For most Americans there are a few days that stand out in our history. Some stand out for reasons of celebration, such as Independence Day. Others stand out due to tragedy. One such day was December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is the day the United States was thrust into WWII and thousands lost their lives. It is a Memorial we have longed to stand upon. We wanted to pay our respects and honor those brave souls that fought for the freedoms we have today.
When planning our trip to Hawaii our number one priority was making it to Pearl Harbor, on the island of O’ahu. Due to travel restrictions at the time, we decided to stay on this island for the duration of our stay rather than island hop.
We grabbed our guidebook and delved into the pages devoted to the Pearl Harbor Memorial. The first thing we realized is that Pearl Harbor is so much more than just the USS Arizona. Each separate part of the site can be done individually or all as one package. As part of this historic site you can also enter the USS Bowfin submarine and the USS Missouri, as well as the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. We opted to do all of the above, also known as the Pearl Harbor Passport.
Only the USS Arizona requires a reserved time slot to visit. Reservations are released in waves. You can book 8 weeks out for the first opportunity. The secondary booking window is one day in advance. The old system of walk-in first come first served has been discontinued. Make your reservations here. Remember, the slots fill up fast, so don’t hesitate to book once you’ve made the decision to go. It is a highly visited destination in Honolulu. This reservation is for the boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial only. You can either buy entry to the other museums in person or online. To purchase tickets for each museum, click on the appropriate links; USS Bowfin, USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
We took some time to map out how to get there. Remember when visiting that you are not going to the current Pearl Harbor base, but to the Memorial. Fortunately the city bus system takes this route on #40 or #42 and is a 45 minute ride from most spots along Waikiki. It is a cheaper alternative if you are not renting a car during your visit.
With tickets in hand and our bus stop mapped out, we set out for our day back in history. Our family had quiet anticipation for the day and knew the weight of what we were walking back into. We arrived at the bus stop directly in front and took care of logistics. First thing to know: personal bags are not permitted inside, so you must step in line to rent a locker for the day to hold your belongings. Everything is streamlined and very efficient, allowing you to get your day started quickly.
The USS Bowfin
Our first stop was the USS Bowfin submarine. An employee snaps a group photo in front of the walkway of the submarine and you begin your short climb to the top of the Bowfin. You are stepping aboard a fleet attack submarine that fought in WWII. It was launched on December 7, 1942- exactly one year after the infamous attack. If brave enough and you can handle a bit of claustrophobia, take the ladder down into the small quarters that held up to 85 men at a time for a two-month war patrol.
If you grabbed the audio guide, listen to the stories and step by step guide of the different points and functions of this incredible piece of engineering. To be standing where young soldiers were housed in the most terrifying of times is truly eye opening and gives a new perspective to things you thought you understood. Even our boys were able to grasp the bravery of those men. Black and white photos are scattered throughout and you can’t help but step back in time with them. Young boys on missions most of us will never comprehend.
The tight living quarters made the approaching ladder a warm welcome as we climbed back out. We took a moment to explore the topside and snap some photos to capture our memories. Everyone took a turn sitting in front of the deck guns, allowing us to feel a part of the history in our hands.
Upon exiting, you are given the opportunity to purchase your group photo placed on a 1941 newspaper, which we snagged right up. Sometimes the tourist traps get it just right and they did with this one. We also recommend their gift shop. All souvenirs are of high quality, unique, reasonably priced and you have the added bonus of supporting the maintenance and expansion of our very own history.
The USS Missouri
Our next stop was the USS Missouri, which is a quick shuttle ride from the home base of the Visitor Center. The 58,000 ton battleship’s deck saw the signing of the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945. It carried out bombing raids over Tokyo and aided in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. This ship was even deployed in the Persian Gulf War before officially retiring in 1992 and has sat in Pearl Harbor since 1998. So much history and you can feel it surround you. We believe you could spend an entire day touring this ship and feel like you have not seen enough of it. Due to time constraints we limited ourselves to an hour and a half.
The ship is massive- 887 feet, or 2 1/2 football fields. Massive. Throw on top of its sheer size a couple of 65 foot gun barrels extending from the Mighty Mo’s cannons. Take a moment to listen to a guide on deck tell you the history that happened on that very spot. Slowly walk along and try to envision what they must have seen in the Pacific so many years ago.
