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Known the world over as a “date which will live in infamy,” the devastating events of December 7, 1941 changed the course of history. It was right here that a surprise air attack by the Japanese plunged the United States into World War II, claiming thousands of lives.
At Pearl Harbor, that tragic history is never too far in the past. Hear first-hand stories from survivors describing the chaotic scene on Battleship Row. Walk through an airplane hangar that still bears the scars from that fateful morning. And peer into the shallow harbor where the sunken hull of the USS Arizona rests, still leaking oil that pools on the water’s surface like black tears, as they’ve been described. Visiting Pearl Harbor is an experience that will be etched into your soul forever and will offer you a new perspective on World War II.
The Hawaiian name for Pearl Harbor was Puuloa (Iong hill). Later named Pearl Harbor for the pearl oysters that were once harvested from the waters, the natural harbor is the largest in Hawaii. Ulu (breadfruit) was said to be brought here from Samoa.
At 7:55 a.m. on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor, in what would be one of the deadliest attacks in U.S. history. In total, the attack by 353 Imperial Japanese airplanes lasted just under two hours and left 2,390 dead, with hundreds more wounded. The following day, the U.S. declared war on Japan.
Five historic sites comprise Pearl Harbor today: the USS Arizona Memorial, Battleship Missouri Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, USS Oklahoma Memorial and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
USS Arizona Memorial
The site of the most devastating loss of life, the USS Arizona was hit by a 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb at 8:06 a.m. on December 7, 1941. The catastrophic explosion that resulted sank this massive battleship in nine minutes, killing 1,177 crewmen.
Today, the USS Arizona Memorial (part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument) is a place of somber beauty and quiet reflection. Begin at the Visitor Center, where you can watch a film about the attack and view plaques honoring lives lost on that fateful day. You’ll then take a boat shuttle to the floating memorial built overtop the sunken hull of the Arizona, the final resting place for many of the ship’s crew. In the shrine room, a marble wall exhibits the names of the men who lost their lives. Poignant and powerful, this is a place where visitors come face to face with the devastating effects of war.
Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial is free, but visitors must reserve a time slot for the boat tour in advance. You can do this online (a $1.50 fee will be charged) up to two months in advance. Alternately, 1,300 tickets are released each morning at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center; the memorial sees an average of 4,000 visitors per day, so show up early (doors open at 7 a.m.) to reserve your same-day time slot in person, fee free. For $7.50, you can add a self-guided, narrated tour for a more immersive experience.
Battleship Missouri Memorial
General Macarthur accepted the unconditional Japanese surrender that ended World War II on September 2, 1945, on the Surrender Deck of the Battleship Missouri. Now located at Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row, the massive “Mighty Mo” is a living museum, with exhibits spanning three wars and five decades of service.
Explore the decks of this 60,000-ton battleship, three football fields long and 20 stories tall. Stand on the Surrender Deck and view the documents that ended the war. Take a tour and get special access to restricted areas. Don’t miss the ship’s most stunning feature: towering 16-inch guns that could fire a 2,700-pound shell 23 miles.
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park
Also known as the “Pearl Harbor Avenger,” the USS Bowfin (SS-287) is one of 288 U.S. submarines that carried out the war in the Pacific. Start at the submarine museum and learn about the battle beneath the seas. A tour of the grounds will take you to a Waterfront Memorial honoring submariners lost in World War II. Then, step aboard the Bowfin and descend below deck to tour its torpedo room, engine room and sleeping quarters.
Pacific Aviation Museum
The Museum is home to two WWII era hangars which survived the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Ford Island Control Tower. The hangars and surrounding tarmac still bear the scars of the attack in the form of bullet holes, strafe marks, and bomb craters.
As you step into the hangars, you cross the threshold of time and walk into the pages of history. Up first is a short introductory film in the 200-seat theater that sets the tone with memories from survivors recounting the day of the Japanese attack. Then, it’s on to the vintage aircraft.
With 50 aircraft on display, including the instantly recognizable Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and its nemesis, the Mitsubishi Zero, the 1942 Stearman Biplane flown by President George H.W. Bush and the remnants of the “Ni‘ihau Zero,” which crash landed on Ni‘ihau Island after the Pearl Harbor attack. Among the other aircraft on exhibit are some of aviation’s most iconic military aircraft, like the B-17 “Swamp Ghost” Flying Fortress, F-15 Eagle and AH-1 Cobra. From propeller planes to the jets of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the Museum offers a compelling visual timeline of aviation history as advancements led to ever faster and deadlier aircraft.
USS Oklahoma Memorial
Dedicated on December 7, 2007, the USS Oklahoma Memorial honors the 429 crewmen who lost their lives in the Pearl Harbor attack. Approximately nine torpedoes hit “The Okie,” capsizing this 35,000-ton battleship in just 12 minutes. Some crewmen were actually trapped in compartments below deck after the ship capsized. They used hammers and wrenches to signal rescue crews on the surface; two days after the attack, 32 men were rescued from the ship’s overturned hull.
Planning Your Visit
Start at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to purchase tickets and get information on all of the museums and memorials before beginning your journey. The Visitor Center is open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day).
As noted, the boat tour to the USS Arizona Memorial requires advanced reservations, which can be made online or in person (same-day tickets only). Boat tours are canceled when winds are above 25 MPH (a very rare occurrence). You can also purchase a Passport to Pearl Harbor package, which includes admission to all four partner sites (USS Arizona Memorial, Battleship Missouri Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park and the Pacific Aviation Museum).
Pearl Harbor is still an active U.S. naval base. Due to increased security, the following items are prohibited: purses, backpacks, fanny packs, diaper bags, camera bags, luggage and any other items that provide concealment. Bag storage is available for an extra fee.