December 7th, 1941.  It’s one of the most infamous dates in world history. On that day, at 7:55 a.m., Japan launched a devastating surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, sparking America’s involvement in World War II. The assault only lasted two hours, but the Japanese managed to dismantle the American fleet, destroying nearly 20 naval vessels, including 8 battleships and more than 300 airplanes. Over 2,000 Americans lost their lives and more than 1,000 others were wounded.

 Located on the island of Oahu, this quiet bay where oysters were once farmed is now home to a unique collection of war memorials and museums, where 1.6 million+ visitors come each year to pay their respects.  

While most associate a trip to Hawaii with tropical fun in the sun (which it is), a vacation to the Pacific archipelago/US state isn’t complete without visiting Pearl Harbor. From sunken ships, decommissioned battleships, fascinating exhibits, and deeply moving memorials, Pearl Harbor is a must-see destination for anyone looking for a breath-taking experience.

Here’s a short guide for visiting Pearl Harbor:

Start Your Day Off  at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center

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Spanning 17 acres, the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is home to personal memorabilia, dramatic photographs, and other artifacts from the attack. Visitors are free to explore the grounds, which includes a bookstore, interpretive wayside exhibits, and the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater. The center acts as a hub for all the other Pearl Harbor destinations, so it’s the perfect place to begin any visit. From here you can also head over to the iconic USS Arizona Memorial, which can only be reached by boat. Visitors are able to book boat tickets early, however the National Park Service does give out over 1,300 walk-up tickets each day on a first come, first serve basis. To avoid disappointment, it’s best to book days ahead of your visit or arrive early for the walk-up tickets (the center opens at 7:00 a.m.). Tickets are free.

You Have to See the USS Arizona Memorial

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The USS Arizona was the most heavily damaged of all the American vessels, and due to the sheer amount of oil carried on board, (1.5 million gallons) the ship actually burned continuously for two and a half days! The moving and iconic memorial structure sits above the sunken warship and is dedicated to the 1,102 men (of 1,177 on board) who were killed. From inside the memorial, you can view the remains from an opening in the floor, or take a moment of silence in the shrine room, where the names of the fallen are engraved on a marble wall. Not only does the memorial offer an incredibly sobering experience, but also incredible views of the harbor in every direction. It’s no wonder that the USS Arizona Memorial is the most visited destination in Hawaii!

Check Out the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park

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Launched exactly one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and aptly nicknamed the “Pearl Harbor Avenger,” the USS Bowfin was a fleet attack submarine that sank 44 enemy ships in the Pacific by the end the war. Now decommissioned, it’s the main attraction at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, which is adjacent to the visitor center’s ticket counters. You can climb aboard the Bowfin for a hands-on, close quarters feel at what life in a WWII-era submarine was really like. There are two separate tours, the USS Bowfin Submarine Tour and the Submarine Museum Tour. While the USS Bowfin gives you a personal approach, the Submarine Museum Tour takes you through an educational journey that traces the development of submarines from their origins and includes actual wartime patrol footage. Plus, there are several outdoor exhibits for you to enjoy as you stroll about the museum, such as the Waterfront Memorial (dedicated to the 52 American submarines and more than 3,500 officers and crewmen lost during World War II). Allow yourself about an hour to get the most out of your visit, and don’t forget to watch your head below deck! General admission is $12, $5 for children ages 4-12.

Don’t Miss the Battleship Missouri Memorial

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Nicknamed the “Mighty Mo,” this decommissioned battleship provides a unique historical bookend to the US campaign in the Pacific. Not only was the USS Missouri built at the end of World War II (January 29, 1944), but it’s also where the war ended. That’s right, you can actually set foot on the deck where General MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945. Now docked on Ford Island, the battleship is located a short distance from the s USS Arizona Memorial.

To visit the Missouri, you need to take the Ford Island visitor shuttle bus (remember to bring photo ID, it’s required) from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, which leaves every 15 minutes.

On board, you can take either a self-guided audio tour, or join a guided tour (sometimes led by knowledgeable US military veterans). Whether you’re browsing exhibitions on the ship’s history, striding across the iconic Surrender Deck, or even poking about the officer’s quarters, the Battleship Missouri Memorial has plenty to offer. General admission is $27, $13 for children ages 4-12.

Before You Leave, See the Pacific Aviation Museum

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Also located on Ford Island, in hangars that survived the 1941 attack, the Pacific Aviation Museum boasts Hawaii’s largest collection of aircraft and holds over 70 years of Pacific aviation history. The unforgettable journey back in time is narrated through screenings of historical videos, (including the award-winning Pearl Harbor documentary East Wind, Rain), over fifty different aircraft, and various exhibits. There’s also a gift shop and café. To commemorate Pearl Harbor’s 75th anniversary of the attack, the museum is set to display a rare Nakajima B5N Torpedo Bomber, the same type of plane that caused the most damage to American battleships during the attack. General admission is $25.

If You Have the Time, Go to the USS Oklahoma Memorial

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The USS Oklahoma was hit by nine torpedoes and sank within the first ten minutes of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For 60 years, the warship sat submerged near Ford Island with no memorial. Now, the horrendous death toll is put into perspective with 429 individual white marble columns perfectly aligned, each one representing (in a manner meant to evoke the navy’s pristine white dress uniform) one of the 429 sailors and marines that died on board the Oklahoma. Stop by this memorial on Ford Island for a truly moving experience.

[Top Featured Image Via Flickr CC 2.0 – Danny Luong]

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About The Author

Mark Silvester

From Australia, skateboarder/explorer.