Just after 8 a.m., our Navy launch comes alongside the small jetty at the eastern edge of a simple white sway-top building. Above us, the Stars and Stripes is stirred by gentle tropical trade winds.
Perhaps this is what it was like 70 years ago, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: white clouds etched on a deep blue sky, launches crisscrossing the calm waters of the U.S. naval base, and gray warships berthed at shoreside docks.
What happened next changed the United States and the world. Just before 8 a.m. local time, the first wave of Japanese carrier-based fighters and bombers swooped down on an unsuspecting U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, on the southern shore of the island of Oahu. At 8:06 a.m. – almost the exact time I step off the Navy launch at the USS Arizona Memorial this particular morning – an armor-piercing bomb penetrated the deck of the proud battleship and exploded, setting off the forward ammunition magazine and triggering U.S. entry into World War II.
The resulting explosions proved fatal to the warship and 1,177 of its crew. The shattered hulk of Arizona quickly settled keel-first into the muddy bottom of Pearl Harbor, still alongside its mooring platforms just off Ford Island. To the north and south, other battleships would be crippled or destroyed: Nevada, California, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Battleship Row, the pride of the Pacific Fleet, had suddenly become a tangle of twisted steel, covered by thick oily smoke and fire. All around, the screams of wounded and dying men filled the air.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that morning killed 2,341 Navy, Marine and Army personnel. It also resulted in 49 civilian deaths, a few of which were caused by U.S. anti-aircraft shells falling on Honolulu. The attack led to the United States’ direct involvement in World War II, which had been under way in Europe for two years. And although it wasn’t obvious yet, with the burning hulks of U.S. warships scattered across Pearl Harbor, Japan’s sneak attack also marked the beginning of the end of its military ambitions in the vast Asia-Pacific region.
Seventy years later, with U.S. military forces fighting wars sparked by another sneak attack, Pearl Harbor remains both an active naval base and a monument to a titanic struggle fought across millions of square miles of ocean. For the dwindling number of veterans who served in World War II – particularly those who proudly call themselves Pearl Harbor Survivors – and for many generations that followed, “Pearl Harbor,” the name and the place, is both a rallying call and a sobering reminder of the grim sacrifice required to achieve victory.
Today, it is home to four historic sites that chronicle the devastating attack on U.S. military forces in 1941, and the long and difficult road to victory, which came four years later. More than 400,000 tourists from around the world visit the complex each year.
At the center is the the USS Arizona Memorial, which, along with smaller monuments to Oklahoma and Utah, is part of the National Park Service’s World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Dedicated in 1962, the Arizona memorial is also the oldest of the four Pearl Harbor sites. A white building straddles the rusting remains of the battleship’s hull, parts of which still break the surface of the harbor. There is usually a rainbow-colored sheen on the water around the memorial, caused by oil that continues to leak from the sunken ship.
Adjacent to the Arizona Memorial Visitor Center is the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, which is dedicated to Navy submariners who served in World War II – particularly the 3,500 who never returned and remain on eternal patrol. Called the Pearl Harbor Avenger, Bowfin launched on Dec. 7, 1942.
The most imposing of the four Pearl Harbor sites is the Battleship Missouri Memorial. An 887-foot, 45,000-ton leviathan moored along what was Battleship Row, BB 63 was the Navy’s last battleship. Though her huge 16-inch guns were fired in three wars over five decades – World War II, the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm – Missouri is best known as the site of Japan’s official surrender to Allied forces in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, ending World War II.
The symbolism of the mighty Missouri berthed just south of the Arizona Memorial, the alpha and omega of America in World War II, is not lost on any visitor to Pearl Harbor.
The youngest site is the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor. Like the Missouri Memorial, it is located on Ford Island, occupying two hangars that were part of what was once Naval Air Station Ford Island. The museum documents, with restored and unrestored aircraft, the critical role played by aviation both in World War II and conflicts since. One of the most dramatic displays at the museum is also the most static: glass panes at Hangar 79 with bullet holes from the attack.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many battlegrounds of U.S. military history. I’ve walked through the tall grass at Gettysburg and strolled over the rolling hills of Manassas. I lived for many years on Saipan, and grew up exploring the jungle that has grown over the detritus of one of the costliest battles of World War II. A few years ago, I rode on a small boat to Peleliu, where U.S. forces labored for 10 bloody weeks to win a battle that the brass said would take just a few days. The losses were horrific.
Still, nothing quite prepares you for the first time you step aboard the Arizona Memorial. Architect Alfred Preis’ monument is stark yet deeply moving, leading one to reflect on the sailors and Marines still entombed in the wreck. At the western end of the monument, in a chapel-like room, the names of every soul who went down with his ship that day are etched in stone.
