WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument: Pearl Harbor Reflection & Tips

There are 1,177 men entombed beneath my feet.

The knowledge is humbling, overwhelming. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 would stun the nation, catapulting America into WWII. History tells us that the battleship USS Arizona sustained a fatal blow to a powder magazine that day. That the violent force of the explosion caused it to sink in minutes, entombing the 1,177 sailors aboard. Some were trapped alive. I think about the average age of those who died that fateful Sunday–23 years old–and of my son, 15, not three years younger than the crew’s youngest. I picture the faint mustache settling in above his lip and the cartoon character baby blanket he refuses to part with. I think about the soldiers’ mothers, whose sons will never return. History may seek to analyze and interpret the events of December 7th, but standing here at the Arizona Memorial, there is no logic or reason–only profound sadness.

Two hours earlier, we’d made the fifteen minute trek to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument –in our Sienna, not a rental car–a first and likely last for us in the National Parks system, given our homebase of Honolulu. We’ve driven thousands of miles visiting parks afar; it was only fitting that we visit the NPS site closest to home. Just a week prior, the Arizona Memorial had made international headlines with the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but today, there is a quieter crowd. Christmas is a week away, and the kids are less than enthused about our choice of holiday activity. With school out, they’ve merry making on their minds–not war. But with complimentary tickets to the Pacific Aviation Museum set to expire, we knew a combined Pearl Harbor/Pacific Aviation Museum tour was in order.

It’s a repeat visit for the kids, who’ve come before on field trips. But it’s been two decades, maybe three since my last visit. Everything is shiny and new–the result of a recent multi-million dollar renovation. It is comforting to see the familiar NPS set-up at work: park rangers, visitor center, gift shop. In many ways, the set-up reminds us of Mount Rushmore, complete with turnstiles, on-site museums, and guards. In other ways, less so: namely, the constant reminder that we are on an active naval base. We secure 10 am Arizona Memorial boat tickets* from a crowd-weary park ranger, who swigs water from his beat-up Nalgene. His boots and backpack indicate he is a hiker; his accent is not local. I don’t imagine this is the gig he envisioned when he signed with the Parks service. North Cascades receives 30,000 visitors per year; Pearl Harbor receives 1.8 million. It is the number one tourist destination in Hawaii, which is saying a lot for a state powered by tourism. He reminds us to meet at the theater in two hours, where we will view a short movie before boarding a boat to the Memorial.

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World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument
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Walking to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater

We wander the Visitor Center’s two exhibit galleries, “Road to War” and “Attack.” Everywhere we turn, we are met with the sights and sounds of war: gunfire, airplanes, and portraits of Japanese fighter pilots that could just as easily pass for photos of lost relatives. It haunts me. Patriotism comes naturally–I was born abroad on an Army base, and my father and his seven siblings served in the Army and Air Force. But I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of those who attacked Pearl Harbor that day. And I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of US citizens who were interned, of JA boys who gave their lives in service to prove their loyalty to America. Confusion and sadness turmoil within. Intellectually, I understand the whys and hows of all that transpired. But wandering these galleries, I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings. Emotion overcomes me more than once. I tell myself this is a good thing. That we should not forget the price of freedom, that our nation is stronger for recognizing that heritage and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Above all, I am reminded that war is fiercely personal and that opposing sides often wear the faces of young boys not unlike my son, separated only by fate. Loyal to different flags, unaware of the politics at play or how their actions may change history.

The line at the theater gives Disneyland a run for its money. Every ten minutes, two park rangers rally throngs of ticket-holders into a cordoned-off holding area before funneling them into the theater. For 23 minutes, we view black and white footage of the two waves of Japanese attacks that day. It is surreal to see Japanese Zeros flying against the crenulated relief of the Ko’olaus, rows of sugarcane in Ewa plantation fields. Unlike the Ben Affleck flick, though, there is no melodramatic soundtrack to set the mood. The sounds of actual explosions, planes, and gunfire are sobering enough.