As with every spot, audio guides are available to take you step by step through the ship. If you prefer to walk at your own pace or do it your own way, there are plenty of markers along the path detailing where you are and what happened there. The ship is set up to appear like it is ready to set sail today, giving you the feeling that you are a part of it all. Letters to home are on display for you to immerse yourself into their lives and give you a small glimpse onto their souls. Photos of sailors greet you at every turn giving you the opportunity to again step back in time. For us, this was an extraordinary museum honoring so many veterans and we did not have enough time to get our fill.
The USS Arizona
We filed off the battleship to quickly jump in line to take the shuttle back for our reserved boat time to visit the USS Arizona. Exiting the bus we frantically rushed to get in another line. The boat that takes you to the USS Arizona Memorial is operated by the U.S. Navy. This line was like the line at Chick-fil-A on a Saturday afternoon. It wrapped around every corner available. Everyone in line is heavy with anticipation. All were looking forward to our final destination while also feeling a sudden solemnness for the loss we are about to hover over.
A Navy man grabs our attention to give instruction on behavior expected at the Memorial as a place of respect and honor. Remember this is a cemetery as well. Not only for the sailors and marines that went down with the ship, but those who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor may, upon their deaths, have their ashes buried within the ship with their fallen comrades.
We will be brutally honest on this part. Due to timing restrictions and the sheer number of daily visitors they pack as many people as they can on this boat. It felt a bit like we were being herded and rushed to get on as quickly as possible. Every seat must be filled, so many were forced to move over to allow for one or two people to take a seat at the end of the bench.
The quick boat to the Memorial is again filled with talk from a current service member of the Navy, who gives a timeline along with comments on proper etiquette. Approaching our destination is like entering another time. The physical force hits you and will not be ignored. The weight of what lies beneath you lies heavy in your heart. You cannot help but pause and give thanks to the young souls that lost their lives that day in service to our country.
View the concrete pilons marking the size of the ship. Watch the oil still rising to the ocean’s surface almost 80 years later. Walk back to the marble wall listing the names of the 1,177 crew members lost that day. It is an experience you cannot put into words. A feeling you will never forget. A reminder of the sacrifice so many have given.
A more solemn group lines up to take the return trip back to the Museum center, all contemplating and processing in their own way. All experiencing similar feelings, even though we came from vastly different backgrounds.
While in years past you were allowed unlimited time at the Memorial, that is no longer the case. Unfortunately you are only allowed approximately ten minutes to take it all in. We are hopeful that after restrictions are lifted they will return to a more open ended timeline to fully appreciate the Memorial.
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
For our final tour we hopped back on the shuttle to get to historic Ford Island and arrive at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. The first part is set up in Hangar 37 with gift shop directly attached, a theater playing an award winning documentary, complete with a Fighter Ace 360 Flight Simulator. Walk past the remains of the Japanese A6M2 displayed exactly the way it was found after crash landing in Ni’ihau with the second wave of attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Continue your path to the Battle of Midway and the U.S. Bomber made famous in the Doolittle Raid. Pause next to a piece of the USS Arizona, showing the piercing blow (as the exhibit is named.) The museum aids in your understanding of events with markers explaining where the aircraft began and where it ended. Small artifacts fill all the spaces in between. This 25,000 square foot hangar is not all they have to offer.
Once you have taken your fill, exit through the gift shop and follow the signs to Hangar 79. This hangar still has the original windows in place with bullet holes from the attack. This building holds a restoration shop and details the United States growth in aircraft beyond WWII. It takes you through Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and beyond. This part gives you an up-close look at the aircraft you’ve only read about.
Our boys, (and Craig), allowed their inner young boy out with the fascination of military planes. The wide-open layout allows you to gander at your own pace. Just outside this hangar is a parking lot full of helicopters just waiting to be gazed upon. It is a bit overwhelming to say the least.
Once Craig removed his fighter helmet, we were able to gather and regroup. We caught our final shuttle ride back to the Pearl Harbor Memorial and ended our day in history. The depth of our day will stay with all of us. Both of our fathers served in Vietnam, so appreciation to our veterans is a part of who we are. This further cemented that appreciation. Thank a veteran.
Thanks for reading, and #NeverStopPlanning.
Jen and Craig