December 7th marks the 82nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, an act that solidified the United States’ decision to enter into World War II. Each year, roughly 1.7 million visit the memorial above the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, the centerpiece of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor National Memorial. But why was the Arizona so special, and what does the memorial have to do with Elvis Presley?
The Arizona, named after our 48th state, was part of the Pennsylvania class of “super-dreadnought” battleships and was the top-of-the-line when she was commissioned on October 17, 1916. She was 608 feet long, 97 feet wide, and armed with twelve 14-inch guns in four triple turrets and twenty-two 5-inch guns. She could launch shells over 20,000 yards. Her belt armor was up to 13.5 inches thick, and her turret armor was up to 18 inches thick. “At a time when the concept of the aircraft carrier was still in its infancy, the Arizona incorporated aircraft launching capabilities…with three catapults for launching spotter planes.”
But none of that helped during the unprovoked surprise attack on the peaceful Sunday morning of December 7, 1941. A 1,760-pound bomb hit the Arizona, impacting her stored ammunition. The resulting explosion actually lifted the 31,400-ton ship out of the water and ignited fires that burned for two days. 1,177 of the ship’s approximately 1,512 men died, making it the “greatest loss of life on any U.S. warship in history.” The ship sank in just nine minutes.
There were salvage operations, which led to the removal and repurposing of the Arizona’s masts and main battery turrets, but “the remains of over 900 sailors and marines are still entombed within the sunken battleship.”
Efforts to create a fitting memorial in the Hawaiian harbor began in 1949. Austrian architect and immigrant Alfred Preis, who had settled in Honolulu and was actually held at the Sand Island Detainment Camp for three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor as part of U.S. internment policy, created the winning design. The Navy had “stipulated that the memorial was supposed to resemble a bridge, handle 200 people and not touch Arizona herself.” The structure’s sagging center, “but…strong and vigorous…ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory.”
So where does Elvis Presley come in? Gathering funding for the memorial was a challenge: between 1958 and early 1960, only $155,000 of the $500,000 goal was raised. Presley’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, felt that a concert would “raise much-needed awareness of the fundraising campaign while also demonstrating that Elvis still had drawing power.” The March 25, 1961, concert at Bloch Arena in Honolulu raised $60,000 and the publicity brought in even more donations.
The Arizona memorial was dedicated by President John F. Kennedy on May 30, 1962. It stands as a reminder of bravery and sacrifice and of an event that brought Americans together as a nation.
To find out more about Dahlgren’s connections to another Arizona World War II memorial, stayed tuned for this month’s featured “Now You Know” article, which will be posted on our website (https://www.dahlgrenmuseum.org/sound-bytes-of-history) with a link on Facebook this Friday, December 8th.
The USS Arizona (BB-39) underway during the 1930s. (NH 57665 courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.)
The USS Arizona sunk and burning after being hit by a Japanese bomb on December 7, 1941. At left, men on the stern of USS Tennessee (BB-43) are playing fire hoses on the water to force burning oil away from their ship. (U.S. Navy Photo, now in the collections of the National Archives.)
Aerial view of the USS Arizona memorial. (DoD photo by PH3(AW/SW) JAYME PASTORIC, U.S. Navy)
Elvis Presley visited the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor on August 15, 1965, to take a tour and place a memorial wreath and was presented with an award to thank him for his work to preserve the Arizona.