One of the best ever episodes of NCIS was all about how Gibbs solved the mystery of an old man with dementia who claimed to be one of the few remaining survivors of the USS Arizona.
So how do you tell that story from an NCIS point of view and make it compelling enough for the normally stoic Gibbs (Mark Harmon) to get all misty-eyed? You make it about a 95-year-old who says he was on board the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. And he wants to be interred with his fellow sailors when he dies.
That was the basis for “The Arizona,” which ran April 14, 2020. Because the Covid pandemic shut down filming, this episode became the season 17 finale. Outsider is looking back at some of the most loved and talked about NCIS episodes. But it was the perfect way to end the season. Users on IMDB.com graded it as a 9.0 on a 10-point scale. Christopher Lloyd, the Back to the Future star, played the role of Joe Smith, the nonagenarian who claimed to be on the Arizona the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Here’s the problem. He was only 16 in 1941. But he says he used his brother’s birth certificate to join the Navy.
NCIS EP Said One of Three Remaining Arizona Survivors Died While Planning for Episode
Gina Lucita Monreal, who was then an EP on NCIS, said she’d wanted to do a Pearl Harbor episode for “quite some time.”
“We talked about it several times, but the timing was never right,” she said in an interview with CarterMatt.com. “Now, we’re reaching a time when the story won’t be able to be told anymore.”
She pointed out that when NCIS started working on the episode, there were three survivors from the Arizona who still were alive. But Donald Stratton died in early December, 2019. The surprise attack killed 1,177 sailors and Marines that day. But 337 survived. Two still are alive.
“We realized that it was kind of now or never for telling a story like this,” the NCIS EP said. “Honoring our Pearl Harbor vets and our World War II vets is so important — putting the idea out there that their stories won’t be forgotten is so important, especially for a show like ours.”
So how did NCIS tell this story since there’s no obvious crime? At the beginning of the episode, an admiral returns home from 45 days at sea to discover someone broke into his place. His daughter’s Purple Heart medal was missing. The daughter died in Afghanistan. The admiral’s family was multi-generation Navy. His father also was an admiral. And he inscribed a message on his granddaughter’s medal before he died.
Turns out that Joe Smith snatched the medal. He wasn’t going to give it back until NCIS proved that he served on the Arizona so he could have his ashes buried on the ship. Smith even left a note at the crime scene with his name and where he was staying. Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) and Bishop (Emily Wickersham) head to the hotel. Joe wants them to bring the “gray-haired leatherneck.” That’s Gibbs.
Joe Smith Used His Brother’s Birth Certificate to Enlist
Smith has no proof he was on board other than an old scar. He’s reluctant to talk about the attack. Gibbs brings a broken slide projector into the interrogation room. He knows that Henry Smith, who was on board the Arizona, was an electrician’s mate. So since Joe posed as Henry. he probably knew how to fix the projector. And Gibbs loaded a lot of battle photos from that awful day in U.S. history. Joe is angry that Gibbs would pull such an obvious manipulative trick. He doesn’t want to talk.
Gibbs tries again. He wants to know what Joe smelled and tasted as the battle went on. So Joe finally began providing details. That morning, he was waiting to catch a launch to the beach. He was with his friend, Ozzie O’Connor. Then they saw planes approaching. Smith suffered a shrapnel injury in his arm. And as he was being loaded into a rescue launch, he helped get three sailors, including Ozzie, out of the water. He said his next memory was waking up in the hospital. “We saved each other. All of us,” Smith told Gibbs. “I want to be laid to rest with my family. I want to go home.”
Gibbs Figures Out Joe Smith Told the Truth
Gibbs signs a note saying that once Smith dies, he promises to have his ashes interred on the Arizona. He and Joe head back to the hotel. But Gibbs can’t find the Purple Heart that Joe said he stashed in an air vent in his room. Smith became so upset that he collapsed. The NCIS team learned that Joe, who’d been living at a nursing home, had been diagnosed with heart disease and dementia. Joe died at the hospital. And as Gibbs sat by his body, he realized that Joe’s scar was the proof he needed. An analysis confirmed that tiny pieces of shrapnel still inside Joe’s arm were from metal bolts used on the Arizona.
Where was the medal? Remember that Joe had dementia. The medal was in an air vent in his bedroom at the nursing home.
Gibbs accompanies Smith’s remains to Hawaii. He hands the ashes to a diver, who brings them down to the sunken ship. Then you hear Gibbs’ voice, as he talked with McGee about his own war experiences when he served as a Marine in Kuwait.
It was an emotional way to wrap up the season.