USS Arizona artifacts are sacred – so are Native Hawaiian burials

The Navy and the veterans community have rightfully rallied to stop the auctioning of artifacts salvaged from the USS Arizona after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The silver plated service set is considered ‘sacred’, and is being claimed as property of the Navy.  It is good to have a sense of history and the sacred.  But it is hypocrisy when the military fails to extend the same degree of respect to Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) sacred sites and burials in areas touched by military activity.  For example in Waimanalo, the expansion of recreational cabins by the Air Force is evicting the bones of Kanaka Maoli ancestors from their resting place to make room for…toilets.    On Mokapu the Marines golf and build their homes and training facilities atop the vast Heleloa sand dunes, a well known burial site.   Years ago, sand was mined from the dunes to build the base, and now bone fragments are turning up in the driveways, pavements and foundations of many military homes on base.   Military homes are literally built with the bones of Native Hawaiians!  I wonder how well those families sleep.


Posted on: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Artifacts off auction block

Navy raises ownership questions over recovered items from USS Arizona

By Christie Wilson

Advertiser Staff Writer

A partial silver-plated service set salvaged from the USS Arizona just months after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor was withdrawn from auction yesterday after the Navy took action to claim the artifacts.

Cowan’s Auctions Inc. of Cincinnati was planning to sell the items at a Dec. 9 auction and estimated the 24-piece lot would fetch up to $20,000. When Navy officials learned of the auction through inquiries by The Advertiser, they contacted Cowan’s to discuss ownership of the artifacts, according to a spokesman from the Naval History & Heritage Command, which is part of the Department of Navy.

“We have withdrawn the items from our Dec. 9 auction and have encouraged the present owner to strongly consider donating the collection to the Navy or to the USS Arizona Memorial,” said auctioneer Wes Cowan, who has appeared on the PBS shows “Antiques Roadshow” and “History Detectives.”

U.S. military veterans and others were dismayed that artifacts from the USS Arizona might be sold to the highest bidder, because the battleship is considered hallowed ground. Many of the 1,177 crewmen who died on the ship are entombed in its hull.

Cowan said the artifacts, which include a teapot, saucers and a candlestick from the officers’ mess, were received on consignment from the daughter of Navy diver Carl Keenum, who collected the pieces while salvaging remains, ammunition, weaponry and personal items from the stricken U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Keenum was serving as a construction battalion master of arms aboard the USS Oklahoma during the Pearl Harbor attack and helped saved the lives of 37 crewmates in the hours after the ship was sunk by Japanese torpedoes, according to the auctioneer.

A statement from Cowan’s Auctions said Keenum brought home the service pieces as souvenirs of his wartime experiences, just as countless other soldiers, sailors and other military personnel saved mementos of World War II.

The 30-year Navy veteran died in 1964.

“While Keenum is no longer alive to tell the story of how he acquired the silver plate, there is little doubt that he did so with the belief that it would have only been discarded,” the auction house statement said. “Indeed, the shipboard salvage operations at Pearl (Harbor) produced mountains of trash that was simply piled onto scows, towed to sea and dumped. Such would have likely been the fate of Keenum’s souvenirs.”

The current owner of the artifacts decided to sell the collection when a family member became ill with leukemia, Cowan’s Auctions said. “The consignor was genuinely surprised to learn that the souvenirs saved from almost certain destruction were not hers to sell,” the statement said.

Keenum’s daughter wishes to remain anonymous and would not comment, Cowan said in an interview.

“In her eyes, her dad did nothing wrong, he was a hero and he kept these not for their monetary but historical value,” he said.

Navy Region Hawaii issued a statement yesterday saying the issue of ownership of the artifacts is being reviewed by the Navy’s legal staff and the Naval History & Heritage Command.

The statement also reiterated the longstanding position that “U.S. Navy craft and their associated contents remain the property of the U.S. Navy unless expressly abandoned or title is transferred by appropriate U.S. government authority. Property rights are established in the U.S. Constitution and international maritime law.”

The statement said the USS Arizona “is considered one of our nation’s most sacred and hallowed historical sites.”

“We cherish the memory of the sailors who sacrificed in World War II. The significance of USS Arizona should never be diminished or cheapened.”

The lot of 24 pieces includes a candlestick with a raised Navy seal, a pedestal bowl, sauce boat and two lids, a tray, seven saucers marked Gorham, six bowls, a teapot marked Reed & Barton, a cruet stand, and several pieces of silver burners.

Salvage diver and former merchant marine Gary Gianotti, 38, of Milford, Conn., alerted The Advertiser to the impending auction. He said he has been involved in the recovery of Revolutionary War cannons, flags and other relics with a mind toward preservation.

“I was really shocked. I could not believe that (the auctioneer) would condone allowing sacred relics to that shipwreck being sold off,” Gianotti said.

Gianotti said he hopes the artifacts are returned to Hawaii.

Arthur Herriford, 87, national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said he was relieved to hear the items will not be sold at auction.

“It’s sacred material and we feel very strongly that you don’t monkey around with anything like that,” said Herriford, of Sherman Oaks, Calif. “The Arizona Memorial museum is the place it should be.”

The auction catalog indicated the USS Arizona Memorial had written to Keenum’s heirs in 1997 expressing interest in acquiring the items as a gift from the family.

Paul DePrey, superintendent of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the USS Arizona Memorial, has said the National Park Service would very much like to own the partial serving set, but was not planning to bid for it.

Reach Christie Wilson at


gary gianotti

I am the person who discovered these artifact for sale! How do you think I feel about when I was a helmsman on the last American merchant cruise ship in Hawaii, SS Independence! I helmed the ship on VJday 50th into Pearl, alongside the USS Arizona that day. Two of my shipmates from the Indy/ class mate 18 year old Brian Terry drowned at your sacred burial grounds waterfall area in Hilo, (did I spell it right) How do you think I feel? We have the same problem in CT with our sacred burial grounds. Both the sacred grounds and the USS Arizona should be both respected. Please do not attack the Navy. Burial grounds all over the world are in the same situation.
God Bless Gary Gianotti


Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry for all the loved ones you have lost. I agree that sacred places need to be respected. But I think that institutions like the military need to be held accountable and corrected when they arrogantly trample upon people, communities, cultures.

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