The Mystery Behind the USS Arizona's Bell
Two men claimed separately to have discovered the bell in a naval shipyard in Washington state, as revealed in papers curated by University Libraries' Special Collections. A campus exhibit devoted to the mighty U.S. battleship, sunk by bombs at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago, continues through Dec. 23.
You probably know this much: One of two bells salvaged from the USS Arizona, the battleship sunk in a Japanese bombing raid at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, rings from the tower of the Student Union Memorial Center on the University of Arizona campus.
You might even know that the UA home for the iconic bell was intended to be the tower of Old Main — until the bell's sheer size (it weighs well over a half-ton) ruled out the possibility. It was housed temporarily at the Arizona State Museum.
"The bell is about five times as big as anybody expected it to be," UA anthropologist Emil W. Haury wrote in a letter dated Sept. 13, 1946. "Heads are being scratched to figure out what to do with it."
But did you know that the bell's discovery in a naval shipyard seems to be a matter of dispute, or at least confusion?
"The bell has an interesting history," says Trent Purdy, assistant librarian and archivist for University Libraries' Special Collections, who has become intimately acquainted with that history through his curation of the USS Arizona exhibit that runs through Dec. 23 at Special Collections.
The bell, said to be made of silver and copper mined in Arizona, is "the most visible thing on campus" connected to the USS Arizona, Purdy says.
That will change on Sunday with the dedication of the USS Arizona Mall Memorial, which will feature a display of 1,177 medallions, one for each of the U.S. servicemen who perished aboard the ship, and also include a full-scale outline of the mighty Arizona's deck, obvious to pedestrians along the UA Mall's western half. Organizers accomplished their goal of having the memorial completed in time for this year's 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"The outline, the sheer size (of the ship), is really something," Purdy says. "It was a floating city, with a post office, a prison and a sick bay. It was a way of life for its men for more than 25 years."
The stories of those men — recorded in photos, documents, correspondence and mementos that filled 70 boxes — have fascinated Purdy for months now. Planning for the Special Collections exhibit began about a year ago; Purdy's curation started last April. He estimates that he spent more than 1,000 hours on the project.
"You want to tell the story of the ship and its culture," he says. "There was so much to choose from."
Correspondence provided by Purdy reveals two different claims on the discovery of the bell, which was presented to the UA on Navy Day (Oct. 26) in 1946 and rung at the dedication of the Student Union Memorial Building on Nov. 16, 1951.
UA alumnus Bill Bowers, an Army captain, has been widely credited with spotting the bell on a 1944 salvaging tour of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, and saving it from an appointment with the smelter. Archival letters from naval officials, Arizona Gov. Sidney P. Osborn and UA President Alfred Atkinson seem to support Bowers' story.
Bowers wrote that after being shown the bell by the shipyard's keeper, he notified Atkinson and asked him to seek Osborn's help in securing it. Osborn wrote to the yard and then to the Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, to request the state's custody of the bell, which then would be turned over to the UA. At the time, Old Main served as headquarters of the Naval Officer Indoctrination School, a selling point for the University's acquisition.
However, Hves Primeaux, a retired naval officer from Long Beach, California, claimed that he was the one to discover the bell in 1942 — two years earlier — while walking the same shipyard in search of a refrigerator. He said that only his signature was required for possession. Although he wanted the bell to be sent to Hawaii for an anticipated memorial there, he said it was signed over to an unnamed UA official after a change in commanding officers at the shipyard.
Another Arizona governor, Jack Williams, commended Primeaux for saving the bell in a 1969 letter — and so did the University in a ceremony in 1985. Primeaux's claim was reported as fact by the Arizona Daily Star, which published a photo on Dec. 9, 1985, of Primeaux being hugged by UA Associate Vice President Bill J. Varney — the same Bill J. Varney who had received a letter from Bowers 16 years earlier while serving as Student Union director. That letter provides Bowers' account of the find.
Who found the bell? Was it Bowers or Primeaux? Both men are dead, and so is Varney, although Primeaux's widow, 99, insists through a family friend that credit belongs to her late husband. The one thing that the Bowers and Primeaux accounts agree on: The UA's bell never spent time in Phoenix. The other bell from the ship did, however, before being returned to the Navy in 1966 for display at Pearl Harbor, where it resides at the visitor center.
Purdy says that regardless of the conflicting details, which certainly add to the bell's lore, the UA's USS Arizona collection has played a starring role in keeping history alive for generations.
"People say, 'I had no idea that this (collection) was here,'" he says of visitors to the current exhibit. "They’re dumbfounded that we have all of this. These materials are so important to American history. Pearl Harbor was a game changer."
WhatDedication of USS Arizona Mall Memorial
WhereUA Mall east of Old Main
When3 to 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4
The Special Collections exhibit "The Life and Legacy of the USS Arizona" is open through Dec. 23. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed Saturday and Sunday).
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