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What do you think the most visited tourist destination in all of Hawaii is? An exotic luau, a famous surf break, maybe one of the filming sights from Lost?

Actually, it’s Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

Just a few short miles west of Honolulu, Pearl Harbor is home to America’s naval base in Hawaii. But that’s not why it’s a household name today — that would be due to the fateful day in December of 1941, when an unexpected attack by Japan catapulted America into World War II. In just two hours, over 2,500 were dead, 188 American aircrafts were destroyed, and 7 vessels were sunk or damaged beyond repair. The most famous ship, The USS Arizona, still sits sunk in the harbor and is subject of a famous memorial.

Visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona is free, however you need to get a timed entry ticket to the USS Arizona memorial. Surprisingly, considering how modern the site it, tickets cannot be reserved online and are available only in person on a first-come, first-serve basis. Arriving at 10am we had a two hour wait to visit the memorial despite the fact that I visited in low season. Luckily there are two free mini museums that kept us occupied right up until our ticket time.

Pearl Harbor

As usual when I do anything that involves world history, I felt embarrassingly ignorant and wondered if I somehow managed to sleep through the relevant chapters in high school. I think in reality I just don’t absorb something very well until I’m standing in the very place in happened — I’ve experienced this in my travels while learning about the Vietnam War and the atrocities of the Cambodian genocide.

Standing in those little museums I felt like I was learning about Pearl Harbor for the first time, about the ambush that caught so many young soldiers by total surprise, about the horrific human rights violations that ensued, and about the swift revenge that brought the country to the front lines of one of the world’s bloodiest wars.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

My first surprise was learning how completely unexpected the attack was and how totally unprepared the naval base was for it. As the Honolulu Star reported on September 4th of 1941, “A Japaneses attack on Hawaii is regarded as the most unlikely thing in the world.” The government simply did not view Japan as a threat to the United States. And while Japan certainly succeeded in their goals on that day, in the long run the retribution led to war that defeated the empire.

“One can search military history in vain for an operation more fateful to the aggressor.” – Samuel Eliot Morison

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

While the USS Arizona memorial is dedicated to the Americans who died on that day, the atrocity that stuck with me long after I left Pearl Harbor was the country’s resulting internment of its own citizens. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks, nearly 120,000 Japanese American men, women and children were confined in what were called “War Relocation Camps.” Sixty percent of them were American citizens, and not a single one was case of sabotage was ever proved among them. It turns my stomach to think that my country let hysteria and paranoia run so deep that we imprisoned our own citizens based on nothing more than racial prejudice.

Hawaii can at least be proud of its resistance to internment. Considering it is where the attacks took place, Hawaii interned about 1% of its Japanese American population, compared to the West Coast where the percentage was closer to 100%. You can learn more about Japanese American internment here.

“I remember how agonizing my despair to be given only about six days in which to dispose of our property and personal possessions.” -Mitsuo Usui, Granada War Relocation Camp

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

As our ticketed time arrived and a boat took us out to the USS Arizona Memorial, I reflected on the final shock: that in just two short hours, acts were set in motion that ignited the United States to formally enter World War II, the deadliest conflict in all of human history.

Interestingly, the memorial was designed by Alfred Preis, an architect who himself was briefly detained into a War Relocation Camp after the Pearl Harbor attacks. From a design standpoint I was deeply impressed by the memorial, the sagging form of which is symbolic of the country’s psyche throughout the war. One peak represents the height of American pride prior to the war, the low slope is symbolic of the low morale after the attacks and then finally the other peak shows the rise of American power after the war’s victory.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

Accessible only by boat, the memorial straddles the sunken USS Arizona, the watery grave of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors killed on the battleship that day. The monument sees a constant influx of people with more than one million visitors coming to pay their respects annually.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

I’m so glad I took the time to visit Pearl Harbor while I was in Oahu. I learned so much about a significant day in American and World history, and I visited a beautifully designed memorial that paid tribute to the lives that were lost in those fateful December hours. As always, I only hope we can remember the mistakes of the past and learn from them as we move forward.

If you are planning a visit to Pearl Harbor, Amanda from A Dangerous Business has put together a great guide to the surrounding attractions.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

Have you been to Pearl Harbor? Did you find the memorial as beautiful and moving as I did?

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17 Comments...
  • Ashley of Ashley Abroad
    November 19 2012

    I have never visited Pearl Harbor (or Hawaii, for that matter) but I definitely would like to! I’m kind of obsessed with WWII history so it would be really interesting to see the actual site, as well as the museum with artifacts and first-hand accounts of what happened.

