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  Field Notes From
At Pearl Harbor



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From Author

Priit J. Vesilind





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From Photographer

David Doubilet



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Joseph S. Stancampiano (top) and David Doubilet
 

image: pencil
At Pearl Harbor

Field Notes From Author
Priit J. Vesilind
I knew I’d have to get certified to scuba dive so that I could join researchers and photographers on site at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. So I recruited my youngest son, Billy, fresh from college graduation, to take scuba lessons with me. We learned the basics in a suburban swimming pool in Virginia but decided to do our open-water qualifying in Hawaii.
For three glorious days we dove in the crystal waters off Oahu’s west coast to finish our tests with an instructor. Then we decided to take one last dive by ourselves before I dove to the Arizona. I had missed so much of Billy’s childhood while traveling for National Geographic. Now here we were, partners in this grand adventure beneath the sea.
But my 57-year-old legs cramped as we reached our farthest point out. Our tanks were nearly empty, and I could barely keep afloat as I struggled to alleviate the pain. Then Billy swam up to me and said, “Dad, remember that rescue method we practiced in Eddie Lane’s pool a few weeks ago? Just lie back and relax, and I’ll push you in.”
And so he did, my youngest. The boy I’d always pushed was pushing me. And I realized then how the child had become the man.
For more than three years I had been stationed at the Naval Communications Station in the middle of Oahu. I had fond memories of the Bachelor Officers’ quarters where I lived briefly before my marriage, the club where we drank beer and played Yahtzee into the night, the tennis courts, and the secure buildings humming with electronic gear that served as the main link between Washington, D.C., and Vietnam during that unfortunate war.
So I thought that I’d go back and show the place to my son, relive some of my youth. But when we reached the gate, far into the pineapple fields, the Marine Corps sentry asked for a military identification.
“I’m not in the service anymore,” I said. “Can you ask the officer of the day if we can pay a visit?”
“I can’t do that, sir,” he answered.
“Why not?”
“We’ve had civilians come here lately who’ve been shoplifting in the base exchange.”
“Do we look like shoplifters?”
“Sorry.”
The drive back to Honolulu was a bit strained. I guess we did look like shoplifters. I told Billy he should have shaved his fashionable stubble.
When I set out with Bob Ballard to find one of the sunken Japanese midget submarines, three aging veterans of the conflict between the sub and an American destroyer joined us on the research vessel. One, Dewa-san, had served on the Japanese mother sub that carried one of five midgets from Japan. The other two, Russell Reetz and Will Lehner, were American Navy veterans who had been on board the U.S.S. Ward, the destroyer that sank the midget we were searching for.
The National Geographic Television crew wanted to document the first meeting between the veterans, Bob Ballard, and the Japanese interpreter on the small second deck. But just as they approached each other, the ship took a wicked roll, and the deck slid out from underneath them.
With nothing else to clutch, these perfect strangers and former enemies grabbed each other. With the chagrined Ballard hanging on to all three of them, they did a bizarre sliding dance around the deck, like brawling hockey players.
“Reshoot!” the producer shouted. “Let’s do that again when the waves calm down.” You’d never know about the blooper from the cordial scene on the expedition film, but now you’ll see it with an inside scoop.


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