Pearl Harbor, on O'ahu, Hawaii
, is one of THE major dark-tourism sites in the world, certainly when gauged by the number of visitors it receives annually. It is the main shrine in the USA
history in the Pacific
. It was the site of a surprise attack by Japan
on the USA, which thus dragged the US into WWII … and we all know how that ended (especially for Japan itself).
More background info:
Pearl Harbor is the name of a natural harbour, i.e. a sheltered bay, on the southern side of the Hawaiian island of O'ahu, just west of Honolulu, the archipelago's capital. Its role as a naval base was consolidated shortly after the USA
in 1899. Continuing fortification and expansion of airfields and harbour facilities meant that by 1941 it had grown into the USA's principal military base in the Pacific. It is still the headquarters of the USA's Pacific Fleet today.
This prominent military role, of course, also made it a prime target when Japan was at the height of its imperial ambitions in the region and South-East Asia as a whole. Watchful of the growing militarization in Hawaii, the Japanese decided to launch an early crippling attack before the US could position itself militarily in a way that would threaten those ambitions. And so they launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday, 7 December 1941.
There is little point in trying to give a detailed account of the attacks themselves – scores of other sources, and not least the museums at Pearl Harbor themselves, do a much better job of this than I could possibly hope to do here. Suffice it to say that the blow was quite a catastrophic one for the US. But it was overcome rapidly.
Six Japanese aircraft carriers and their convoy had been able to sneak close enough to Hawaii to be able to launch a massive air attack. Although some (conspiracy) theories have suggested that at the highest level the attack may not have come quite so completely out of the blue and that there may have been some sort of implicit warning (which was ignored specifically so as to get the US involved in the war), for the servicemen on the ground and the sailors aboard the US Navy ships, it certainly came as a complete surprise, a deadly surprise for many of them at that.
Within just a couple of hours, five out of the eight battleships moored in the harbour as well as various smaller vessels had been sunk, and a large proportion of the ca. 400 aircraft based at Pearl Harbor had been destroyed on the ground.
The single largest individual loss was that of the battleship USS Arizona
, which sustained a direct hit on an ammunition magazine, which blew up. The ship sank instantly, with over a thousand sailors on board. In total some 2500 are believed to have lost their lives in the attacks.
The principal aim of the Japanese attack had been to inflict a crippling blow on the US Navy sufficient to put it out of action long enough for Imperial Japan
to pursue its expansionist strategies in South-East Asia without the USA
being able to throw too much of a spanner in the works.
In that respect the Pearl Harbor attack was a resounding success. Synchronized with the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched their invasion of Singapore
(only because this city is on the other side of the international date line does it appear to have started the day after) as well as the Philippines
, Guam and Hong Kong, and from there went on to conquer Malaysia, Indonesia
, Burma, and also various further smaller islands in the Pacific
However, it wasn't quite as total a success as had been hoped by the Japanese, namely in that the three US aircraft carriers based at Pearl Harbor happened to be out at sea when the attacks came and thus escaped destruction. And as was already becoming clear, it was aircraft carriers rather than old-style battleships that were to emerge as the crucial type of weapon in the Pacific War and beyond (even still today).
The Japanese may also have underestimated at what speed and scale the USA
would be able to compensate for the losses sustained at Pearl Harbor. In fact it didn't take too long to rebuild the naval base and put it back into action.
Moreover, the firepower lost in the attacks was soon more than compensated for, with new generations of battleships, in fact the very last and most modern of the type, as well as yet more aircraft carriers rolling off the shipyards in the American mainland and joining the war, together with an ever more sophisticated air force. The first turning point in the Pacific
War came only six months after Pearl Harbor with the US victory in the Battle of Midway, in which Japan lost four of its crucial aircraft carriers.
So while the attack on Pearl Harbor may have brought the Japanese shorter-term strategic benefits, in the longer term it also spelled the end of their imperial dreams. They simply had taken on an enemy too powerful to deal with.
Pearl Harbor was thus a pivotal event in the history of war, not just WWII, it was the final kick for the USA to begin the path of turning into the biggest military might the planet has ever seen. On 8 December the USA
declared war on Japan
, followed by Germany
and the US also declaring war on each other. All reservations about an involvement in the war evaporated amongst the US populace. And the rest is, as the cliché says, history.
Yet, despite the more positive knock-on effects it may have had for the USA's status in the world long term, the surprise attack of December 1941 left a trauma in the American psyche – it's, as then president Roosevelt said “a date that will live in infamy”.
