HONOLULU - For curators and collectors, pieces of the USS Arizona are revered bits of history, the pride of any World War II showcase.
But in an overgrown field near Pearl Harbor, huge chunks of the legendary battleship are rusting away, tucked among the trees and thick weeds, hidden from the world.
"It's a well-kept secret," said Lorraine Marks-Haislip, a historian of the Arizona. "It was dumped there decades ago, sadly. To some people, it was just another pile of rusting junk."
Only a handful of bureaucrats, Navy brass and devoted veterans knew of its existence.
Navy officials have been quietly shipping parts of the crumbling heap to museums and veterans organizations around the country. The American Legion in Arizona has a hatch cover; Amvets has some of the anchor chain.
"It's a shame that this stuff is sitting out here, rusting away," said Supply Commander Michael Free, who is heading the effort. "It deserves places where it can be appreciated and viewed by future generations."
The remains are actually part of the ship's forgotten superstructure - anything above the main deck that got cut off during salvage attempts 50 years ago, or when the memorial was built in the early 1960s.
Unlike the sunken hull of the Arizona - a sacred tomb for the men trapped below decks during the Japanese attack - the superstructure was basically seen as "in the way," Free said.
In the spring of 1942, salvage workers rescued what they could: the 14-inch guns and their mounts, a few turrets and barrels. The rest was put on a barge and junked in a Navy scrap yard at Waipio Point on Oahu.
Nearly 20 years later, another section of the deck was removed for the new monument and tossed on top of the other pile. "That's the most disappointing," Free said. "They just dumped it out here with not much thought about its continuing historical interest."
And so it sat - unnoticed and unmissed.
While millions of people visited the new monument, where the American flag is raised and lowered every day, the superstructure got lost in time, abandoned amid the usual military turnover.
Dense mesquite and koa trees hid it from the busy Pearl waterway. Weeds grew thick among the twisted scraps of corroding metal. Wasps built big white nests in what used to be the galley.
But 50 years after the attack, someone remembered.
Article prompted search
Free, head of the Navy's Fleet & Industrial Supply Center, was touring Ford Island with some Pearl Harbor survivors on Dec. 7, 1991. One of them was Joe Nemish, who showed him an old newspaper photo of the pile and asked to see it.
After a quick investigation, Free and Nemish found the neglected remains. The field is well-hidden at the end of a muddy road, behind two security gates in the west loch of Pearl Harbor.
"I was flabbergasted," said Nemish, who was a soldier at Schofield Barracks the day of the attack. "It was so old, so precious to be out in the open weather like that."
Free couldn't believe his eyes. It had to be saved. But how?
It was still Navy property. He learned that a few people knew the story - veterans, museum curators - and wanted items for their war exhibits, despite the condition. But that would take congressional approval.
For three years, Free worked with the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. Adm. R.J. Kelly, commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, got behind the project. Historians like Marks-Haislip wrote letters, mounting pressure.
Finally, Free won permission from Congress to give parts to deserving non-profit or state organizations. The first piece - an 8-foot-high corner piece of the galley - was shipped in February to the Capitol Museum in Phoenix, Ariz.
A month later, some eagle scouts cleared away the weeds and brush so more treasures could be salvaged.
Now 10 organizations have artifacts.
The USS Arizona Reunion Association has the flagpole from the original wooden monument erected in 1950. The flagpole has a new home at the Veterans' Memorial Cemetery in Phoenix.
A `little history lesson'
The American Legion in Yuma, Ariz., has a hatch cover set in concrete. "You and I will never see it disappear," said Donald Stratton, one of only 289 Arizona survivors, who spoke at its dedication. "Some of our children's children can have a little history lesson one day."
Nemish, president of the Pearl Harbor survivors' chapter in Lake Isabella, Calif., got a pair of 2-ton rusted tripods for his group's memorial park. "It should have never been allowed to deteriorate like that, but it happened. That's water under the bridge."
With the secret leaking out, more organizations are calling for items.
Not many recognizable pieces are left. Most are just big slabs of riveted steel.
A section of tripod from the gun director's perch sits next to what is left of the galley. Free pointed out a drive shaft buried under scraps of metal. Those two pipes with ceramic lining? Not sure what they are. Might be from the propulsion system. Possibly the exhaust.
Original wood monument
The original wood monument to the Arizona is here, too, still attached to a piece of the galley. The shiny railing on the wood glistens against all of the rusting superstructure.
Free enjoys bringing veterans to see the old ship, watching them touch the crusty pipes, something no visitor to the Arizona memorial can do.
They often find themselves crying for their fallen comrades. "The stories they tell are remarkable," he said.
Thousands of miles away, in a small town in Arizona, Ed Chappell almost leaped through the phone when he was told of the forgotten treasure in Hawaii.
As storekeeper for the national Pearl Harbor Survivors' Association, he collects mementoes from the attack.
One of his most prized pieces is a sliver of metal from the Arizona's gun turret.
"I'm gonna have to check into this," he said. "Sounds like it would be a great addition to our collection.
"It's not every day you come across a piece of the Arizona."