Aging, frail survivors of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor gingerly sifted dirt as they helped to break ground on a new visitor's center for the USS Arizona Memorial.
The current visitor's center - across the harbor from the submerged battleship - is sinking because it was built on reclaimed land, causing water to seep into its basement. Engineers estimate the building will last only a few more years.
The center is where visitors board ferries taking them to the white memorial straddling the sunken hull of the Arizona. It's also where they learn about the attack through exhibits and films, making it vital for conveying the history of the day that launched the United States into World War II.
The National Park Service, which runs the memorial, and the Arizona Memorial Museum Association, which supports it, have spearheaded the effort to build a replacement visitor's center so they can continue to tell the story of Pearl Harbor.
U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, a World War II veteran, told the several hundred people gathered for the groundbreaking Wednesday that walking through the visitor's center exposes people to the devastation and despair Americans felt during the attack.
It also instills in them unwavering resolve, he said.
"We must always remember our history. While there were painful lessons learned, it is also the source of our inner strength and our spirit," Inouye said. "We must never allow that torch to flicker out."
Inouye, 84, witnessed Japanese fighter planes flying over Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941, when he was a 17-year-old high school student living in Honolulu. He served as a first-aid volunteer, helping to treat civilians wounded when misfired U.S. anti-aircraft shells fell on homes and businesses.
In 1943, he joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a highly decorated unit of mostly Japanese-Americans. In 2000, President Clinton presented him with the Medal of Honor.
Herb Weatherwax, a 91-year-old attack survivor, said the new visitor's center would help survivors and the park service tell the story of the attack. "I just hope that I live long enough for it," he said.
The building is due to be completed by December 2010.
The Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund has raised nearly $54 million of the estimated $58 million cost of the center. Donations from individuals will cover more than $22 million of it, while the federal government is putting up $29.6 million and the state of Hawaii is paying $2 million.
The current center, built in 1980, was designed to accommodate about 2,000 visitors a day. But more than 4,000 people have been visiting daily on average since the 1980s, straining its resources.
The Arizona sank nine minutes after a being hit by an aerial bomb dropped by a Japanese plane. It is an underwater grave for more than 1,000 sailors and Marines unable to escape.
On the Net:
USS Arizona Memorial: http://www.nps.gov/usar/
Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund: http://www.pearlharbormemorial.com/
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Copyright 2008 Associated Press