    Your photos are beautiful, by the way 🙂
    Ashley of Ashley Abroad recently posted..The Expat’s Guide to Opening a Bank Account in Europe

    • Alex
      November 20 2012

      Thanks Ashley! Glad to hear there are other traveling history buffs out there 🙂

  • Meghan
    November 19 2012

    I enjoyed visiting the memorial. At the time, we had our then 7-year-old with us, and spent time impressing upon the fact that he needed to be respectful at the memorial site because it was, well, a memorial. We have visited several historic sites that are similar, and we have discussions before and after but make it clear that we are there to think on the tragedy/loss while we are within the memorial.

    I was so discouraged and disheartened to learn that we were one of the few there that were actually treating it as a memorial. There were so many people running around, acting goofy, taking duck-face photos over the water, and in general being loud and obnoxious. Ugh! Our little guy even remarked, “They don’t seem very respectful, do they?” and we talked about why it was so inappropriate.

    That memorial, given how popular it is, needs a code of conduct to enforce good behavior from visitors.

    But, it is beautiful.

    • Alex
      November 20 2012

      Meghan I’m sad to hear there were people acting so disrespectfully, but I’m glad to hear you were able to turn it into a teaching lesson for your little guy! I guess people have a hard time getting out of vacation mode :/

  • OrpingtonT
    November 19 2012

    I am old enough to remember Pearl Harbour and the relief it gave those of us in Europe as it brought the US into a war we had been fighting for 2 years. Don’t be too hard on the decisions made then about internment. You think quite differently when under attack with your compatriots being slaughtered. I have visited the Memorial and found it so moving. No-one at the time of my visit was less than respectful and there were guards about to see that it was so.

    • Alex
      November 20 2012

      I am honored to have someone who lived through the experience reading this post! Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience. I’m glad your visit was so moving.

  • Dad
    November 19 2012

    Mom and I visited Pearl Harbor with Warren Paley, a WWII veteran. It made the visit even more meaningful because he was afforded great deference and respect by the volunteers who were younger but retired service personnel. His generation will be soon be gone and we will have lost the survivors who fought the war for us. I am pleased that the visit gave you a taste of the importance of what happened.

    • Alex
      November 20 2012

      That would have been quite a moving way to visit… I’m sure he had great stories to share. How did they know he was retired service? Was he wearing part of his uniform?

  • Shaun
    November 20 2012

    This would be high on my list for visiting Hawaii. I’m a bit of a WW2 buff and the pacific is overlooked far too often when thinking about that time in history.

    Even though most of material is in black and white, it wasn’t that long ago.

    • Alex
      November 20 2012

      I’m always shocked to think about big events in history and the fact that a lot of it has happened in either my lifetime or in my parents life time! It really wasn’t too long ago at all.

  • Amy
    November 20 2012

    Great post, particularly this: “In the wake of the Pearl Harbour attacks, nearly 120,000 Japanese American men, women and children were confined in what were called “War Relocation Camps.”” Although not as drastic, weren’t a great number of American Muslims arrested and questioned after September 11th? It’s sad that so many years’ later innocent people suffered due to the same kind of fear-induced paranoia.
    Amy recently posted..The Natural History Museum London

    • Alex
      November 20 2012

      I’m not sure what the facts are on that, but I do believe that there was some serious paranoia. I know I read accounts of how difficult it was to be Muslim in America after the September 11th attacks, which is heartbreaking indeed.

  • Fidel
    November 28 2012

    Absolutely beautiful pictures, Alex! And a great remembrance piece!
    The colors really pop.
    Fidel recently posted..Five Movies That Inspired Me To Travel

    • Alex
      November 29 2012

      Thanks Fidel. It was without a doubt the most aesthetically beautiful memorials I’ve ever been to. Made photographing it easy!

  • Stephen Jones
    March 8 2013

    Thanks for writing such a wonderful post. I’ve had an interest in WWII history for as long as I can remember, and visiting Pearl Harbor has been on my agenda for yonks. Providing my money doesn’t run out, I’ll finally be visiting in 2023/2024!
    Stephen Jones recently posted..May extend the 6 months in North America to 12 months

    • Alex
      March 8 2013

      Wow! You sure do plan ahead! Some people call me Type-A for planning ahead six months from now 🙂 My kind of guy!

      • Stephen Jones
        March 8 2013

        With something on such a grand scale (which will require a great deal of saving and getting fit!), I think planning that far ahead is warranted. 🙂

        The way I see it, making plans gives you the freedom to be flexible. 🙂

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