Edward Hoeschen salutes the wall of names at the USS Arizona Memorial during the 78th Anniversary Pearl Harbor Remembrance Commemoration Dec. 7, 2019. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Holly L. Herline.
Cook 3rd Class Doris Miller is an American hero, the first Black sailor to earn the Navy Cross.
On Dec. 7, 1941, under fire, he helped move the mortally wounded commander of the battleship West Virginia to safety and then manned a machine gun — a weapon he was barred from training with because of his race — to fire at attacking aircraft.
A sign at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial visitors center says Miller died on the USS Liscombe Bay in 1944 at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Miller actually died the year before, 1943, on the USS Liscome Bay, at the Battle of Makin Island.
The error about an icon for the civil rights movement, whose name will adorn a future Ford-class aircraft carrier, is one of several at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial that simply drive historians and history buffs nuts.
At least one is working to get them fixed.
“I’ve been tilting at this windmill since 2013,” said former Navy aviator and retired Capt. Charlie Gillman. “How many thousands of people have to see these things and they’re wrong?”
In addition to the Miller blunder, there are mistakes in photos: a 1941 photo of a Navy PBY Catalina aircraft that is dated as being from 1943 and a photo of the Japanese carrier Shokaku from the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1942 that is mislabeled as the Akagi, taken on Dec. 7, 1941.
Some photos are missing captions; others are incorrectly labeled or don’t properly illustrate the display. And the USS Arizona’’ memorial wall contains five names that don’t have ranks or rates.
“What does it take to get these guys to fix these things?” Gillman asked during an interview with Military.com. “If they asked for money, perhaps they think they’re putting themselves on report for screwing this up in the first place at taxpayer expense.”
The distinctive USS Arizona Memorial opened to visitors in 1962. Twenty years later, the visitors center at Pearl Harbor, managed by the National Park Service, opened. But the current errors were introduced in renovations that took place between 2008 and 2010, according to Gillman and historians who have visited the park.
Mike Wenger, who has written a series of books about the attack on Pearl Harbor for the Naval Institute Press, says mistakes can happen for a number of reasons, the first being that the subject matter is extremely complex.
“The documents and photography in the archives, many of them do not have a proper context. And you have to know a lot about the event in order to be able to properly interpret them,” Wenger told Military.com.
Sometimes, there’s too much information, he added, making it difficult to verify “tiny bits of information.”
And finally, many parks and museums simply don’t have military historians on staff who can oversee every detail of the displays and collections.
“A lot of these decisions — selection of material and interpretation of material — is sometimes done by committee … and it seldom works,” Wenger said.
Emily Pruett, the public affairs officer for the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, said the National Park Service is aware of the issues, and Superintendent Tom Leatherman, who took over in October, has every intention to “address the errors.”
She added that Leatherman met with Gillman on Nov. 5 and plans to research the items he has identified as problematic and make corrections as needed.
However, she said, the park service does not “have a finalized timeline or cost estimate for the updates at this time.”
The park has had its share of issues. It has suffered from high turnover at the superintendent level, with four acting superintendents since 2020.
In 2018, the National Park Service shut down the USS Arizona Memorial for a major renovation to stabilize the monument’s dock system and improve the infrastructure — a $2.1 million renovation that was completed in 2019.
Gillman believes the musical chairs and lack of funding have left it woefully neglected.
He has written to his congressional representatives and the secretary of the Interior to get the errors fixed. He has lobbied every park superintendent and is hoping Leatherman will be the man to make the changes.
He also has set his sights on a larger effort — to get more money allotted to the park.
Gillman would like to see the interpretive spaces at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial expanded to accommodate a National Park Service warehouse full of artifacts and materials that aren’t available for public view.
The expansion would not require any new construction, he argues, because the park service was given ownership a decade ago of a series of buildings on Ford Island, the Chief Petty Officers Bungalows, located not far from the memorials to the battleships Oklahoma and Utah.
The 100-year-old homes look over Battleship Row, “where sailors and Marines swam ashore through flaming oil to safety,” Gillman said.
“From that water’s edge, you can look up and down and see where 12 Medals of Honor were earned,” Gillman said.
Pruett said the National Park Service is prioritizing projects such as repairing the shoreside dock so visitors continue to have access to the USS Arizona Memorial, as well as presenting the history of the war in the Pacific.
She added that “all options of the rehabilitation of the bungalows are being considered.”
The National Park Service and Pacific Historic Parks plan to host events Dec. 5-9 to mark the 80th anniversary of the attacks, which killed 2,390 Americans. Details are available on the park’s website.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the year of the USS Arizona Memorial’s opening.
Coffee or Die is Black Rifle Coffee Company’s online lifestyle magazine. Launched in June 2018, the magazine covers a variety of topics that generally focus on the people, places, or things that are interesting, entertaining, or informative to America’s coffee drinkers — often going to dangerous or austere locations to report those stories.
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