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A hunk of history in AZ: USS Arizona boathouse finds new home

“What we have here is actually the original boathouse of the USS Arizona.”

Martin Harvier is president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. This huge chunk of rusted history now resides on his land, located near Scottsdale.

“I think per capita Native Americans have answered the call to serve our country, and here in our community we have numerous members that have served our country. And I really believe our veterans felt that they wanted to bring something here that was significant," Harvier said. 

The effort was led by the tribe’s Vice President Ricardo Leonard, who was initially offered a much smaller piece — then asked again for something more significant.

“We didn’t realize the size of it. I guess it was a group in Hawaii that after nine years didn’t do anything with it. So, we were asked if we would like that piece and we said yes! The piece was in a place called the boneyard. A lot of people weren’t allowed in there. We saw pictures, but didn’t realize the amount of weight it had to it," Leonard said. 

With the help of donations, the hunk of the boathouse was shipped across the Pacific and eventually to Arizona, where a five-acre memorial gardens exhibit and accompanying pond was built around it. It opened to the public in 2020. Aaron Allan was the project’s lead landscape architect.

“It forms a to-scale perimeter of the ship, so as you stand here and you walk around through the gardens, you look out on the water, that’s the footprint of this enormous ship. You think about how many people it contained — so it’s just an immense structure," Allan said. 

Around the perimeter and inside the ship’s outline are 1,500 columns. Allan says they all represent a life that was aboard the vessel.

“The shorter columns represent a survivor of the attack. All the internally illuminated columns are somebody that lost their life that day.”

Jason Kerby was the project’s construction manager.

“No one else in the continental United States has a piece of the relic this big. As a history buff, it’s really cool for me to be part of this project," Kerby said. 

With that in mind, Kerby says the challenge was getting it exactly right.

“Putting that steel structure in a pond, and having to build a dam, drain that side of the lake, build those columns, keep it square. It is the perimeter of the USS Arizona. It has to be perfect," Kerby said. 

Leonard says its location helps to represent the outsized contributions Native Americans made in World War II — but the memorial itself is for everyone.

“I hope the United States understands and the state of Arizona understands that this is part of history, and it doesn’t belong to anybody. It doesn’t belong to our tribe, it doesn’t belong to the state of Arizona, it belongs to the nation," Leonard said. 

Special events to commemorate the 80th anniversary are taking place all day on the site, including a traditional flag breathing, gun salute and wreath laying ceremony. There’s also a flyover featuring historic World War II era planes and special performances by the Arizona Fire Service Pipe band and the Navy Honor Guard.

The exhibit and gardens are free and open to the public from dawn to dusk.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to add the full name of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and correct the spelling of Ricardo Leonard's name. 

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Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.