Pearl Harbor

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Known to every American history student the world over, Pearl Harbor, located on Oahu’s southern coast, is the most visited tourist attraction in all of Hawaii. Much of this is due to the immense historical significance of the harbor and its neighbors the USS Arizona, the USS Missouri, the USS Bowfin submarine and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Known to the Hawaiians as Pu’uloa, Pearl Harbor represents one of the most profound and impactful places to visit on the Island of Oahu and a true “must” for any Hawaiian trip.

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Pearl Harbor History

Geographically speaking, Pearl Harbor is a lagoon harbor that is located just to the west of Honolulu on the Island of Oahu, Hawaii. It was originally called Pu’uloa by native Hawaiians which roughly translates to “long hill.” It was alternately called Wai Nomi or “pearl water” which is where the English version of its name derives.

During much of its recorded history, which begins in the 19th century, Pear Harbor was not accessible to large ships due to its shallow entrance from the Pacific Ocean. In fact, it was the interest of the United States in using the inlet as a place for its Navy ships, first to protect American whalers and then as a full blown base, that the utility of Pearl Harbor really began to blossom.

By January of 1887, the U.S. and the then-kingdom of Hawaii signed and ratified a reciprocity treaty which allowed the U.S. Navy exclusive rights to the harbor where they maintained a coaling and repair station. The beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898 reaffirmed the need for the U.S. presence in the Pacific.

Throughout the early years of the 20th century, the U.S. Navy continued to develop Pearl Harbor and expand its capacity for Navy vessels; the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was officially established in 1908. Continuous expansion also included the purchase of For Island, located in the middle of the harbor for joint army/navy use. The U.S. government also used Pearl as a jumping point for exploring other potential naval outposts in Guam and Midway.

As the war between China and Japan built up steam in the 1930s, the U.S. government decided to conduct a test by staging a mock attack on Pearl. The results, a resounding failure, seem rather telling in hindsight, though it would be eight years until the real day of reckoning would come.

December 7, 1941 was the date that made Pearl Harbor a permanent part of the American historical and cultural landscape. On that day, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, sinking nine ships, including the USS Arizona, seriously damaging another 21 ships, killing 2,402, and wounding 1,282 people. Though reticent prior to the attack, it is these events which directly led to the United States’ involvement in World War II. It is also the events of that day that draw nearly 1.6 million people per year to Pearl Harbor’s shores to honor those who died and those who survived in what was the most devastating domestic attack on the U.S. in the 20th century.

Pearl Harbor’s Main Attraction

A visit to Pearl Harbor actual entails taking in one of five major attractions. Pearl Harbor itself is anchored by a Visitor Center which made of three buildings, two of which contain exhibit galleries that focus on the history of Pearl Harbor both before and after 1941 and a final dedicated theatre which shows a documentary film about the attack.

Open daily from 7 am to 5 pm with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day, the Visitor Center is also the launch point for the boat to the USS Arizona memorial across the water at Ford Island. The trip to the Arizona memorial is included in the cost of admission.

While visiting Pearl Harbor most tourists also choose to take in the additional sights at the USS Missouri, the USS Bowfin, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. All of these attractions are located within walking distance of one another, although additional entrance fees are required. Despite the fact that it is docked right next to the Arizona, visitors must take a shuttle bus to Ford Island to view the Missouri.

To get the most out of the Pearl Harbor experience, visitors should plan to arrive early, before tour buses roll in and travel lightly since security post-9/11 no longer allows any purses, backpacks, or even diaper bags where items can be concealed.

Why Pearl Harbor is a Must-See

Going to Pearl Harbor along with the viewing of the memorial to the USS Arizona and other ships involved in the “infamous” attacks of 1941 is a moving experience for all. The ghosts of lost souls and the heart of the American military reside off the shores of this tiny island reminding visitors that even paradise can set the stage for tragedy and that we should be forever grateful for what we have. A trip to Hawaii without including Pearl Harbor is simply incomplete.

Where to Buy It

There are a number of ways you can enjoy admission to this attraction.

Pay Full Price and purchase a ticket from Pearl Harbor Attractions either online or in person.

Purchase a Tourist pass. The Pearl Harbor tour is available on the Go Oahu Card and Honolulu Power Pass.