What an enduring trauma Pearl Harbor still is became quite clear with the 9/11 attacks of 2001
when lots of American media outlets were quick to make comparisons between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor (also in implying that it meant the beginning of a war), even though overall there were clearly a lot more differences than similarities between the two world events.
The history of the memorial site began in 1958, when the USS Arizona memorial
was commissioned, which opened in 1962. In 1980 the running of the Pearl Harbor memorial site was turned over to the National Park Service. The site was expanded gradually and in 2008 became part of the “World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument” (which also has branches in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and in California).
The associated visitor centre at Pearl Harbor has also seen various expansions and modernizations and is these days absolutely state-of-the-art. The whole operation is a well-oiled machine, handling ca. 1.5 million visitors a year (ca. 4500 a day) in an efficient yet friendly way. I must confess that when I visited the site in August 2015, I was truly impressed with how well the crowd management worked without imparting too much of a sense of stress to the experience.
You have to be aware, however, that this site comes with quite heavy-handed expressions of US patriotism and militarism, which for some non-Americans might be a bit difficult to swallow. This is particularly so in the USS Arizona
part. Elsewhere, it's not so much in the foreground.
What there is to see:
a lot, requiring a lot of time
, and, preferably, a very early start. The main visitor centre, memorial complex and associated museums may not be that large, but if you also want to see all the extra sights, some planning ahead is advisable – see under access
In addition to the visitor centre and museums, there are also physically separate parts that require a boat or bus ride and are described in separate chapters here:
When you get through the gate of the visitor centre (which often requires waiting in line for quite some time) you should first head to the ticket booths to get your slot for the USS Arizona
. You may also already purchase your tickets for the USS Missouri
over at Ford Island at this point. There's a separate ticket booth for these, as well as for optional audio guides.
Most visitors will have to wait for their time slot for the USS Arizona tour, so this time can best be “killed” by taking in some of the other parts of the memorial around the visitor centre itself – otherwise you can do the lot after your tour.
There is a lot of information to take in. In addition to the museum exhibitions proper, there are also numerous text-and-photo panels dotted around the site in the open air. These provide plenty of information on all angles of the subject matter.
The main museum exhibitions are to the left of the entrance and are subdivided into two halves. The first one is about the “Road to War”, i.e. mainly providing the historical context leading up to the Pearl Harbor attacks, also covering the Japanese expansion plans all across South-East Asia. On display are period items, photos, documents as well as some ship models, such as one of the intact USS Arizona and one of a Japanese aircraft carrier. Some personal stories, some on video screens, put things into a more emotional context too.
is about the “Attack
” of 7 December 1941 itself, providing detailed accounts of all its stages, but also goes beyond the day of the attack itself, e.g. covering aspects such as the “home front Hawaii
” as well as the post-war memorialization of the events.
Again there are plenty of photos, documents and models, including a striking one of the wreck of the USS Arizona
with the current memorial on top (spot the little hammerhead shark near the bow of the wreck!). Of the original artefacts on display, a part of the hull of the USS Arizona, a clock stopped in the attack at 10 minutes past 8 and a mangled Japanese torpedo are amongst the most impressive. This part too is interspersed with personal stories, both on interactive video screens and in text-and-photo form.
Outside there are several separate memorial/contemplation spaces. Right in the courtyard outside the two museum exhibitions stands a replica of the “Tree of Life” window design of the USS Arizona memorial, and opposite this you can see the original ship's bell from the USS Arizona.
Moving towards the waterfront, there's a “contemplation circle
” in the top-left corner of the complex, overlooking the bay and the naval port. A bit further north you come to a “remembrance circle
” where dark stone slabs list the names of all the dead of the fateful day of the Pearl Harbor attacks (except those aboard the USS Arizona
– as these are listed at its own memorial), subdivided into military units, plus civilians.
Yet further north comes another circle. This one has at its centre one of the anchors of the USS Arizona, salvaged from the wreck. Another stone slab lists the names of the survivors from the ship.
A fourth remembrance circle further north still is dedicated to the submarines lost in the Pacific War and lists the names of those who perished with them. There are several dozen such stones, providing an indication of the perils of being a submariner at war.
