For any history buff, a trip to Oahu really must include a visit to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites. Here you’ll find four separate locations to visit, each with its own story to tell about World War II history. I’ve been there a number of times, but my most recent visit was with two teens – one mine, one borrowed. A fairly recent renovation created a more streamlined system, making it easier for visitors to maneuver.
This is a somber place, and standing there in the quiet peacefulness of the harbor, I tried to imagine the chaos that ensued on December 7, 1941. I found it impossible.
A visit to the memorial starts with a short video depicting the events of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the film, we boarded a small Navy boat that took us out to the memorial itself. The stark white memorial spans the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, in which 1,177 men are still entombed. The sinking of the USS Arizona with those men aboard is the greatest loss of life on any U.S. warship in American history. Oil still floats up from the wreck (2-9 quarts a day) coloring the water with a shimmering rainbow.
The marble wall engraved with the names of those lost on the USS Arizona includes sets of brothers, as well as fathers and sons, who perished together aboard the ship. A much shorter list of names sits adjacent to the memorial wall. These, we’re told, belong to the men who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and have since passed on. They are interred on the Arizona, thus joining their comrades in death.
Following our remembrance of the soldiers lost on the USS Arizona Memorial, we return to the visitor center where we tour two separate museum areas. The Road to War building addresses the political climate leading up to the attack, and the Attack building is filled with displays of photos and memorabilia from the day of infamy.
One aspect of the attack that many people don’t think about is the aftermath for the Americans of Japanese descent. Hawai‘i, in particular, had a large Japanese population at the time of the attack.
“The attack sparked widespread fears of sabotage and espionage,” states one placard in the museum. Those fears, however, were unfounded. During the war, not a single case of sabotage from within the Japanese-American population was confirmed.
Here, our tour guide walked us around the deck of the ship, pointing out various details and sharing factoids about the ship itself and the history of the USS Missouri. While the ship sits in Pearl Harbor today, the USS Missouri wasn’t actually there on the “day of infamy”— she was still in production in New York. The Missouri, an Iowa class battleship, joined World War II in the final months and participated in several critical battles, including the Allied invasion of Iwo Jima. (In later years, Missouri participated in the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm.)
It’s the battle history and the firepower of the USS Missouri that enthrall the boys. They listen intently as our guide tells us that the barrel of the 16″ guns on deck weigh as much as the Space Shuttle and the projectiles weigh as much as a Ford Mustang. (How does this ship stay afloat, I wonder.) They are astounded to hear that three barrels can fire a round as far as twenty miles every 60 seconds. And they are humbled to stand on the spot where World War II came to an end.
Our guide tells us in detail about the 23-minute ceremony in which the Japanese surrendered, thus ending World War II. On board the Missouri, representatives of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, and other Allied representatives signed the Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay. General MacArthur used six different pens to sign his name, giving them as souvenirs of the historic event to several key players in the war – and one to his wife. The technology of the day: the ceremony was filmed in 16mm and then sent to movie theaters. Anyone who wanted to see details of this historic event paid admission at their local movie house.
Below decks, we take a self-guided tour of the maze of rooms. We maneuver with the aid of marked arrows, but wonder how anyone can ever find their way around. Carson stops to test out a bunk, but I’m more interested in the various rooms set aside for food preparation. There’s a kitchen, a bakery, and even a vegetable preparation room. On display is a Christmas menu that includes turkey, ham, and duck along with side dishes like sweet mixed pickles, raisin sauce, stuffed celery, and fried rice.
During our visit, Fely Sunio was on board. She was ten years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and remembers it vividly. She had taken her two younger brothers out crabbing, even though there was a lot of noise coming from Pearl Harbor. Standing at water’s edge, she saw two Japanese fighters approaching, flying slow and low along the coastline. One of the pilots waved at the children as he approached. “Wave back, maybe he won’t shoot us!” she told her brothers. Shortly thereafter, her father came to tell them they must come home to safety.
