In my first ever visit to Hawaii, the island I chose was Oahu. There are countless posts on travel forums about “which island should I choose,” but it was an easy choice for me. Seeing the USS Arizona Memorial has been on my list of to-do’s for a very long time. I wasn’t expecting to be moved so deeply.
There are two museums on site you should explore before boarding the boat to the Memorial. The first is the “Road to War” museum, which explains the events of the hundreds of years of Japanese and US history prior to December 7th. The second museum is the “Attack Museum” which does a fantastic job explaining the events of December 7th though the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945 (commonly called VJ day).
Inside are many interesting artifacts to give you a sense of the world at the time, what like was like on the base during peacetime and an understanding of the tactics and military machinery in use at the time. Scale models, like the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi pictured below, are excellent tools to learn about the attack.
Once you’ve finished browsing the museum, it’s time to queue up and get on the boat to visit the memorial.
The USS Arizona Memorial
Before we get on the boat, there’s one final stop at the Memorial Theater. It is this 23-minute video where Jamie Lee Curtis punched me right in the feels and I knew it was going to be hard to keep it together. I was okay until I started to step off the boat. At the entrance I had tears streaming down my face.
The architect Alfred Preis described the structure “Wherein the structure sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory … The overall effect is one of serenity. Overtones of sadness have been omitted to permit the individual to contemplate his own personal responses … his innermost feelings.”
A final resting place for 1,102 young men. So many thoughts went through my mind but each ended thinking of the men, men who had their whole lives ahead of them, cut short in traumatic fashion. The fury of Japanese bombers, artillery raining from the sky, fires on all ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and fuel and oil burning on top of the harbor’s water. There was nowhere to go to escape death.
On a beautiful winter morning, just like today, everything in the world changed.
Above the Arizona
In the “assembly room” you are able to get a good view of the Arizona through 21 windows and an opening in the floor.
The oil sheen that develops from the leaching oil still inside is called “the tears of the Arizona.”
In spite of the obvious pollution around the ship, there still thrives some life. The twisted metal, a result of death and destruction, has taken on new life as a reef for fish.
Like any historic site, you’ll have a more enriching experience the more you know about it beforehand. This is the type of place that deserves your attention even before you visit. You don’t want to be staring at a guidebook here; I would suggest reflection on the events and the lives lost. While all areas of the site are well-suited for this reflection, the shrine was built expressly for this purpose.
Here, you learn the names of the deceased—and get an idea of the scope of casualties suffered that day.
The 334 survivors of the Arizona are allowed to be interred with their shipmates when they pass, should they so desire. Their urns are added to the ship in turret number four by U.S. Navy divers. The service includes a committal service, interment, rifle salute, TAPS, flag presentation, and plaque presentation.
Pearl Harbor remains an active military base, Headquarters of the Pacific Fleet. Whenever military ships enter or leave the harbor, sailors “man the rails” meaning they line up on the ship’s deck facing the memorial and salute.
The harbor is not only the home of the USS Arizona Memorial but also the Battleship Missouri. These two historic sites mark the beginning and the end of World War II combat for the United States. These sites are the most popular destinations on Oahu (two million people annually), so be prepared for crowds.
Visit the USS Arizona Memorial
Visiting the memorial is completely free. To get your tickets, go to recreation.gov and book ahead of time, or get up early the day of your desired visit. In-person ticket sales begin at 7am and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.