From here you can get a good view of one of the extra attractions at the Pearl Harbor site: the USS Bowfin submarine. You can get on board and explore the interior, for which you need to purchase a separate ticket beforehand. But since I had visited quite a number of submarines over the preceding years I gave this one a miss, and so can't report first-hand on what exactly you get to see inside. It's not difficult to have a good guess, though: cramped sleeping quarters, a galley, torpedo tubes, the bridge, diesel engines. On land, the USS Bowfin has its own supplementing museum exhibition and even its own gift shop.
The north-easternmost part of the Pearl Harbor memorial complex has several larger-scale open-air exhibits, some of which are also connected to the submarine theme (but free to visit).
Amongst these is a so-called 'conning tower
' of a submarine (the raised pressurized compartment inside the “sail” or “fin” on top of a sub's main hull, from where the surroundings of the sub were observed and instructions to the helmsman and torpedo crew were given). You can go inside and even use a periscope
Also on display are a number of missiles, from early-generation cruise-missile precursors to their modern equivalents as well as two whole “Polaris” nuclear SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missile), an earlier (A-1) and a later (A-3) version. Another striking artefact is one of those Japanese manned “kamikaze” mini-sub-cum-torpedoes. Several regular torpedoes as well as anti-aircraft gun batteries and such like are also dotted around this area.
Just east of this area is the spot from where the shuttle buses to Ford Island depart – for the USS Missouri
and the Pacific Aviation Museum
. (This is also where you can pick your bags back up from storage – see access
Back by the main entrance to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites is its own large shop. It is truly enormous and sells books, models, T-shirts, bags, and all manner of other bits and pieces.
ca. 5 miles (8 km) as the crow flies, and ca. 8.5 miles (14 km) by road, north-west from the centre of Downtown Honolulu, O'ahu, Hawaii
Access and costs: partly restricted but not too difficult to get to; the main memorials are free of charge, but costs for extras can pile up.
Details: To get to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites complex you can take a bus – the local company The Bus runs two lines (#20 and #42) that connect the site to Honolulu and Waikiki (you can check schedules on thebus.org).
The alternative is driving there yourself (most people who don't just stay in the resorts of Waikiki get a rental car anyway, which is highly recommended). The memorial site is just off highway H-1 West, which connects Waikiki/Honolulu with the international airport and Pearl Harbor beyond. From H-1 take exit 15A onto HI-99 (Kamehameha Highway) and at the fourth set of traffic lights turn left into Arizona Memorial Place (1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, HI 96818 is the address to put into your GPS).
If you come from Waikiki/Honolulu bear in mind that traffic can be very heavy in this dense conurbation, so that driving times to the memorial can be around 45 minutes. Coming from the north, e.g. from Pearl City or Aiea along HI-99 will be much quicker. From Aiea it would even be walkable. (This is partly why I stayed there when I was on O'ahu rather than in touristy Waikiki.)
NB! Do NOT follow signs towards “Pearl Harbor”, as that would instead take you to the active military base (which you wouldn't be allowed to enter in any case – spare yourself the embarrassment). Note also that access to Ford Island (with the USS Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum is restricted to the visitor shuttle buses provided (unless you are on active military duty yourself, that is, in which case you can drive up in your own car).
There is a large car park and it's free of charge.
The main thing to bear in mind is that while access to the visitor centre and main memorials is free, you still need a ticket for the USS Arizona memorial
allocating a time slot for the boat ride. These are handed out on a first-come-first-served basis, so either queue up early or run the risk of no longer getting a ticket for the same day. This is why a line is forming outside the entrance well before the complex opens. When I visited the site I made sure I was at the entrance more than half an hour before opening, and there were already a few dozen people in front of me. By the time doors opened I couldn't see the end of the queue behind me as it snaked out of view.
Opening times: daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round (closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day) – last tickets for the USS Arizona are issued by 3 p.m., provided any are left. There's a contingent of 1000-1300 walk-in tickets issued for first-come-first-served pick-up – and these can be gone by mid-morning – the rest are distributed/sold online. So to be absolutely sure you get one, go to the web shop (at recreation.gov) – but note that this charges a handling fee (at the time of writing 1.50 USD).
Admission to the USS Bowfin is 12 USD (children aged 4-12 5 USD, seniors, military personal, locals: 8 USD); admission to just the museum (but not the sub) costs 5 USD (children 4 USD).
Opening times: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission to the submarine half an hour before closing.
