Main front turret gun sight on the USS Missouri. Pearl Harbor, Hawai’i.
The BBC recently published an article
on the sounds of war, on the effects on people of hearing sirens, missiles, explosions and so forth during wartime. The latest tit-for-tat display of mutual terrorism being conducted in Gaza was used as a starting point. Audio samples of sirens, explosions etc. are provided. In one you can hear the ocean, then the shipborne Israeli guns releasing volleys landwards, thudding with enormous concussive effect.
The earliest sample they have is a recording of something my mum always told me about experiencing growing up in England during the Blitz; the sound – then silence – of the “Doodlebugs” over London. It was the sound of a very distinct, German-engineered engine that propelled a crude rocket towards civilian areas and just…stopped. And dropped. Silence – then as now – marking an interval between anxiety and sudden panic.
I recently took a tour of the “Last Great Battleship”, the USS Missouri which is moored in Pearl Harbor, bow to bow with the sunken, oil-burping remains of the USS Arizona and her crew. For Americans, these two ships in proximity represent both the beginning and the end of World War 2. The Arizona was sunk on December 7th, 1941, ensuring the US entered the war. The Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, on September 2nd, 1945, was the site of the formal declaration of surrender by the Japanese.
It was odd to overhear tour guides going on about powder charges, projectile size and range in precisely measured detail and with child-like enthusiasm. Tourists seemed genuinely impressed that it took 6 bags of powder (weighing however many pounds each) to lob a projectile (measuring whatever) over a distance of (who, exactly, cares?) miles to deliver its payload (of it really doesn’t matter). All I could think about was the horrific sound levels endured on either end.
As the day wound down I asked if we could get inside the main gun turret. Entry was normally off-limits, physical access was awkward and the space inside hot and cramped. I remember seeing documentaries where battleship main gunners wore massive hoods and bulged hearing protection. I always thought that could never be enough. I asked the guy who let us in if any of the old crew ever showed up for a reminisce. Sure they did. And how was their hearing? Gone. These guns are silent now and the men who fired them live with diminished hearing.
Meanwhile, all over the world, new generations are becoming accustomed to a whole new range of sounds.