Walk-on visitor access to the USS Arizona Memorial won’t be available for at least two more months with the National Park Service planning to proceed with a contract on a new anchoring system for a wayward boat landing dock.
The visitor center remains open, and boat tours continue to pass near the sunken battleship.
Since May 10, however, none of the 4,000 to 5,000 visitors who show up daily to see one of the most revered spots in American battle history have been able to disembark on the walkway memorial that straddles the grave for over 900 men who gave their lives on Dec. 7, 1941.
The park service is painfully aware of that fact.
“Our No. 1 priority is re- establishing visitor accessibility as quickly as possible,” said Jay Blount, a spokesman for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the Arizona Memorial.
“I can tell you that our superintendent submits a daily update to the regional director and the associate director of the National Park Service,” Blount said. “This goes to our regional office and Washington every day. This is a top priority.”
In May the park service, which runs the memorial, found superficial cracks in the memorial’s concrete near the metal access ramp.
That turned out to be minor. More critical was the discovery that the 105-foot floating concrete pier that served as a boat landing was found to be pushing and pulling on the 4-ton, 30-foot metal bridge connecting the dock to the circa-1962 memorial, Blount said.
The force was enough to shear off a stainless-steel attachment bolt on the memorial. Public access was curtailed.
“We realized the bridge (was) probably about to fall in the water,” Superintendent Jacqueline Ashwell said in June.
The landing dock is moored by six chains attached to huge concrete blocks that were sunk into the muck and silt of the 40-foot-deep Pearl Harbor.
The bridge ended up limiting the lateral travel of the dock — something it wasn’t designed to do — and when it was removed, the full extent of the problem became clear.
“With the tide and the current and the wind, all those chains are supposed to swing toward and away from the memorial about 2 feet or so,” Blount said. “We found out it was swinging 10 feet.”
The dock and mooring system were replaced in 2016, and when the more recent problem was discovered, it was six months out of warranty, officials said.
New anchoring system
The park service is now pursuing a new fix — anchoring the dock with “helical” steel pilings that screw into the seafloor.
“The current anchors are cement blocks, and they have sunk down into the sediment; and due to the nature of the bottom, they can sink, they can be raised up, for example, in a tide,” Blount said.
The park service still doesn’t know definitively why the blocks may have shifted. Divers couldn’t get to them in the muck. Ground-penetrating sonar was considered, but the decision was made to go with the alternate technology, according to Blount.
“Another reason we think these concrete blocks may have shifted … is we don’t dredge or remove sediment around the Arizona Memorial,” while the main channel of Pearl Harbor is dredged, he said.
That means silt has built up over many decades.
“That’s why this new technology is so great, because it actually has the ability, as it’s being driven down into the earth, to test the amount of pressure that’s being emplaced on the anchoring system,” Blount said. The contractor “can do a pull test on it to see how much pressure it can absorb.”
A contract is about to be signed, but because that hadn’t happened yet, the park service wasn’t releasing the contractor name or cost.
But the park service already has an agreement that planning will take 30 days — instead of the usual 60 to 90 — and the work itself will be done in 30 days, Blount said.
With that timeline, Blount said “it’s highly unlikely that the Arizona Memorial will be open before Oct. 1.”
The visitor experience
Blount acknowledged that “there’s something really sacred and special” about being on the memorial over the Arizona — from which oil droplets still seep, some 77 years later.
That being said, the park service wants “to make sure that in the place of that incredibly powerful experience, we want to do something that’s as close to it as possible and educate people on the service and sacrifice these men and women made.”
That includes the boat tours.
Still, the park service said it’s seen a “slight” decrease in the amount of people with reserved tickets actually coming in to claim them.
Part of that has to do with ongoing misconceptions that there’s no access to the memorial.
Pete Ellis, 63, visiting the memorial from Nevada, said Thursday, “We were under the impression that the memorial was closed, there was no boat ride to it, you couldn’t view the memorial — except from the shore.”
When he and his family stopped by anyway, they found out about the boat tour.
The neighboring Battleship Missouri Memorial, one of three nonprofit museums at Pearl Harbor, is feeling a ripple effect from the Arizona Memorial visitor uncertainty over the busy summer season.
“We saw an immediate impact to our daily visitor count when tours to the USS Arizona Memorial were suspended,” said Michael Carr, president and CEO of the USS Missouri Memorial Association. “Part of our challenge since then has been reminding visitors that the Battleship Missouri Memorial is a private nonprofit organization that is open for tours daily and not affected by the repairs being made to the USS Arizona Memorial.”
The Mighty Mo’s visitor count in June was down 4.7 percent compared with a year ago, which was the best June ever in the nonprofit museum’s history, Carr said.
Robert Petry, 71, from Ohio, went on the boat tour Thursday with four other family members.
“I think I was humbled by it. It was good,” he said afterward. “It could have been better if we could have gone on the memorial, just be part of it. The memorial is what everybody knows about.”