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Preserving the USS Arizona

'Symbol of American honor and sacrifice'

Created date

December 6th, 2016
Unfired ammunition from the USS Arizona.

Unfired ammunition from the USS Arizona.

The USS Arizona is more than a sunken wreck. It is a time capsule and a grave, left as she was when she went to the bottom of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, along with the bodies of some 1,000 sailors and marines. 

The care of this historical shrine, which draws in excess of 2.5 million visitors annually, is led by a team of underwater archaeologists with the National Park Service’s (NPS) Submerged Resources Center (SRC). As the SRC’s founding chief (ret.), Daniel Lenihan spent over two decades diving on the ship, studying the wreck and documenting its countless artifacts.

Tribune: How did the Submerged Resources Center get started?

Lenihan: The SRC as an official arm of the Park Service goes back to the mid-1970s, when the NPS teamed up with other agencies to investigate Native American sites that had been flooded by the construction of dams throughout the Southwest. 

During this project, the Park Service saw the value in a permanent underwater archaeology team. They’d been doing this kind of research on a project-by-project basis, which doesn’t work well. You need this sort of resource in place at all times.

In the early 1980s, the funding came through, and I became the SRC’s chief. By then, we had already mapped some significant shipwrecks in Lake Superior. 

Tribune: When did your team inherit responsibility for the Arizona’s remains?

Lenihan: Originally, the Arizona was under the Navy’s stewardship, and the NPS partnered with them to manage the memorial in 1980. In 1982, they called in our team to start mapping the ship.

Until that time, the Navy had barred diving on the ship’s wreck out of respect. Because divers could only observe the ship’s remains from the surface of the water using snorkels, they didn’t have a clear sense of what was down there.

You have to remember, the Arizona is about 40 feet underwater at its deepest, and despite the relatively shallow harbor, the visibility is poor, generally about five to seven feet. Unless you go down in SCUBA gear and get a close look, you’re not going to find much.

Tribune: What did you find on your first dive?

Lenihan: When I descended 20 feet near the ship’s bow, I discovered that the No. 1 turret and guns were still intact. 

The historical record said the Navy had salvaged all of the Arizona’s guns during the war, so everyone had long assumed they were gone. 

These guns were big, too—each had a 14-inch bore. It was like losing a Greyhound bus underwater.

Tribune: It’s amazing that you couldn’t see these guns from the surface.

Lenihan: Well, the deck area had fallen down out of sight with the guns on them due to the massive explosion that sank the ship. You had about 500 tons of explosives go off in the bow’s magazine when the Japanese bombed her. 

Tribune: What came out of the initial mapping project?

Lenihan: We generated a five-part drawing that incorporated the port and starboard perspectives, as well as the typical overhead and profile views. From that, a model was built representing what the Arizona looks like today.

Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the team launched a battery of corrosion studies, oil analyses, and interior investigations to determine how long the ship will last. 

Tribune: And how long is that?

Lenihan: We predict a few hundred years.

Tribune: Visitors often talk about oil leaking from the ship. How much was there to start with, and what is the leakage rate?

Lenihan: The Arizona was filled with over one million gallons of oil just before the December 7 attack. About half of that is gone. 

What’s left seeps from multiple places. Most of it is coming from the ship’s hatches at a rate of roughly a gallon and a half per day.

Tribune: From an archaeological perspective, there must be a powerful human element to the Arizona’s wreck site.

Lenihan: Very much so. You’ll find a variety of haunting artifacts: ammunition, soda bottles, pots and pans, and clothing, like sailors’ shoes and boots.

Tribune: As one of the few people who have had the rare opportunity of diving on the ship, what does the Arizona Memorial mean to you?

Lenihan:It’s an important symbol of American honor and sacrifice—a concrete reminder of why we fought a second world war. 

The public is able to visit this symbol and see the very thing that’s being memorialized. The SRC has worked hard to make that possible.