The kids don’t say much at the dock. I suspect they feel as affected as I do; it’s hard not to. We are ushered with several dozen visitors onto a Navy-operated boat. It is a short ride to the Arizona Memorial, and clear skies and calm waters make for a smooth ride. Looking out upon Ford Island and the telltale contour of Pearl Harbor, it is impossible not to picture the events of December 7th. The stillness of the harbor reminds us that time may have passed, but this will always be hallowed ground.

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Approaching the Arizona Memorial by Navy boat
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As seen from the assembly chamber, Arizona Memorial

The all-white Memorial grows larger and larger until finally, its symbolic shape comes into full view–peaked ends sloping toward a concave center. The peaks represent America’s pre-war pride and eventual triumph; the concave depression symbolizes the attacks of December 1941. We deboard into the entry chamber, moving quickly to the assembly room to gather around floor portals that open directly into the water. Designed by architect Alfred Preis, the Memorial spans the sunken hull of the Arizona, floating above the battleship without touching it. Oil still seeps from the wreckage; this morning, there is a filmy sheen to the blue-green water beneath us. Our youngest points out a ten-inch slick just beyond the portal, a school of fish darting into view. Though the wreckage is clearly visible from all vantage points, there is a surprising lightness to the Memorial. Open-air ceilings accentuate blue skies, warm breezes. Overlooks allow for quiet contemplation over the water.

My personal discomfort stops me from photographing the Memorial, though I know that photography does not equal disrespect. Still, I am less sure of the selfie sticks, social media posts, and Go Pro cameras I see, though I try to refrain from judgment. Most visitors linger quietly–some in the assembly chamber, others in the shrine room with a marble wall bearing the names of Arizona’s fallen. Many offer lei, prayers. I don’t know how to honor the sacrifice here except to read the names of the fallen and try to comprehend the magnitude of each life lost. For a long moment, I am overwhelmed with grief, and then I see the diversity of those gathered: Americans of every color and credo, as well as international visitors–including many from Japan. Perhaps peace is the most beautiful testament of all to the sacrifice and memory of these men. Bonded here in reverence, it is clear that the humanity that unites us is so much greater than the sum of our differences. Here at the memorial wall, there is grief, yes, but there is also promise and beauty and hope.

Tips for Families Planning to Visit Pearl Harbor:

  • *Admission to WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument is free. Boat tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial Program are also free, but slots are limited. Recreation.gov allows you to reserve tickets up to 2 months in advance; there are also 1,300 first come, first served walk-in tickets issued daily. (A note of caution: walk-in tickets almost always sell out by mid-morning.)
  • For security reasons, no purses, camera bags, diaper bags, etc. of any kind are allowed at the Visitor Center. There are storage lockers available at the entrance for $3, but pockets are free and work well for phones, wallets, and keys.
  • The Memorial Program lasts 75 minutes, including boat rides, theater movie and time at the Memorial. Three hours provides ample time to wander the exhibit galleries and experience the Memorial. Allow an extra half hour to walk the Remembrance Circle and interpretive wayside exhibits.
  • Other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites include: the Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Separate admission fees apply unless you choose to purchase a Passport to Pearl Harbor bundle, which allows access to all sites for one inclusive cost. However, we found that the Arizona Memorial and Pacific Aviation Museum alone took us the better part of 7 hours to experience. I’d recommend spreading visits over two days, or alternately, choosing one or two historic sites to focus on.
  • The Pacific Aviation Museum is fantastic for aviation enthusiasts of all ages. Historic Ford Island is restricted to those with military access; however, visitors to Pearl Harbor can access the museum by taking a free 5-minute shuttle to the museum. As this is an active military base, cell phones and picture taking are prohibited during the shuttle ride. We highly recommend taking advantage of the free audio tours available at the museum’s entrance. They provide a wealth of information and do a fantastic job of bringing the exhibits to life. Be sure to visit Hangars 37 and 79; Hangar 79’s windows house bullet holes from the Pearl Harbor attack. Our youngest, an Amelia Earhart buff, loved the Combat Flight Simulator, a 20-minute hands-on experience over Guadalcanal. Be sure to check the museum’s website, which often features coupons for free flight simulator admission (normally a $10 additional fee).
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    Pacific Aviation Museum audio tour
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    Hangar 79, bullet holes in windows sustained during Pearl Harbor attack
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    Waiting for the Ford Island shuttle

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15 thoughts on “WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument: Pearl Harbor Reflection & Tips”

  1. What you said, “… it is clear that the humanity that unites us is so much greater than the sum of our differences” is so relevant and important to hold on to with the craziness that is happening in our country today. Another beautifully written post, thank you for taking us along on the tour and sharing your personal reflections and experiences, very touching (I have to admit I shed a tear or two).