Stepping back to look out over the starboard or port sides of the monument, Arizona’s hull can clearly be seen. Under the rusted deck are the remains of those who died aboard Arizona, and in recent years, the cremated remains of many of the attack’s survivors have been sprinkled there – their last wishes being to join their shipmates in eternal rest.
Those visiting the Pearl Harbor complex should take a couple of days to fully experience all four museums, and to talk with the many veterans who are staff members and volunteers there. A number of them are survivors of the attack.
Dick Girocco, a volunteer at the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, was a 20-year-old seaman second class in December 1941, part of the crew that manned a PBY Catalina flying boat out of Naval Air Station Ford Island. Dick is now 90 and walks with a cane, but his sense of humor and clear memory don’t need assistance of any kind. As we chatted in the museum’s cavernous Hangar 79, I marveled that on Dec. 7, 1941, Girocco was just down the way at another hangar, dodging bullets and shrapnel, finally finding safety in a ditch.
Spend enough time at the Pearl Harbor museums and you soon realize they don’t just testify to the past. They bring it to life. For example, you can’t fully appreciate the sacrifices of U.S. submariners in World War II until you try to navigate the cramped corridors of Bowfin. There’s a reason the silent service only took volunteers, and looking at a shower stall one-third the size of a broom closet brings home the challenges of serving aboard a submarine of that era.
I was fortunate enough to be aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial when a group of eighth graders from St. John Vianney Parish School of Kailua arrived. The boys and girls were eager to learn what it was like to serve aboard a U.S. battleship during World War II, and experience how its sailors lived. Indeed, they were assigned narrow racks in the enlisted sleeping quarters – girls on one side of a corridor, boys on the other. They stayed the night aboard Missouri, and I heard they’d later experience a shipboard fire drill.
Watching the youngsters travel Missouri’s passageways, learning to step up and over to get through a doorway, I remembered roaming the fields of Gettysburg as a kid. It was one thing to read an account of that epic battle, but something quite different to stand on Little Round Top and try to imagine the unsuccessful and costly Confederate charge up the rise.
Another veteran who spends his days at Pearl Harbor is David Goodman, a 71-year-old retired Air Force chief master sergeant. For many visitors, he’s the face of the Pearl Harbor museums. As a staffer at the Bowfin museum, Goodman mans the baggage station where visitors must check anything bigger than a purse (the museums, after all, are on an active military base).
I asked Dave to tell me the most unusual question he’d been asked during his nine years at the museum. He thought for a moment and replied, “Where is the USS Arizona?” He added, “Yes, they want to know where the ship is now.”
And that’s why it is so important to educate our younger generations. I couldn’t help but be encouraged when I saw those students from St. John Vianney come aboard Missouri. OK, they were giggling and wide-eyed and didn’t turn toward the battleship’s stern to salute the U.S. flag as they came aboard. But I’m betting that by the end of their tour aboard Missouri, they knew Arizona’s location, and why that memorial, along with the others at Pearl Harbor, are as important to them as they are to their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Floyd K. Takeuchi is a writer and photographer living in Hawaii.
WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument –USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma and USS Utah memorials
The Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah memorials are operated and maintained by the National Park Service as part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Visitors to the Arizona Memorial take a Navy launch to the site. The Oklahoma Memorial is on Ford Island next to the battleship Missouri, and can be accessed via the Missouri shuttle bus. Access to the Utah Memorial
is limited to those with base access. The visitor center is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Tickets are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. The first tour is offered at 8 a.m. and the last leaves at 3 p.m.
Phone: (808) 422-3300
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park
Adjacent to the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center, the
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park is dedicated to the sacrifice of the more than 3,500 submarine sailors lost in World War II. The museum is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Combined general admission is $10 per adult and $4 per child ages 4
Phone: (808) 423-1341
Battleship Missouri Memorial
Missouri served in World War II, Korea and Operation Desert Storm. Best known as the site of Japan’s World War II surrender, the “Mighty Mo” is open daily on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission, which includes the choice between several optional tours, is $20 per adult and $10 per child ages 4 to 12.
Phone: 1-877-MIGHTYMO (1-877-644-4896)
Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor
The Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor occupies the World War II hangars and control tower on Ford Island. Giving visitors a front-row seat to the Pacific theater and its aircraft, the museum illustrates how aviation turned the tide of the war. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $20 per adult and $10 per child ages 4 to 12.
Phone: (808) 441-1000