Pearly Shells

I’m not sure this is a good idea—taking kids to the cemetery.

This whole trip to Hawaii was supposed to be a prize. Over 1,500 children competed  by writing essays (“Why would you like to explore this Hawaiian island”), accompanied by a hand-drawn picture illustrating what they hoped to see here. I read the four winners’ essays and not one of them drew pictures of a graveyard or exploding bombs.

But here we are, day two, navigating a river of morning traffic to a place marked by death and human catastrophe. The sky is all blue with a few wispy white streaks of cloud, silhouetting the breezy palms that look like paintbrushes standing up on end. The industrial miles of outer Honolulu still broadcast a festive mood—I half-expect a billboard commanding us to “Hang Loose!”

But in all the sunshine and cheer, I am still worried about the kids—yesterday we were learning to surf on Waikiki; today we’re touring a mass grave.

In my travels, I visit a lot of well-known cemeteriesPère Lachaise in Paris, High Gate in London, Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and the field of white crosses in Arlington. Each is a fanciful memorial, each with its celebrity graves marked out on a map.

But in Pearl Harbor the dead are mapless and scattered, or else entombed in the rusting hulk of shallow sunken ships. It is not something you want to think about, really, but the tour guide spells out all the horrible details of December 7, 1941: how the invasion came as a complete surprise, 2,402 Americans killed, 63 of them civilians. How half of the deaths took place in just eight minutes, and how 1,177 crewmen died aboard the battleship USS Arizona. A Japanese bomb pierced the armored deck and ignited the ship’s magazine—an explosion that killed so many so quickly.

With naval efficiency our group is led too quickly through meaningful museum exhibits, a heartrending film, and then out to the ferry that putters us out to the glistening white memorial to the USS Arizona. There is a system in place here, to load and offload thousands of visitors per day, a conveyor belt of organized remembrance.

But stepping onto the shapely white island, time slows and I tune out the buzz of the mulling crowd. The wind stops for a moment and I catch the smell—the whiff of ship’s fuel wafting up from the water, its rainbow gloss dancing on the waves. Seventy-one years after the fact, the Arizona is still leaking life from below decks.

I stare down into the water—the ship is so close I could touch it, I think. Like a blurry movie, the rusty reef takes shape in the calm and then washes from view with each passing wave. This is all very eerie, I admit, heightened by the knowledge that nearly a thousand human bodies lie directly beneath us. We are standing over an open-air grave, staring down into a steel coffin.

A tiny white flower floats on the water, plumeria, like the ones I first smelled when I arrived in Hawaii. Another soon follows. Above the oil-tinged water and the mass of wreckage, a parade of floating flowers drifts past.

I turn around and spot them, two of the kids in our group, the lucky winners, leaning over the edge of the memorial. Anya, a 13-year old from Ohio, holds a flower lei in one hand—the same lei she received when she first arrived in Hawaii. She has cut the string, and one by one, she is pulling off the crumpled flowers and casting them onto the quivering water.

My heart stops just a little. The flowers fall from her hand, the yellow-tinged petals fluttering down in a kind of slow-motion reverie. A few other, younger visitors have gathered next to her, and Anya motions them over with a welcoming nod.

The girls are Japanese, maybe six or seven years old. Not a word is spoken—Anya pulls half the flowers from her lei and hands each of the girls a clump of flowers. Together, the three of them continue, dropping flowers into the sea, smiling.

Exactly one year ago I was in Japan. I traveled to Kagoshima and crossed that harbor where Japanese pilots practiced for the attack on Pearl Harbor. I went to the kamikaze memorial and read the last letters of teenage pilots who had been ordered to die. I saw Hiroshima and the naked wreckage of nuclear destruction.

Now my travels have brought me to the place where it began—Pearl Harbor—where I am standing over a sunken battleship watching these girls, American and Japanese, tossing flower petals to the departed.


I am not sure this is a good idea—singing happy songs in the car. It’s been a heavy day, filled with war, fighter planes and missiles, and the names and faces of the dead. We are driving back to Waikiki with our chaperones—Uncle Brian strums his ukulele and Auntie Debbie sings in her soprano:

“Pearly shells . . .from the ocean,” she croons.

The children repeat the line, eager to know the song, then continue,

“Shining in the sun, covering the shore . . .”

It’s an old Hawaiian song, made new and American by Burl Ives in 1964:

“For every grain of sand upon the beach, I’ve got a kiss for you.”

The original song in Hawaiian is Pupu A `O `Ewa, which remembers the famous land of Pu’uloa (Pearl Harbor), when shells of a different nature covered these shores.

Auntie Debbie sings it over again and again, so that by the time we make it back to Waikiki, the children know the words by heart, as do I. Without trying, I have learned the lyrics to “Pearly Shells.”

This is my souvenir from Pearl Harbor—not a key chain or a T-shirt or a coffee table book or a model ship—only a ditty of a song and the postcard memory of dear Anya, sending flowers to the fallen soldiers.


  1. Natina Harris
    Durham, NC
    September 4, 2012, 10:29 am

    That is a very touching & incredible blog! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. Christina R.
    Washington, DC
    September 9, 2012, 10:35 pm

    I’ll never forget my first visit to the USS Arizona. I was 13 and was so overcome by the intensity of the experience that I could barely get through the excursion out to the memorial. The seeping fuel and being OVER the actual ship is what I think did it for me… It made me weak kneed to be so close to such tragedy.

    Actually, I imagine I’d feel the same if I visited today as an adult.

  3. Abbey Geiger
    Springfield, Ohio
    October 15, 2012, 7:43 am

    Amazing. I am writing a paper in my English class on picture analysis. I was just glancing through photos and found this and my search ended. This has to be the picture I use Because I haven’t stopped staring at it for 50 minutes of class time. I absolutely love your story with it. When I was a young lady I went to Washington D.C. we went to the Holocaust Museum . I would have to say I was probably the same as that little girl you mentioned. Even though I wasn’t there around through all those bad times. My emotions respond. So much death for no reason.. It’s sad. But this is a beautiful picture. Thank you for sharing