Pearl Harbor is on the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii, not far from Honolulu, and is still a functioning naval base. But it will always be best known as the site of the Japanese attack on the USA that drew the United States into World War II.
One of the most famous American political speeches of the twentieth century was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to Congress shortly after the attack. Here are some of his words:
- “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.”
This Thursday marks the 76th anniversary of that sneak attack. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred early in the morning, lasted about 2 hours, and severely damaged (but did not destroy) the American Pacific fleet. When the dust cleared, more than 2,000 servicemen had been killed and nearly 20 naval vessels and 300 aircraft had been destroyed. Much has been written about this battle in history books and many movies and documentaries have been created about that day. The interested reader is referred elsewhere to learn more about the events and consequences of that battle.
We will focus on visiting Pearl Harbor today as a tourist. There are a number of interesting and historic visitor sites in Pearl Harbor, the main one being the USS Arizona Memorial, built in the early 1960s with fundraising help from former army veteran and renowned entertainer, Elvis Presley. Elvis held a benefit concert, all the proceeds going to the memorial, helping greatly in its construction.
Of the casualties suffered during the Pearl Harbor attack, about half occurred when a bomb smashed into the USS Arizona, crashing through its deck into a munitions hold, which exploded. The ship sank immediately, entombing a thousand men within and where they rest to this day.
The Arizona Memorial monument sits above the sunken Arizona, but does not touch it. A visit to the Arizona Memorial starts with a stop at the visitor center, viewing a 23-minute documentary in the visitor center theater, and a boat ride to and from the memorial. You are given about 10 minutes to explore and pay respects at the memorial itself. You will need a timed ticket, but admission is free. The entire visit to the memorial takes less than an hour and a half, although you might have to wait a long time for an open ticket slot (so be sure to arrive early). Take some time to explore the museum artifacts as you wait to take your tour.
It is very moving to see the rusting hulk of the Arizona beneath you when you visit the memorial. Oil continues to leak from the ship, even three quarters of a century after it sank. The memorial has a lengthy list naming all those young Arizona crew members whose lives were ended so quickly that day, and whose bones are in the metal tomb beneath you.
Other sites worth visiting in Pearl Harbor include the Battleship Missouri Memorial. The Missouri, nicknamed “Mighty Mo”, was involved in three wars and served for five decades. It’s a living museum whose deck and inner structure you can explore via a tour. It was on the deck of this battleship that General MacArthur accepted the unconditional Japanese surrender that ended WWII (September 2, 1945).
So from a historic perspective, you have the two bookends of the USA’s involvement in World War II within a few hundred yards of each other — the sunken Arizona where it all started, and the floating Missouri where it finally ended. Be sure to check out the Missouri’s amazing 16-inch guns that could fire a 2,700-pound shell for 23 miles.
There are several other military related tourist sites nearby, the most interesting being the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park. The Bowfin is a retired submarine that was involved during the war in the Pacific during World War II. You can explore the submarine and tour a Waterfront Memorial honoring submariners lost in WWII.
The Pacific Aviation Museum and USS Oklahoma memorial are also nearby if you have time (I’ve never had a chance to visit these).
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