Standing with the Emotion of History

The USS Arizona, present day.

The USS Arizona, present day. Photo by Jskuya/Wikimedia.

War is hell, but we keep visiting hell on a regular basis. There has been a regular string of wars throughout my lifetime, from Vietnam to the Gulf Wars to Afghanistan, yet a recent trip to Hawaii moved me more than I could have imagined over a conflict that ended just a decade or so before I was born.

While both of my parents told me stories of growing up when World War II was raging, I couldn’t relate to the emotional roller coaster the war must have given their daily lives. After all, I was just a little kid born in the 50s with no life experience with that war other than watching Combat on TV and reading anything and everything I could get my hands on written for young adults about Pearl Harbor, the battles for Midway and the Coral Sea, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I thought World War II was an adventure that happened long ago before I was born—it was, after all, ancient history to a ten-year old. I wondered what it would have been like to be there.

I recently flew to Oahu with the express purpose of visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, and I was, for the first time, overcome with emotion over World War II. I stood in the Park Service’s World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument and gazed across the water to the stark white of the Arizona Memorial just off Ford Island. I imagined all the battleships just sitting there in the early morning of December 7, 1941 with all those sailors, marines, pilots, and nurses not having a clue how their world would change that day. Then I began imagining the Japanese fighter planes emerging from the sky and the bombs dropping and the explosions and the fire and the smoke and the people dying. My emotions shook me to the soles of my feet. I took deep breaths. I was shaking.  I was not prepared for the emotional wave that broke over me as I wondered what it would have been like to be there on December 7. I stood in awe at the sacrifice made by all those brave men and women.

The USS Arizona under attack at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

War is hell, and the many impacts of war continue to affect my life. From my visit to the Arizona Memorial, I think I now have a better understanding of how World War II continued to affect my parents’ generation long after it was over.  I was able to contemplate that time in history—not through the books read by a little kid, but on the site itself with the benefit of a few more years under my belt and a better understanding of how a decade or two isn’t really a long time.

We are so blessed in this country for the opportunity for emotional reflection at the actual sites that make up our history. I’m sure you’ve had that emotional rush—whether it’s standing at Lincoln’s feet and gazing up at his memorial, walking the ridges and fields of the Civil War, wondering just how cold it got at Valley Forge, or standing where your relatives came to America at Ellis Island. The common denominator in each of these places is the National Park Service. So the next time you see a park ranger, be sure and thank him or her for the privilege of being able to stand with history and connect in unexpected ways with our rich and complicated past.

About the Author

Deputy Vice President of Regional Programs Jim Stratton

Jim Stratton is deputy vice president for NPCA's regional programs.