I took paltry few photographs at Pearl Harbor. This was because each time I viewed the scene through my phone's camera, I mentally captioned it: "Me at the site where 2,500 people met their end!"
For some reason, my phone kept ending up back in my pocket.
I did take photos for two other tourists who wanted to immortalise themselves behind the controls of the huge submarine guns. Presumably, they entitled this, "I could have killed people too!"
Not that I judged other people for wanting photographic memorabilia.
OK, I clearly did. And if you visited Pearl Harbor and took a memory card's worth of images, I'm judging you too. Right after you give me a few of your best shots since my self-righteous queasiness has left me struggling for material for this blog post.
Also, I really want to spell 'Harbor' with a 'u'.
Despite being able to offer minimal proof I was actually there, the Pearl Harbor visitor centre does earn its place in my 'Top 10 Honolulu' travel guide. I was initially skeptical since war museums can be designed to elicit strong emotional responses, and I simply just don't enjoy being in floods of tears. However, Pearl Harbor is not in that category. The museums are designed to be informative, discussing the history from both the American and Japanese sides. On that note, let's summarise my educational afternoon:
Pearl Harbor is a naval base on the Hawai'ian island of Oahu. On the morning of the 7th December 1941, a surprise air attack by Japan did serious damage to the US fleet and marked the beginning of the USA's full involvement in World War II.
At that time, the war with Nazi Germany in Europe was well underway. Knowing that Europe's focus was with the German armies, Japan sought to expand its hold into the Asian territories held by the UK, Netherlands and the USA. Unsurprisingly, America wasn't too happy about this and pointedly loaded up Pearl Harbor with its Pacific Fleet. Given Hawaii's location slap bang in the ocean between the USA and Japan, this move was seen as 'a knife to the throat of Japan'. It was clear that if Japan wanted to keep invading everyone around them without some serious shitz going down, they needed to remove this threat.
In order to avoid detection (and ignoring the exciting conspiracy theories google just provided me), the Japanese fleet of aircraft carriers and submarines maintained complete radio silence during their 16 day voyage from Tokyo. This culminated in two air attacks 30 minutes apart and 5 midget submarines.
Taken by complete surprise, the damage inflicted on the US fleet was huge. Three battleships, 'The Arizona', 'The Oklahoma' and 'The Utah' (apparently, naming bad ass ships after states is a thing) were lost completely, while many others were damaged. Many aircraft were also lost. The planes had been placed wing-tip to wing-tip in order to better watch them against sabotage. The fear had been an attack from Hawaii's immigrant Japanese population, who made up 40% of the island's residents. However, the Japanese population of Hawaii had been there for over 100 years and there were no reported cases of sabotage, although the war brought them terrible treatment.
'The Arizona' warship suffered a direct hit that penetrated the magazine where the ammunition was stored. It exploded, killing 1,177 of the 1,512 crew aboard at the time. One of the two lost battleships to not be moved, 'The Arizona' remains in Pearl Harbor, sunk just below the water's surface. A memorial now straddles the drowned vessel, which can be reach by boat. Oil still leaks from the wreckage, making small pools on the water surface. This is apparently watched by the park attendants for any environmental problems.
The park ranger who took our group out to the memorial told us the site had received substantial funding from Elvis Presley, who donated the $64,000 profits of two concerts he did in Honolulu (this I believed). He also told us he and other rangers had heard knocking and screaming when at the memorial late at night (this I did not believe). Survivors from 'The Arizona' can opt to have their ashes interred in the wreck after they die. The information board describing the process says that the divers feel a tug as they lower the ashes into the bowels of the ship that they interpret as 'the ship reclaiming one of its own.' Heart warming or depressing? I wasn't sure.
'The Oklahoma' over-turned when hit, in a manoeuvre known as going 'turtle up' due to the rounded base of the ship. This made it impossible to rescue all of her crew, 429 of whom died of suffocation after 17 days. The figure is known by chalked lines drawn on the wall of one room. The ship was eventually removed from the harbor and towed away for scrap, but sank en-route. Exactly where the boat now lies is not precisely known.
'The Utah' has actually already been decommissioned and was mistaken during the attack for an aircraft carrier. In fact, the aircraft carriers were away during that time and avoided damage. Rescue was also difficult for crew trapped inside. Knocking could be heard from inside the capsized ship from men who had been unable to escape. In the end, many were rescued but 64 still perished. 'The Utah' remains sunk in Pearl Harbor and, like 'The Arizona', it is considered a war grave with surviving servicemen having the option of their ashes being interred after death.
All of this I learned from the museums at the visitor centre and the slightly spook-happy ranger who took us to 'The Arizona' memorial. The museums and memorial are free, but you are not allowed to carry any bags or purses. There is a staffed locker room where belongings can be left for $3, but you must carry anything you want while in the centre. Since it's possible to spend the best part of a day exploring the different museums, I recommend trousers with plenty of pockets.
The trip to the memorial is preceded by a 15 minute video on the history. While rather good, I did wonder if this was because no one trusted the visitors to look around the museum before dashing to the boat. Since the memorial is supposed to be a site of respect, I could see this potentially causing issues.
That said, not looking around the visitor centre prior to the memorial would be an achievement, since the wait can be long. I collected my ticket when I arrived at about 9:45 am and was given a time of 1 pm. I initially regretted leaving my kindle in my bag (which was now checked) but I ended up not being short of activities.
In addition to the normal museums, there are boat museums you can tour for an extra fee. I paid to board the USS bowfin submarine, which survived the war. In was incredibly interesting to see such tightly packed living quarters. Crewmen slept on bunks next to the torpedoes and the doors below deck were more like holes you can to scramble through.
Once again, I reminded myself not to sign up for a Mars mission. I imagine it would be similar.
Overall, it was an interesting visit and I'd recommend the trip if you're in Honolulu. The only part I'd maybe bypass on a second visit would be the boat trip out to 'The Arizona' memorial. It is interesting to see the ship, but the memorial is as its name implies: an attractive construction listing the names of the people who were lost. Important perhaps to have for the surviving family, but not necessarily the best visitor attraction. I would recommend the sub.