Reasons & Remarks – Oil & Tears

The 78th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was Dec. 7, 2019, a day that brought closure to a week in my life that I’ll never forget

By Tom Fjerstad

I had the true honor and privilege of being invited by the National Park Service to participate in a week of stewardship for the USS Arizona, which sank on that infamous day 78 years prior. Not being certain what that week would entail, I prepared for the trip with a level of apprehension that I hadn’t experienced before.

I knew I would be scuba diving at this sacred memorial and performing tasks related to the preservation of the final resting place of more than 900 sailors and Marines. If that thought isn’t enough to give you chills, you either aren’t human or have absolutely no understanding of what happened that Sunday morning in 1941.

As I prepared my scuba gear for the trip to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, it seemed markedly different from my many previous dives. This wasn’t recreational. This wasn’t a dive on just another shipwreck. This was the USS Arizona. It was my first trip to Hawaii, and I wasn’t there as a tourist. I was completely unprepared for the emotional roller coaster I had just boarded.

There were multiple tasks to be accomplished. The buoys that mark the ship’s bow and stern were changed prior to the annual National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremonies on Dec. 7, and samples of the oil that continues to leak from the battleship were collected.

Along with those tasks came a sense of knowing that in some small way, I had personally done something for those who gave their lives that day. None of that came without a healthy dose of emotion.

When I let the air out of my buoyancy compensator on that first dive and dropped below the surface of the water, the first thing to hit me was the limited visibility. I think it was 5–10 feet and later 15–20 feet at best. My narrow view felt like part of some master plan.

The first dive on the Arizona was an orientation dive led by Deputy Chief of the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center Brett Seymour. The dive was to help us grasp the ship’s enormous size, point out notable structural features and provide an understanding of how easy it is to become disoriented in the water.

However, in retrospect, it was probably more to prepare us emotionally for our working environment. The water’s limited visibility dissected my exposure to the reality of what happened that day into small portions — fragments that were often emotionally overwhelming.

My father was a World War II Navy veteran, and I’m ashamed to admit that most of my knowledge of the Greatest Generation came after his passing. My limited knowledge was of those who returned from World War II with spinal-cord injuries and went on to create Paralyzed Veterans of America.

I hadn’t given real thought to those who didn’t return — not in the way that consumed me every day that week in Pearl Harbor. To hover over the ship’s deck and see a boot or a cologne bottle, to peer through a porthole into the admiral’s cabin and see his conference table with the chandelier still hauntingly hanging over it, I believe the limited visibility allowed the experience to be served up in portions that my emotions could handle — or so I thought.

During the second day of diving, my emotions got the best of me. Often referred to as the “tears of the Arizona,” the bunker oil that fueled the ship still leaks into the harbor. From beneath the surface, you can see the oil escape. It appears as beautiful black pearls making their way to the surface.

On that day, my dive buddy, Pat, and I were testing different fabric-like materials to determine their adhesion to the oil. Holding the material at an angle with one hand, we watched the rising oil make contact and judged the material’s ability to repel the oil with minimal or, hopefully, no adhesion.

During this process, I was so focused on our task that I didn’t realize my body and diving gear were also collecting oil. When we finished, I returned to the surface and did what I always do: spit out my regulator and put my snorkel in my mouth. This time, my snorkel was covered with oil.

I had never heard the expression “tears of the Arizona” until later that day after texting a picture of myself with oil all over my face to a coworker at PN. His response was, “After all these years, she’s still crying.” I immediately burst into tears.

Once back in my hotel room, I was looking in the mirror and trying to wash the remaining oil off of my face when my emotions again got the best of me. When the week came to a close, I told the dive team I would never again put a regulator in my mouth without reflecting on this week in Pearl Harbor.

I would like to thank Brett, Dave Conlin and Jim Nimz from the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center for the Wounded Veterans in Parks program and for all they do in their continued commitment to underwater archaeology to study and preserve not only the Arizona, but other sites around the globe that have a historical significance to our country.

I would also like to thank Aileen Utterdyke, president and chief executive officer of Pacific Historical Parks, for that organization’s partnership with the National Park Service and generous financial support to make this year’s project possible. 

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