As I stand inside the stark white USS Arizona Memorial on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, a somber feeling overtakes me, particularly amid the beauty of the blue sea and green mountains. Here in Pearl Harbor, in northwest Honolulu, I realize I'm literally perched atop a sunken battleship in which 1,000 U.S. sailors are still entombed in a shattered-steel grave. They perished in these waters during that infamous surprise Japanese air attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
An eerie silence surrounds me, with a few other visitors even wiping away tears. The shockingly long list of those sailors’ names etched in black on the white marble of the memorial's interior is a simple but powerful reminder that this isn't just a history lesson and a World War II commemoration, but a sad memorial to young lives cut short.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu (12 miles northwest of Waikiki and 17 miles east of the Ko Olina resort areas). Oahu traffic can be surprisingly congested, so allow extra time to reach Pearl Harbor.
Getting there: When driving, take Highway H-1 to exit 15A “Arizona Mem/Stadium” — not the “Hickam AFB/Pearl Harbor” exit, which will take you to the active military base. You can also take public buses Nos. 20 and 42 (from Waikiki) and No. 40 (from Ko Olina). Many private operators run guided tours of Pearl Harbor that include transit to and from hotels.
Visit: The Pearl Harbor National Memorial (PHNM) and the Bowfin Museum are open daily. The Missouri is open Wednesday to Saturday; the Aviation Museum, Wednesday to Sunday. All are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Two or three hours should be enough for the PHNM but plan on a full day to cover all the sites. All bags must be checked in a locker (for a $5-7 fee) or left in your car.
Admission: The PHNM is free; the Missouri, $29.99; the Bowfin, $15; the Aviation Museum, $25 (no senior discounts at any).
Best times to visit: Remembrance Day on Dec. 7 is Pearl Harbor's major annual event, with a week of activities that include band performances, ceremonial sailings, jet flyovers and memorial services. Arrive early to beat the crowds.
Accessibility: You'll find handicapped spaces near the entrance in the Visitor Center parking lot. The PHNM is ADA compliant and wheelchair accessible throughout, including on the boat ride, but the facility has no wheelchairs to loan out. The Bowfin isn't wheelchair accessible, but the museum portion is ADA Compliant. The Aviation museum is wheelchair accessible and ADA Compliant, as is the Missouri in certain parts (some tours require climbing steep stairs and ladders). Both have limited wheelchairs available at no charge (first come, first served).
Founded in 1962, the U.S. National Park Service-run Pearl Harbor National Memorial (PHNM) encompasses both the USS Arizona Memorial in the harbor as well as the waterfront Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, with a two-part museum and theater. Visit this moving memorial in the Pacific and you can expect your emotions to be similarly stirred. It's an emotional journey through history made all the more vivid because this is the place where the Day of Infamy actually happened — it's where the war began for the U.S., with the death of more than 2,400 Americans. Look at the waters beside the Arizona, and you can often still see oil leaking from the ship, making the attack seem as fresh as if it happened only yesterday.
The PHNM is part of the Pearl Harbor Historical Sites, a collection of attractions that also includes the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and the Battleship Missouri Memorial (the latter three run by a nonprofit, not the park service). If you have the time, exploring these additional sites makes for a compelling full-day journey that takes you from the start of World War II to the finish.
Where it all began
Begin your visit with the 75-minute Arizona Memorial program, which includes a ranger orientation, a 23-minute documentary film in the theater, and a boat ride to the Arizona Memorial in the harbor, where you disembark for the quiet reflection described above. Back on shore, for context, don't skip the must-see Visitor Center, where the museum's galleries housed in two buildings bring history alive with a bombardment of interactive personal information that pulls you back to the past and inspires you to reexamine your perspectives.
In the Road to War building, get a good overview of the geopolitics behind the Japanese attack, with news reports from the era that create an increasing sense of dread of what we now know turned into a horrible war. The gallery also showcases what life was like on the Hawaiian islands in 1941, a curious combination of large-scale agribusiness, a major military presence and Hawaiian traditions. The stories told by native islanders challenge commonly held assumptions about Pearl Harbor. Since Hawaii was not yet a U.S. state at the time of the attack, from a local point of view, the battle was between two imperialists over an island that truly belonged to neither of them. “For us, the visitor is sovereign. We want to present all the data, every viewpoint, and let people decide what it all means on their own,” says Eileen Martinez, the Memorial's former chief of interpretation.
Among the most compelling exhibits in the Attack and Aftermath building: video stations playing individuals’ accounts of the attack. The shaky voices you hear giving graphic details may leave you a bit shaky. The sailors’ accounts pair gruesome descriptions of their attempts to save compatriots from bomb wounds, burning oil-covered water and sinking ships with tearful video memories of their friends who gave their lives to save others. Civilians reveal fears of falling bombs, friendly fire and a possible land attack.
A bit jarringly, you hear from the other side, as well. A Japanese pilot describes his nerves flying into combat, calming himself by focusing on the beauty of Oahu's scenic pineapple fields. I gave a small fist pump when the same pilot described his shock three years later when he saw the “sunken” Pearl Harbor battleship USS West Virginia restored with guns blazing to help defeat the Japanese at Okinawa.
Upon exiting the museum, take some time to reflect at the Contemplation Circle, a quiet space on the waterfront with seating and a view out over the solemn scene. “Being able to see the Arizona, the Missouri and the whole harbor, it's kind of powerful to take a step back and think about it here,” says Hanako Wakatuski-Chong, the acting chief of interpretation.