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    1. I couldn’t agree with you more! It seems like all the divisiveness and craziness in the world today could be resolved if we just focused on how much we have in common. We all love our children; we all hope for a better world. Our differences seem so petty, especially in light of tragedy. Thanks so much for your kind words (and for reading!).

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  2. A touching post–thank you for adding a layer to the depth of reverence this place holds. We had the same experience–the memorial feels like a church and more appropriate for whispers and prayer than selfies and social media. It is a graveyard after all and truly one of the sacred places for our nation.

    An additional tip for families visiting from Waikiki: if you ride the bus, make sure you get on the right bus going back toward Waikiki. We boarded a bus going the other direction and ended up on the other side of Pearl Harbor before we realized our (my) mistake. That was a long bus ride back!

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, JD. I completely agree with you–the memorial feels very much like a church. The social media bothered me a bit, too, but I’m hoping it was more about capturing the moment than anything else. Ah, great tip about the bus! Yikes, sorry to hear you wound up in Waianae, though..definitely a long bus ride back. I can see how easy that would be to do if you don’t know that you need to catch the bus across the street. Would love to read more about your Pearl Harbor experience sometime; thank you for reading!

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      1. You’ve inspired me–I may try and do that, but will have to dig out those photo files. Hard to believe it was 10 years ago now. Definitely a trip of a lifetime to your beautiful island though.

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  3. My husband and I visited about 3 years ago. For emotional response, it equals Gettysburg and the 911 Memorial. My father turned 19 the day after the attack and joined the military shortly after. At age 94, he is part of a rapidly dwindling fraternity (and sorority) of heroes who answered the call to serve. Thank you for this lovely post which reminds us that, as Americans, we all love our country, regardless of where our ancestors came from. We all feel the pain of any attack on our country.

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    1. Blessings and deep gratitude to your father and others like him who answered the call to serve. In an age where the word ‘hero’ is bandied about too lightly, these men and women were and are true heroes. The kids had an opportunity to interact with members of the 100th Battalion recently; they are likely the last generation that will have a chance to do so. I hope they someday understand the significance of that event.

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  4. Another great post that made me “feel” your emotion that you were experiencing during your visit. You have an interesting perspective. I can’t wait to visit some day.

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    1. There’s such rich living history at Pearl Harbor. While not necessarily “fun” per se (more moving and inspiring), it is a remarkable place to visit. I know you and your family would enjoy it; hope you have a chance to make it to the islands soon!

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  5. Beautiful post and write up. You are such a good writer and have a way of making your reader feel like they are right there with you, emotions and all. Thank you for sharing, I’ll save this post for someday when we make it to Hawaii.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very sweet–thank you. 🙂 If your boys are into aviation or submarines (and what boys aren’t, lol), they’d have a great time exploring the other Pearl Harbor sites and museums. Hope a visit to Hawaii is in the cards soon–would be fun for our families to explore together!

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  6. This is such a touching post and I love how your emotion comes through. I know what you mean about photo taking/selfie sticks/GoPros etc. in these type of places. I had some moments of frustration recently in Cambodia at the Killing Fields monuments. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing that so many people visit these important places and learn about their history.
    We may (fingers crossed) be visiting Hawaii in April or May so this is definitely on our list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t even imagine the level of emotional response at a place like the Killing Fields; it must have been difficult but moving to honor the memory of those who passed. On a lighter note, I’m so happy to hear that Hawaii is on your trip list this year! If you happen to be in the market for a hike while you’re here, please feel free to give me a holler. 😀 April is still humpback season (though slightly off-peak), so you might be able to catch a whale or two as well.

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