Just prior to our trip, the boys had watched the movie, Pearl Harbor, so they were interested to learn that the tower and several of the buildings on site appeared in the movie. Throughout the tour, we’d see a couple of other props from the film, and they actually got a chance to try to lift a “bomb” that was surprisingly light.
Inside the museum, we saw an assortment of planes, including a Japanese “Zero,” a Wildcat, an SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber, and a Soviet MiG-15, but seeing these amazing machines paled in comparison to listening to the stories that our tour guide, Ford, told about the war. Ford began our tour by telling us that he was one of those kids who spent hours building model airplanes and had countless models hanging from his bedroom ceiling. (Raise your hand if you can relate!) Now he indulges his passion for planes by volunteering at the Pacific Aviation Museum.
The boys – World War II buffs, both of them – learned so many new facts and stories. We were especially enamored with the story about the Battle of Ni‘ihau. Never heard of it? No surprises there. Here’s the story:
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the island of Ni‘ihau was (and still is) privately owned and accessible only by invitation. The residents spoke Hawaiian. When Japanese Naval Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi (who had just taken part in the second wave of the Pearl Harbor attack) crash-landed his damaged plane in a Ni‘ihau field, the people of Ni‘ihau had no idea that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Remember: no Internet or CNN. Nishikaichi was treated with typical island hospitality, and in fact, honored with a luau. But shortly, the few radios on the island made the people of Ni‘ihau aware of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Nishikaichi was imprisoned. A Japanese worker, Yoshio Harada, was called in to translate and guard Nishikaichi, but instead was convinced by his prisoner to take the side of the Japanese. Nishikaichi and Harada took hostages in the name of Japan, and eventually shot a Hawaiian man by the name of Ben Kanahele three times. Instead of stopping him, the bullet wounds seemed only to anger Kanahele. He picked up Nishikaichi and threw him into a rock wall. Mrs. Kanahele was even more outraged that someone would shoot her husband and picked up a large rock and struck Nishikaichi with a coup de grace. Her husband, Ben Kanahele, survived.
Ford had so many great stories to tell. The boys absolutely loved it.
The planes and displays inside the main building are museum quality, but Hanger 79 next door is the restoration hangar. Here we got to see planes in various states of repair, and climb aboard a helicopter where the boys laugh to discover that a funnel-like attachment is not a speaking tube, but a “head” to be used by the men aboard.
“So, um, is there a storage tank?” asked my son. “Or…?” Let’s just say you probably wouldn’t want to stand under one of these babies while it was in the air.
What about the women? At that time, women weren’t commonly aboard these machines, so there was no consideration for the needs of the ladies.
For all of the cool equipment in Hangar 79, the most stirring thing we saw were the bullet holes that still remain in the glass windows of the hangar, a visible reminder of the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor.
Back in the main museum building, the combat flight simulator gave the boys a chance to try their flying skills. For 25 minutes they both “fought” the Japanese invaders and tried their hand at landing on an aircraft carrier. (Carson would want me to point out that he landed on his second try while Evan ended up in the water.)
Our time to view the USS Bowfin was very limited. The boys didn’t want to skip it, because neither had ever been aboard a submarine, but at the same time, we knew that we just didn’t have time to leisurely enjoy the audio tour that was provided.
Technology to the rescue! Carson whipped out his iPod Touch and proceeded to take video as we very quickly made our way through the claustrophobia-inducing small space and lots of teeny, tiny hatches.
“We can record it as we go, and watch later to see what we missed!”
I loved that solution.
Admittedly, the boys were a little disappointed not to be able to take their time on the Bowfin, but our slapdash tour cemented the fact that living aboard a submarine would not be our first choice for digs.
We visited the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites as their guests. A version of this piece originally appeared on GeekMom at Wired.com.
The author of several hands-on activity books for kids, Kris Bordessa has a thing for transforming perfectly good garbage into craft projects. Her book, Team Challenges: Group Activities to Build Cooperation, Communication, and Creativity, features more than 200 team building activities that have been used with youth groups, in the classroom, and even at the occasional wine party. She lives in Hawaii with her family, where there's always some sort of gardening experiment in the works.