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The caretaker of the "Blackened Canteen" tradition, Dr. Hiroya Sugano, holds the recovered World War II-era canteen. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

‘Day of Infamy’ Pearl Harbor Commemorations Include Annual Ceremony of the Blackened Canteen

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It is an annual toast to peace. American and Japanese representatives extend the offering each year at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, gently pouring bourbon from a World War II-era canteen into the hallowed waters below.

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The ceremonies for decades have been a mainstay on the island of Oahu, honoring the courage and sacrifice of American service members during the Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During the attack, 2,403 Americans died. Another 1,178 were injured. Eight Navy battleships were damaged, and two — the USS Arizona and the USS Utah — were permanently sunk.  

In a Dec. 8, 1941 address to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt termed Dec. 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” The attack spurred the United States to enter World War II. 

More than 80 years later, the annual Blackened Canteen ceremony remains a gesture to reconciliation.

According to the Navy, the canteen ritual began as a Buddhist monk’s long-ago secret ceremony to honor two American airmen he pulled from a downed B-29 in Japan in 1945. The airmen soon died. In that same wreckage, the monk found a crumpled, blackened canteen. It appeared to bear the seared-in imprints from a human hand. 

In order to honor the dead Americans, the monk surreptitiously erected a cross. Each year on the June 20 crash anniversary, he poured whiskey from the blackened canteen onto the cross. Eventually the aging monk gave the canteen to a local man, who brought the ceremony to Pearl Harbor.

As part of the ritual, American and Japanese delegates pour whiskey from the fire-charred canteen into the waters above the sunken USS Arizona. The delegates also sprinkle flower petals to represent lives that were lost.

The ceremony also is held in Japan.

“It’s very touching and meaningful,” said Kathleen Lowe, an American who previously attended Pearl Harbor ceremonies. “It’s solemn, and lovely. It’s all about reconciliation.”

The main commemorations take place on what the National Park Service terms Battlefield O’ahu. Though the Japanese Empire focused on destroying the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, the Park Service notes, the assault was directed at targets throughout the entire island, to include Army and Marine bases.

About Susan Katz Keating

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