how they are tied to place.
I was reminded of all this as I stood on the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor last Friday – the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend. A chance comment that I had not been able to get a ticket to the memorial, made at an earlier work meeting, resulted in an early morning tour with my colleagues and Navy personnel on my last day on the island. The solitude on a picture perfect day, the names of the 1,177 who died on the Arizona on December 7th, the two stones beside the wall of honor with the names of the survivors of the attack who later chose to be buried with their comrades, the views down to the sunken decks…all came together to memorialize a sacred place, and the sacrifice of those who died that morning.
In this day and age, we glorify the individual and forget that it is the collective – the community – that holds us together. Places such as the U.S.S. Arizona memorial – and I would argue the Waikiki Natatorium War Memorial – are indeed “places where moments in personal history become part of the flow of collective history.” History that transcends individual experiences and lifetimes.
We are judged not just by what we build, but by what we choose to save and remember from the past.
With profound gratefulness on this Memorial Day for our men and women in service who made the supreme sacrifice.
More to come…
Image: U.S.S. Arizona Memorial by DJB