Hawaii: Oahu’s Pearl Harbor

IMG_8798_LUCiDWhen we planned our week-long trip to Hawaii, we spent a lot of time narrowing down the islands we would visit and the list of things we wanted to do, trying to be reasonable about what we would be able to enjoy in just a few short days.

From the beginning of our planning, the one thing we absolutely agreed had to be on the itinerary was a trip to Pearl Harbor on Oahu. I built the entire itinerary around a day dedicated to that visit, and thus we decided to spend several days on the Big Island followed by a few days on Oahu, beginning with a day at Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl Cemetery.

Despite this being the keystone of our trip, I somehow lost track of time and the need to reserve our tickets to the memorial in advance. About a month before our trip, I suddenly realized I hadn’t yet secured tickets and was DEVASTATED when I went to the site and discovered the reservation window closes 60 days in advance.

For several days I was inconsolable and literally thought I had ruined the entire trip. I combed through the website’s FAQs and discovered that there was one additional opportunity to reserve tickets in advance as part of a 24-hour early reservation. We were going to be on a plane from the Big Island to Oahu early the morning I needed to make the reservation, but I was going to make every effort to call as soon as we landed at 7 a.m. and try to reserve two tickets for the first available window the next morning.

If we missed that opportunity, we were going to have to show up early the morning we wanted to visit and hope that we were among the first 1,000+ people to get one of the first-come, first-served tickets for the day and have to take whatever time slot was available.

Entry to the memorial is free but you have to secure a ticket with a time for your tour as each group can only accommodate a certain number of people. The guided tour is about an hour and 15 minutes and consists of a short film, a boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial, time on the memorial, and a boat ride back. Before or after your guided portion of the visit, you can spend as much time as you like walking around and visiting the different buildings with museum-quality displays about various aspects of WWII history leading up to, during, and after the events at Pearl Harbor.

Thankfully I was able to successfully call the morning before and reserve two tickets for an 8:30 a.m. time slot. The visits began at 7:30 a.m. so we weren’t with the first group, as I had originally hoped, but I didn’t waste much time worrying about that– I was thrilled we were going at all!

The next morning we woke up early and drove to the memorial in order to find parking and get in line for entry. There were already tons of people in line to get the day-of tickets, and we joined a line to pick up our tickets from will call.

As luck would have it, the gentleman at the ticket booth mentioned he had a few spots open on the 7:30 a.m. tour if we wanted to trade in our reservations for an earlier time slot. It was perfect– we made the exchange and headed over to the line for our tour! After watching a short film, we climbed on board a small boat that took us out to the memorial for our visit.




The tours run every 30 minutes so we didn’t have a great deal of time at the memorial, but once we exited the boat, we had the opportunity to spend our time however we liked.

There were several plaques of information that I stopped to read and a floor to ceiling display that lists all the names of those lost at the far end of the memorial. It was emotional reading all of the names. Our guide shared the stories behind some of the individuals, including father and son pairs who were killed, as well as a set of three brothers who were all lost that day.

Our guide also explained that individuals who were on and/or assigned to the USS Arizona but managed to survive the attacks have been given the opportunity to be buried at the site among their fellow servicemen. This has happened on several occasions– the person is cremated, the family is able to attend a private ceremony, and scuba divers take the urn and place it in the depths of the ship, along with the remains of all who were lost.





After a while I headed back to the center of the memorial to look down at the sunken ship. You can see it in the water below on either side of the memorial as well as in an area that’s cut out inside that you can walk around.

I also took a moment to look around the harbor, envisioning what happened that day. The film we watched put the events and the area in perspective for me before we took the boat out to the site, and I simply looked around trying to imagine what had happened.

As you look down in the water, there are several oil slicks sliding up and away from the remains of the ship. The USS Arizona site explains it like this:

Currently, the ship leaks 2-9 quarts each day. The USS Arizona held approximately 1.5 million gallons of “Bunker-C” oil. The ship burned for 2½ days, leaving an unspecified amount of oil on board. Oil has been observed leaking from the ship since the 1940’s; however, little action was taken until environmental concerns were expressed.

Since 1998, the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center (SRC) and the USS Arizona Memorial have been conducting research directed at understanding the nature and rate of natural processes affecting the deterioration of the USS Arizona, as well as monitoring hull conditions and oil release rates. Oil release observed during the 1980’s Arizona documentation project originated from a hatch on the starboard side of barbette number three, and later from a hatch on the starboard side of barbette number four. Consequently, when oil release monitoring began in 1998, those hatches were a primary focus.

