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Showing visitors around the worn teak deck of the retired battleship USS Missouri, tour guide Reggie Johnson looks out over Pearl Harbor and notes how peaceful it is. Even though it’s still a major U.S. Navy base, the tone is always hushed—just as it was that fateful Sunday morning in December 1941, before the strafing and bombing began.

The Missouri sits in the spot on Battleship Row that was occupied on December 7, 1941, by the USS Oklahoma, which rolled over and sank during the attack—one of eight American battleships sunk or seriously damaged when waves of Japanese planes raided Pearl Harbor and surrounding military installations.

A couple hundred yards away is one of the nation’s most hallowed sites: the USS Arizona Memorial, a graceful white structure that sits athwart the hulk of the ill-fated battleship. A 1,760-pound bomb dropped by a Japanese Kate hit the Arizona’s forward magazine a few minutes after 8 that morning, sinking the ship in about 40 feet of water in 9 minutes.

Looking down at the submerged remains of the Arizona’s deck, I see a small oil slick. This is not modern pollution. Almost seven decades after the attack, the Arizona’s fuel tanks still leak. A few quarts a day bubble to the surface—droplets known as Pearl Harbor’s “black tears.”

My visit to the USS Arizona Memorial began at the onshore visitor center, a soon-to-be-replaced collection of concrete buildings containing exhibits that tell the story of that date that lives in infamy. Artifacts, photos, maps, models, a short film—even letters home from those who served at Pearl Harbor—illustrate the story of the attack. Admission is free, but a $5 self-guided audio tour is worthwhile.

Before we boarded the boats that take visitors across Pearl Harbor to the memorial, a tour guide cautioned, “The USS Arizona is not just another tourist attraction, not just another sunken ship.” Indeed, the ship is the gravesite of about 900 service members still entombed in its wreckage. In all, 1,177 sailors on the Arizona died—nearly half the 2,388 Americans killed in the attack. The churchlike atmosphere of the memorial, including a wall full of victims’ names, reflects the gravity of the place and its memories.

But perhaps the most precious element of the memorial is its living exhibit: a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors in their 80s and 90s who volunteer a few hours a day, bringing to life the history of what happened that quiet Sunday morning.

Hawaii native Al Rodrigues was on duty at Bishop’s Point at the entrance to the harbor, at a facility that handled small navy craft and maintained the antisubmarine nets at the harbor’s entrance. He was just sitting down to breakfast when the general quarters alarm sounded. He and the other navy seamen were given .30-caliber rifles and .45-caliber revolvers to try to defend the base. “That’s all we had to shoot at the planes with,” Rodrigues says. He never got to finish his breakfast.

Rodrigues is 88 now, and comes to the memorial’s visitor center three times a week to meet visitors, appear in “Witness to History” videoconferences for schoolchildren around the United States, and talk about the history of Pearl Harbor.

“If I didn’t live on the other side of the island I’d come here every day,” he tells me, smiling. For visitors to the site, “having us here—to them it’s unbelievable.” And what does it mean to the survivors? “I love coming out here—I love to tell my story,” Rodrigues says. “I like the love they show us—the respect.”

Morse code radio operator Bob Kinzler was a few miles north of Pearl Harbor, at Schofield Barracks, when he heard an explosion at 7:55 a.m. that Sunday. “Initially, we thought one of the oil-fired stoves in one of the mess halls had blown up,” he remembers.

But he and the other soldiers at Schofield soon spotted the attacking Japanese planes. They were bombing nearby Wheeler Field—the first wave of the assault. Sitting at a folding table in the visitor center, Kinzler, 86, autographs biographical sheets and other mementos for visitors.

“I feel I have to be here to answer questions, whether they’re exciting or not,” Kinzler says, “to keep the legacy and story of Pearl Harbor alive.”

The National Park Service employees who run the Arizona memorial and visitor center cherish the work the survivors do, and are preserving their memories via oral histories and other means. “At Gettysburg, they can see the battlefield and visit the new museum,” says Daniel Martinez, the park historian since 1988. “But they can’t talk with anybody who was there.”