There is also the so-called “Passport to Pearl Harbor
” ticket, a combination ticket for all the extra attractions, including the USS Bowfin, USS Missouri
(regular admission) and Pacific Aviation Museum
, as well as a headset with an audio guide narration. The Passport entitles you to a return visit within seven consecutive days in case you cannot manage it all in one day (see time required
The regular price for the Passport to Pearl Harbor is 65 USD (children 35 USD). These are available either online (same address) or on site at the visitor centre. If you can do without the audio guide, you can just as well buy tickets for each attraction individually (and actually save 1 USD). This is recommended in any case if you want to do the extended “Heart of Missouri Tour” at the USS Missouri
, as this cannot be made part of the Passport to Pearl Harbor scheme.
There is also a multilingual audio guide available for just the USS Arizona and the main memorial sites and museums (but not the extra sites); this costs 7.50 USD per headset (running time ca. 2.5 hours). It is currently available in the following languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and Chinese (Mandarin).
Note that no bags are allowed inside the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites complex. This includes camera bags – but cameras worn openly are allowed. Handbags etc. can be put in storage at a special hut to the right of the main entrance (behind the bus stop for the shuttle to Ford Island – i.e. you can pick them back up there at the end of your visit). The storage is secure and guarded and a fee of 3 USD per item is levied.
Time required: if you want to do and see everything you may well need at least a whole day. The official gauge is that you need between 4 and 8 hours for a full tour. The lower end of that scale would be for very fast, superficial visits, I guess. But for a real in-depth visit, even 8 hours may barely suffice.
The main memorial and museums can be done in something like one to three hours (depending on how much you want to read and listen to on the screens); the tour of the USS Arizona lasts ca. 75 minutes alone.
And then you'll need extra time for the USS Bowfin, the shuttle to Ford Island and for the Aviation Museum and USS Missouri over there. The latter alone can take up to three hours or so, the former possibly up to two hours (certainly for plane enthusiasts). Add all that up and you can see that the opening times of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. may not quite do. In that case you have split your visit over two days, which would also allow you to do it all at a more leisurely pace.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
In addition to the extra attractions at Pearl Harbor itself (USS Missouri
, Pacific Aviation Museum
), there is also the “Punchbowl
” in Honolulu, the National Memorial Cemetery and home of the Honolulu Memorial. This is the main war cemetery in Hawaii
, a kind of Pacific Arlington
, and as such obviously very much linked thematically to Pearl Harbor, making this the most fitting combination.
Though not tourist attractions as such, those interested in these things can often spot intriguing large-scale navy hardware in the active part of the Pearl Harbor naval base, such as aircraft carriers and other big ships.
When I was there, the most noteworthy structure that struck me was a giant white radar dome atop a former oil rig, some 280 feet (85 m) tall. This, as a plaque near the Pacific Aviation Museum explained, is the SBX (Sea-Based X-Band) Radar platform that is part of the USA's Ballistic Missile Defense System and supposedly meant to be stationed out near the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. But apparently this odd giant has been a regular (at times near permanent) visitor in Pearl Harbor, where it allegedly undergoes maintenance and calibration tests (rumour has it that it has never been properly operational and never spent much time at its intended location). Whatever, to the untrained lay person's eye it just looks very bizarre and James-Bond-y!
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Hawaii
- Pearl Harbor 01 - active naval base
- Pearl Harbor 02 - next to Honolulu airport
- Pearl Harbor 03 - big dome on a rig
- Pearl Harbor 04 - modern warship
- Pearl Harbor 05 - supply vessel closer up
- Pearl Harbor 06 - historic USS Missouri and rainbow
- Pearl Harbor 07 - main memorial
- Pearl Harbor 08 - USS Bowfin
- Pearl Harbor 09 - Polaris missiles
- Pearl Harbor 10 - conning tower on land
- Pearl Harbor 11 - you can go inside
- Pearl Harbor 12 - periscope view
- Pearl Harbor 13 - Japanese kamikaze mini-sub
- Pearl Harbor 14 - early-generation cruise missile
- Pearl Harbor 15 - modern missile
- Pearl Harbor 16 - the anchor of the USS Arizona
- Pearl Harbor 17 - the bell from the Arizona
- Pearl Harbor 18 - museum plan
- Pearl Harbor 19 - in the museum exhibition
- Pearl Harbor 20 - torpedo
- Pearl Harbor 21 - salvaged piece from the USS Arizona
- Pearl Harbor 22 - model of the Arizona memorial
- Pearl Harbor 23 - clock stopped in the 1941 attack