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Somber memories

Tours of Pearl Harbor keep history alive

The Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, propelled the United States into a conflict that would finally end nearly four years later with the beginning of the atomic age. Now, the site of the surprise attack is a national memorial to the lives lost that day and still an active home to modern warships.

Pearl Harbor

  • Pearl Harbor
    Photography by Chris Rose
  • Pearl Harbor
    Photography by Chris Rose
  • Pearl Harbor
    Photography by Chris Rose
  • Pearl Harbor
    Photography by Chris Rose
  • Pearl Harbor
    Now a National Historic Landmark, Ford Island still shows the scars of war.
  • Pearl Harbor
    Photography by Chris Rose
  • Pearl Harbor
    Photography by Chris Rose

Start with the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. Here, walk through exhibits on the history of Pearl Harbor, or Wai Momi, leading up to and following December 7, with artifacts spread throughout. On the water’s edge, follow the timeline of the attack showing photos from that day and look out onto those very spots across the harbor.

From the visitor center, boats ferry guests to and from the USS Arizona memorial. After a short and somber ride, visitors have 15 minutes on site. At one end of the memorial, a white wall displays the names of those from the battleship who were lost, many of whom have never been recovered from the wreckage. Peering over the edge, tropical fish swim among the submerged bones of the ship, as oil bubbles up and kaleidoscopes across the surface. From the memorial looking to the north, spot the hills where the first wave of aircraft dove down toward battleship row and Ford Island. An estimated 2,400-plus service members and civilians lost their lives that day; 1,177 of those were on the USS Arizona. The battleship with the second highest casualties was the USS Oklahoma, with 429 lost.

Of particular interest to aviators is the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. From the visitor center, take the free shuttle bus to Ford Island and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and the USS Missouri. Unlike the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, both the museum and USS Missouri require an entry fee.

Previously home to an airfield (and still looking landable if you had some bushwheels), Ford Island was Japan’s first target on December 7 in an effort to disable air power first. At the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, which is spread across several hangars, marks from that day remain in the shattered glass on the hangar door windows, scars caused either from enemy or friendly fire. The museum features a variety of aircraft worth the price of admission (reasonable at $25.99) including warbirds, a Stearman flown by George H.W. Bush, and an Aeronca TC–65 Defender airplane that was one of the eight private aircraft aloft on the morning of December 7. The highlight, though, perhaps lies just in visiting the site itself, walking around the hangars, and putting yourself in the same place as pilots from days past.

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

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Practical tips

  • Arrive early. Crowds are a guarantee at Pearl Harbor, and heat is too. Starting in the morning will likely give you better weather to engage with this primarily outdoor memorial.
  • The tropics are rainy, and forecasts are guesses. Bring some weather-ready gear just in case.
  • Bags are not allowed. You can carry your camera/wallet/phone in, but bags are not allowed. Signs in the parking lot advise visitors that theft is common, so the only option seems to be to check your bag with the park service before the entrance.
  • Planners, prebook your boat ride to the USS Arizona. Time slots can be reserved online, but don’t worry, you can walk up to the standby line and try your luck there as well.
  • Act appropriately. Yes, you’re probably in Hawaii for a chill vacation, but this is a national memorial to a huge loss of life, and your attire and behavior should reflect that.
  • Civilians must access the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and USS Missouri via a bus from the main Pearl Harbor Memorial area. If you try to drive yourself onto Ford Island as a civilian, you will be politely turned around.
  • Check out the historic air traffic control tower and the C–47 parked in front of it—you can get a docent-led tour of the tower with an additional ticket.
Alyssa J. Miller

Alicia Herron

Publications Content Producer
Publications Content Producer Alicia Herron joined AOPA in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. She is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.

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