Pearl Harbor - The Arizona Memorial...

...a real trip of a lifetime, part 1.

In early May 2018 my wife and I managed to achieve a visit I would rate as one from my ‘bucket list’.  From here in the UK it is over 10,000 miles to travel to the island of Oahu, Hawaii, and it involved flying from Heathrow to San Francisco and then a second flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. The timing was coincidental with the eruption of the volcano on the main island of Hawaii, but thankfully a long way from our destination on Oahu. The target of our visit was to visit Pearl Harbour, the site of the infamous Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet in the anchorage of Pearl Harbour.  As President Roosevelt famously said, ‘December 7th 1941, a day that will live in infamy’.

Starting at 7.48am local time in Hawaii, 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft took off from 6 aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Zuikaku and Shokaku) and attacked the US Naval base in two waves (a planned third wave was cancelled).  The prime target were the capital ships, the Battleships and aircraft carriers of the US Pacific Fleet, plus ground targets such as airfields.  The first wave involved 183 aircraft (Nakajima B5N Kate, Aichi D3A Val and Mitsubishi A6M Zero) and these carried both armour piercing and general purpose bombs, while the torpedoes had been modified with an extended tail and rudder extension to enable to operate in shallow waters.  Even though they knew the carriers were not in port, they pressed ahead with the attack which would bring America into the war.  As well as the warships in the harbour, airfields were attacked at Hickam Field (now Honolulu International Airport), Wheeler Field, Bellowes Field and Ford Island.  Aircraft had famously been parked close together to make them easier to protect against sabotage but therefore an easier target for air attack.  The second wave, approaching from different directions, consisted of another 171 planes, a mix of the same 3 types.

Ninety minutes after it began, it was all over.  American casualties were 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded.  Nearly half of these were on board the USS Arizona which suffered a catastrophic explosion after a bomb exploded the forward magazine.  Eighteen ships had been sunk or run aground, including 5 battleships and many other seriously damaged.  As for aircraft, of the 402 US aircraft on Oahu 188 were destroyed and another 159 damaged.  The Japanese lost just 29 aircraft, 9 from the first wave and 20 from the second.  Of the ships that were sunk, all were raised, repaired and put back into service during the war, with the exception of the Arizona and the Utah, an old battleship used as a target/AA training ship, moored on the other side of Ford Island.  Their hulls remain where they sank, the Arizona now a memorial to the 1,102 crewmen who remain entombed within her hull.

The superstructure of the ship, including the gun turrets, were removed as scrap during the war and the usable guns fitted to defences on the island of Oahu.  Just one barbette of a turret remains visible above the surface of the water.  One other visible reminder is the oil which still slowly leaks from the hull to this day.  The Arizona Memorial was built in 1962, and straddles the hull without actually being attached to it.  The money raised to pay for it included a significant contribution from Elvis Presley, who made a couple of films in Hawaii and held a concert specifically to raise money for the project.

We had travelled half way round the world to pay our respects at the memorial and had pre-planned two days of visits to the 4 elements of the memorial park.  In the end, our visit to the park started the afternoon beforehand, when we ticked off another couple of memorable elements to our visit.  Do you remember the old TV detective series ‘Magnum’, starring Tom Sellick?  He had a friend, TJ, who flew a brightly striped Hughes 500 helicopter.  I was pleased to discover when we got there that one of the helicopter sightseeing tours is operated by ‘MagnumHelicopters.com’.  Using new models of the Hughes 500, with more powerful engines, they operate a tour of the island which lasts just short of an hour, ending with a circle over the Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri before landing back at Honolulu airport.  The other element of their service, which some might find a little disconcerting, is that they fly with DOORS OFF!  A necessary safety briefing before take-off and you are securely strapped in, but sitting in the back and looking down, all you see is the skid and the ground (or sea) below.  It was perhaps the windiest ride I have even been on and distinctly ‘bumpy’ as the small helicopter is buffeted by the air currents but without question an exhilarating experience of a lifetime.  We mentioned it to two more couples where we were staying and they both went and had a go and came back equally excited.  At this stage I have to admit that when we touched down, just a minute or two after having flown over the Arizona, I couldn’t hold back the emotions and cried my eyes out at having had my first sight of Battleship Row, the Missouri and the Arizona memorial itself.  That is perhaps my best way of describing how moving it was to actually visit this historic site for myself.  I must also make mention of how well the ground crew at MagnumHelicopters managed their over emotional customer.

The following day we took a taxi to visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial Park.  It is operated by the US National Parks Service and if free to enter.  Just one thing to remember, you are not allowed to take bags/backpacks into the park.  They have to be left at a desk to the right of the entrance before you can go into the park, and while park entry is free, this will cost you $5.00.  When you enter the park itself you will see desks immediately in front of you where you can get tickets for the USS Arizona (they are free) as well as the other museums of the USS Bowfin submarine museum, the USS Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum, each of which charge individually.

From the entrance, access to the Arizona memorial is to the left.  Your ticket is for a timed show which starts in a cinema building, where you see a film showing the archive film that tells the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the Arizona.  When that finishes, you are invited to leave via the doors on the left hand side of the building, where you go out to the boarding point for a US Navy operated tour boat.

Once everyone is seated, the boat makes the short trip towards the memorial.  Now very sadly, when we were there, access to the memorial itself had been stopped because of safety concerns over the landing platform at the memorial itself.  The water alongside what was Battleship Row is the Turning Basin for the US Navy base of Pearl Harbour.  It is large enough for even their supercarriers to be able to enter harbour and turn around.  However, some time ago a hospital ship, the USNS Mercy was being turned with the aid of tugs when apparently it hit the landing stage and the resulting damage seems to be more serious than first thought. So, at the time of our visit we were unable to get onto the memorial itself.  The boat tour still continues though, and this takes you very close to the memorial and the boat does a 360degree turn on either end of the hull, so all passengers get a good view of the memorial.  The boat also sails on to do the same full circles at each end of the USS Missouri, the Iowa class battleship which is moored very close to the position of the Arizona.  You also get to see the large concrete markers which show where each of the other battleships were moored in Battleship Row at the time of the attack.  If you look across to the other side of the harbour you can see the modern US Navy ships and submarines that may be berthed in the existing Pearl Harbor naval base.  Once you have had a good view of the Missouri and the Memorial, you sail back to the Park and disembark.

Even without being able to get onto the memorial itself the experience of sailing along Battleship Row and being up close to the Arizona memorial, the hull of the ship itself and the markers of the other battleships make it a moving experience, or it did for me at least.  Back in the main park you will find memorial plaques listing the names of those not only who were killed in the attack, but also the survivors of the Arizona as well.  In a key position as another memorial is one of the huge anchors recovered from the Arizona.  Add to this a WW2 Valor in the Pacific Museum along with a souvenir shop that raises money to support the maintenance of the Park and the memorial.  Do bear in mind the park is very busy, with large numbers of visitors every day so queues are something to be expected, though we found the system worked very smoothly and had little waiting around.

All in all our visit to the Arizona Memorial will always remain one of my most memorable experiences.  The flights to get there from the UK were very long (over 10 hours to Los Angeles and another 5 hours from LA to Honolulu flight times) but once you see this historic site it makes it all worthwhile.

 

Robin Buckland