Hospital Corpsman Sterling R. Cale had just come off duty in the shipyard dispensary on the morning of December 7 when he saw planes over Battleship Row.

“I saw planes diving,” he recalls, “and thought something might be wrong. Then I saw the rising sun” on the wings. Cale grabbed a fire ax, knocked down an armory door, and grabbed a Springfield rifle to shoot at the attacking planes. He spent the next few hours pulling survivors—and bodies—from the flaming wrecks. The break-in almost got him court-martialed. “Fortunately, President Roosevelt declared war the next day, so I got an award for breaking into the armory.”

The Arizona memorial was completed in 1961, and while it is in good shape, the visitor center, built on reclaimed land in 1980, is sinking, falling apart, and generally inadequate to its historic task—especially handling the thousands of people who visit it every day, some of whom have to be turned away. Ground was broken in November on a two-year project to replace the visitor center with a modern facility; the memorial will remain open throughout the construction.

The new visitor center will preserve the survivors’ stories after they’re gone. “Now is the time to be talking to the survivors…they’re living history,” says Eileen Martinez, the chief of interpretation at the memorial, who recently was part of a Park Service project to compile oral history interviews with 50 survivors (about 4,000 are still alive). “That’s the challenge—how do we speak for them once they’ve passed?”

Scheduled to open on December 7, 2010, the new center will be able to accommodate more visitors and exhibits and take better advantage of the site’s waterfront location overlooking Pearl Harbor and the memorial.

“The hope of the new center is that it’s a pleasant experience that supplies an opportunity to learn,” says Ms. Martinez. The private, nonprofit Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund has raised more than $30 million of the project’s $52 million cost; a six-city road tour last fall brought the effort more attention, and actor and World War II buff Tom Hanks has pitched in as a fundraiser.

Back on the Missouri, Reggie Johnson explains the ship’s place in history to me. The retired marine leads tours of the battleship and loves to tell its story. The Missouri’s keel had just been laid in Brooklyn, New York, when its sister ships were attacked in Pearl Harbor. The “Mighty Mo” was launched in 1944—the last American battleship—and served in the Pacific fleet. On September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay, Allied and Japanese leaders gathered on the Missouri’s deck to sign the documents by which Japan surrendered, ending World War II.

Standing on that historic spot on the Missouri, I can see the Arizona memorial in the near distance—a unique confluence of space and time that simultaneously puts me at the beginning and the ending of America’s involvement in the war. The black tears continue to stain the gently lapping waves around the memorial, iridescent in the bright Hawaiian sunshine. It’s a sacred and solemn place, and the surroundings reflect that. “Pearl Harbor,” says Johnson, “is still quiet.”

What Else to See

While the USS Arizona Memorial and visitor center are the focal points of most visits to Pearl Harbor, three other attractions are clustered nearby.

The USS Bowfin, a World War II submarine that sank 44 Japanese ships, is located next to the Arizona memorial’s visitor center and available for walking tours (; $10 adults, $4 children, $7 seniors and military).

A short bus ride away is the Pacific Aviation Museum, whose World War II–era hangars house military aircraft and memorabilia (; $14 adults, $7 children). Another bus ride takes you to the USS Missouri, moored on Battleship Row (; $16 adults, $8 children; guided tours are an additional $7). Package deals with discounts on these attractions are available in various combinations.

Most other key Pearl Harbor sites in Honolulu are closed to the public because Pearl Harbor is still an active navy base. But another sacred memorial is the little visited but spectacular National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located in a volcanic crater known as Punchbowl (808-532-3720). The setting is dramatic and serene, and the edge of the crater offers some of the best views of Honolulu. More than 34,000 American veterans are interred at Punchbowl, including nearly 800 victims of the Pearl Harbor attack, Challenger astronaut Ellison Onizuka, and famed World War II journalist Ernie Pyle.