As Hawaii (and the nation) prepares to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, detective work is being done on Ford Island, where sailors and airmen weathered the first blows of the Japanese attack.
The Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor occupies buildings on Ford Island, still in the heart of an active U.S. Navy base, and has undertaken a variety of efforts to preserve and restore the historic structures. Elissa Lines, the museum’s executive director of development, has been hard at work raising donations and grants to support efforts to preserve and protect the hangars, runway, and a control tower that was still being prepared for action (converted from its original use as a weather tower) as the attack arrived. One of the three hangars that were hit was restored in 2006, and houses aircraft and other exhibits including flight simulators that allow the museum’s 225,000 annual visitors to get a feel for aerial battle of the time. Another has been partially restored, and is currently used for aircraft restoration; a third hangar still under Navy control is part of the museum’s future plan.
The museum is part of a collaborative committee of organizations preparing to mark the anniversary, and secured a $50,000 grant in 2015 under the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program that will support a detailed forensic survey of Ford Island, and subsequent efforts to fill in the details of the story and preserve the site for future generations.
“Our hangar has bullet holes that are still in the windows,” Lines said in a telephone interview. Forensic techniques developed to study Civil War battlefields will be applied to Ford Island, down to small details that are much like “reconstructing a crime scene.” The paths of individual bullets will be calculated and carefully documented; the physical scars of war left behind on the airfield will be used to enhance the experience, informing interpretive signs, brochures, and details that help transport visitors back to the fateful day, moment by moment.
Lines said that while the study will not be complete in time for the weeklong series of events on and around Ford Island, the early findings will be useful. The museum is also raising money to complete restoration of the control tower that came online later; aircraft operations were managed in December 1941 from a much smaller, two-story tower that sits atop what was the main operations building. In all, the museum has secured $21.65 million (including $6.5 million of the $8 million needed for the tower restoration alone) in grants and donations toward a phased reconstruction and preservation plan that is estimated to cost $74.4 million, all told.
Lines said the museum hopes to have the 150-foot tower, which offers sweeping views of Pearl Harbor, open in time for the December commemorations.
“This will be a big deal,” Lines said, noting that restoration of an elevator is a key element of the plan, and engineers from the original manufacturer were recently examining the current state of the shaft to determine what, exactly, will be required. The elevator shaft may date to 1946, though the tower was accessed with stairs (180 of them) during much of World War II.
“We call it freedom view,” Lines said of the view from the top. “It’s a pretty amazing opportunity to stand up there … you can get a full sense of the area.”
A sense of urgency accompanies the excitement.
“We feel that the seventy-fifth commemoration is probably the last time that any significant participation from actual veterans will take place,” Lines said. “We’re hoping that this will be a transition year. We want to see that the legacy is passed on.”
Indeed, the theme of the broader commemoration is honoring the past and inspiring the future, focusing attention on the time and place that fundamental elements of the American character were shaped: particularly patriotism and resolve, Lines said.
Much of the planned restoration will be for the future, including restoration of the now-overgrown runway that has been designated as a national historic landmark in its own right.
“Everyone would like us to figure out that way to keep that runway stewarded,” Lines said. The runway has not been in regular use for decades, though special permission has been secured since for particular events including a warbird fly-in marking the seventieth anniversary. The museum hopes to host a legacy flight in December, with restored warbirds paying a special visit and tribute.
The museum is collecting donations online to support the restoration and preparation efforts, including both facilities and the roughly 30 aircraft in the museum’s collection, which are in various stages of restoration. Lines said the museum hopes to announce a major fund drive by Memorial Day, likely to involve the sale of custom-inscribed bricks that will be set in locations around the island.
“Our sense is that this is such an important restoration for the country that it would just be great to be able to have all Americans in some way to have some kind of connection to the site,” Lines said.