Hawaii teen guides USS Utah memorial's facelift
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: July 5, 2013
HONOLULU — On one side of Pearl Harbor's Ford Island is the sunken battleship USS Arizona — a Dec. 7, 1941, grave site and memorial that's known worldwide and visited by 1.5 million people annually.
On another side of Ford Island is the sunken battleship USS Utah, also a Dec. 7 grave, but one that's not nearly as well known and seldom visited.
So a local teen took it upon himself as his Eagle Scout service project to improve the Utah Memorial, and the result was a collaboration of Scouts, contractors and other businesses who pitched in hundreds of hours of work and more than $16,000 in materials.
Zane Grzeszczak, now 16, says he wanted to honor the sacrifice of veterans who have helped secure the freedoms that the United States enjoys.
"My Scoutmaster came up to me, and she asked if I wanted to help veterans," said the Pearl City High School junior, whose father is in the Navy. "So she mentioned that the USS Utah Memorial needed some renovation, and so I was like, ‘Yeah.' I jumped right on that."
Grzeszczak and other Scouts in Troop 180 spent nearly a year working on the Utah, installing a new concrete handicap-accessible ramp and handrail, adding cables as a safety barrier on a walkway out over the water, repainting the decking and planting new landscaping.
The Scout's mom, Dee Dee, said a metal ramp that had been laid over concrete steps flexed and wasn't stable, and the decking paint was peeling badly.
The old paint "was not the best with the weather that we have here," and her son and his helpers took the paint down to bare concrete and replaced it with epoxy paint that she said is expected to hold up better.
Zane Grzeszczak met with representatives of Mason Architects on a design. Walsh Construction, which is working on the adjacent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Regional Center campus on Ford Island, provided construction help.
Island Steel Erectors fabricated the handrail, and Transpacific Innovators provided plants, Dee Dee Grzeszczak said.
Her son orchestrated and had a hand in it all, she said.
"Really, it's humbling," he said. "I'm very honored to do this because I've always wanted to give back to our veterans. I never really thought I'd be able to do something like this."
The teen, who aspires to become a Navy SEAL, recently won the western region Eagle Scout service project of the year award for the improvements.
"This is not the typical Eagle Scout project," said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Kern, deputy security officer for Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Grzeszczak's assistant scoutmaster at the time of the project. "In fact, when he took it on, it was like, wow, and everybody hopes that they can pull it off as they are working the project, but it came out fantastic."
THE PUBLIC is now barred from the Utah Memorial because it is on secured naval base property, but that could change.
The National Park Service, which operates and maintains the Arizona and Utah memorials as well as the land-based battleship Oklahoma memorial on Ford Island, said it is working with the Navy to try to provide a tour bus stop and park ranger tours to the Utah.
Paul DePrey, superintendent of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, said when the park service became responsible for the Utah Memorial in 2008, "we struggled with, ‘How do we get people out there?' Because it's behind the (Navy security) gate, as it were."
The hope is that when the NOAA center is completed, some of the shuttle buses that drop off tourists at the USS Battleship Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, both on Ford Island, also can make a stop at the NOAA facility, DePrey said.
"People would be dropped off there and be escorted by a park ranger down to the Utah Memorial, listen to a presentation and then return back to the bus," DePrey said.
The Navy also has plans for a Ford Island History Trail around the island to be used mainly by island residents, but DePrey said a portion of that trail could be used by visitors to get from the NOAA center to the Utah Memorial on the west side of the island.
DePrey said the work overseen by Grzeszczak represents "a tremendous improvement in the accessibility to the site, and the goal is to build onto that and continue to enhance access."
THE PROJECT has brought a little more attention to the Utah, on which 58 sailors died when Japanese planes attacked seven decades ago, drawing the United States into World War II.
Crew member Gilbert Meyer, now 89, said it was "fantastic" that the Scout took on the project.
The petty officer first class, a fireman, was 18 — just two years older than Grzeszczak — when three torpedoes slammed into the Utah, which had been converted into a target and anti-aircraft gunnery practice ship.
Heavy timbers lined the deck to protect it from the practice aerial bombs that were dropped on it, and her guns were covered by steel "doghouses."
Meyer was two or three decks down, and after the second torpedo hit, the lights went out and the ship started to roll. Bullets from strafing planes splintered the wood on the deck.
"When they started strafing, I knew I'd better get the hell out of there and swim to shore," he recalled. "And swimming to shore, they strafed some more. We got over to a big sewer trench, which was dry."
About 461 crew members survived. Meyer said his best friend, John Reeves Crain, is entombed in the ship.
Meyer, who lives in Texas, said he understands why the Arizona gets so much more attention.
"The people from the (USS) Arizona got in touch with people that donated more funds, and they got a nice memorial, and we just didn't do it," he said.
The Utah was partially righted in 1943-44, with about a 200-foot length of rusting hulk now above the waterline. A few portholes with broken glass are still visible.
"Wanting to go in the Navy, just looking at it, as a sunken vessel, it's hard to believe that it was blown up here," Grzeszczak said. "It's pretty much a visible grave."