During fieldwork from 1998 to the present, gradually increasing amounts of oil have been observed releasing from forward of the memorial; however, comprehensive measurement of oil release forward of the memorial in the upper deck galley was not completed until June 2006… The 2006 oil release measurements are the most comprehensive completed to date – increase in oil release over previous years is in part explained by more release locations being successfully measured then previously.

Although observed rates of oil coming to the surface has gradually increased over the past several years, there is no indication of an increase in the amount of oil released from the primary oil containment spaces in the ship’s lower decks. The increase in oil release rates vary considerably with differing wind, tide, and harbor conditions.

Our guide said there is so much oil still on the ship that it would be nearly impossible to successfully recover it– efforts would likely cause an unmanageable leak and disastrous effect if it all seeped out into the water at once.

As it stands, the rate at which it’s currently leaking is manageable and so they allow it to continue, cleaning it up as they go along.

Our guide eventually asked us to form a line so we would be ready to climb on board the boat that had just arrived. Once that boat had let its visitors off, we took our seats and quietly watched the memorial fade away as we headed back to the Pearl Harbor center to continue our morning.






We ended up spending several hours walking through the museums to learn more about WWII, the events at Pearl Harbor, and what was taking place in Hawaii at that time.

I quickly realized that the brief amount of information we learned in school was a drop in the bucket. I had no idea what was going on politically in Asia, especially in Japan– I know we never learned anything about that– and I really enjoyed taking time to go through all of the information available.

After we completed the museums we walked around the area to see the waterfront memorials. There were some information stands showing the different sites in the harbor, and I was especially touched by the monument I photographed below:



There were a few other memorials nearby, including the Battleship Missouri, the USS Bowfin Submarine, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. I’m sure these are incredible stops as well, but given we have explored other battleships, submarines, and aviation museums, we decided to read their history later and head on to Punchbowl Cemetery.

It was already mid-day when we hopped into the car and set out. We had some difficulty finding it, eventually winding our way through some residential areas of Honolulu, up the side of the former volcano, and then back down into the crater.

We eventually found the entrance and navigated around the main entry to find parking near the main monuments. There was a service taking place so we tried to quietly and respectfully maintain our distance while taking in all of the information about the various veterans who served.

Officially called the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the Punchbowl is available to servicemen and women who meet certain active duty requirements and were discharged for honorable reasons. Depending on capacity at any give time, certain family members can be granted access as well.

The Veteran Affairs website outlines how the area was previously used as well as the conditions under which is took on its current use, beginning in 1943:

 Although there are various translations of the Punchbowl’s Hawaiian name, “Puowaina,” the most common is “Hill of Sacrifice.” This translation closely relates to the history of the crater. The first known use was as an altar where Hawaiians offered human sacrifices to pagan gods and the killed violators of the many taboos. Later, during the reign of Kamehameha the Great, a battery of two cannons was mounted at the rim of the crater to salute distinguished arrivals and signify important occasions. Early in the 1880s, leasehold land on the slopes of the Punchbowl opened for settlement and in the 1930s, the crater was used as a rifle range for the Hawaii National Guard. Toward the end of World War II, tunnels were dug through the rim of the crater for the placement of shore batteries to guard Honolulu Harbor and the south edge of Pearl Harbor.

During the late 1890s, a committee recommended that the Punchbowl become the site for a new cemetery to accommodate the growing population of Honolulu. The idea was rejected for fear of polluting the water supply and the emotional aversion to creating a city of the dead above a city of the living.

Fifty years later, Congress authorized a small appropriation to establish a national cemetery in Honolulu with two provisions: that the location be acceptable to the War Department, and that the site would be donated rather than purchased. In 1943, the governor of Hawaii offered the Punchbowl for this purpose.




If you are planning any time on Oahu, I highly recommend adding the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, USS Arizona, and Punchbowl Cemetery to your itinerary. We arrived early, were on the first tour of the day, and didn’t leave until mid-day. Additionally we spent about an hour traveling to and spending time at the cemetery. I would allocate at least a half day for these sites, and a full day if you are interested in the other war memorials as well.

What an incredible opportunity to learn about such an important event in our country’s history and see the remains of those events in person. I learned so much, and I was reminded once again how much so many people have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, to keep us safe and free.

As we had expected, visiting Pearl Harbor was one of the highlights of our time in Hawaii.

One thought on “Hawaii: Oahu’s Pearl Harbor

  1. Pingback: Adventures in Maui: Driving the Road to Hana – Heather's Compass

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