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Days Of Infamy

Sixty-five years ago this month, Imperial Japanese Navy bombers and torpedo planes unleashed their lethal payloads on the U.S. Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor. Even now, it is impossible to downplay the significance of the events of December 7, 1941. As the last carrier planes sped back to their ships that day and began a triumphant return to Japan, they left in their wake the bodies of some 2,400 Americans and the sunken and twisted remnants of America’s naval presence in the Pacific. In a matter of hours, it seemed as though the United States had been swept from the region for good. What the attack accomplished instead was to ignite the wrath of ordinary Americans and drive an isolationist United States into war.

The symbol of the American setback at Pearl Harbor was the fiery destruction of the venerable battleship Arizona, which sank within nine minutes at its berth alongside Ford Island following a bomb strike and explosion in its forward magazine.

In 1962 the USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated above the battleship’s submerged remains, and in 1980 a museum was built on land nearby. Maintained by the National Park Service, the museum was constructed to provide a venue for exhibits and displays to interpret the events of the Day of Infamy and to honor the men and women killed in the attack. Now, however, plans are afoot to demolish the museum and replace it with a new facility.

The Arizona Memorial Museum Association and the NPS have launched a capital campaign to construct a new museum complex and interpretative center, at an estimated cost of $34 million. The original facility was designed to accommodate 2,000 visitors each day, but the daily average in 2006 was 4,500. During peak season, hundreds of guests are unable to view what few artifacts are displayed, and complaints of overcrowding persist.

The current facility not only lacks the necessary exhibit space, but the 1.5 million visitors it receives each year also have put the structure under tremendous physical stress. Worse, literally weighed down by the huge number of visitors, the museum is slowly sinking into the harbor. In mid-2003 engineers reported that the complex had an expected life span of only five to 10 years. The building was originally constructed atop a landfill and has settled more than 30 inches in some areas. The lower levels are fast approaching the water table, and temporary repairs to help stabilize large gaps are visible in some of the support structures.

The facility’s condition and lack of archival grade atmospheric controls have meant that only a handful of the thousands of irreplaceable objects donated over the years are being displayed. The original museum was designed with open-air exhibit space to take advantage of the warm Hawaiian weather, but photographs, medals, paper documents, uniforms and other personal items cannot be displayed for fear of deterioration.

Plans for the new facility aim to correct these deficiencies. The new museum will have 24,000 square feet of exhibit space— double the old amount—and will be constructed so that those items on display will not suffer deterioration. In addition, the museum will expand its coverage to include displays on the Pacific War as a whole.

The new exhibit halls will include “Gathering Storm,” which will explore how the aftereffects of World War I contributed to the outbreak of World War II, as well as what was at stake for the countries competing for similar interests in the Pacific region, and the development of the U.S. and Japanese navies.

“Attack on Oahu” will cover in the greatest possible detail the tragic events of December 7, with particular emphasis on the military personnel and civilians who paid the ultimate price. Another hall will be “Pacific War: War Without Mercy,” where visitors can learn about various large and small battles and accomplishments in the Pacific theater, including the April 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan and the dramatic aircraft carrier battle off Midway atoll in June 1942.

Another exhibit, “Remembering: Oral History Experience,” will focus on firsthand accounts of those who survived the Day of Infamy and will include discussion on the issue of commemorating and remembering the attack in the form of the Arizona Memorial. The “USS Arizona Battleship” lobby exhibit will summarize the evolution of the battleship and the emergence of the U.S. Navy and will document the story of the life and demise of Arizona and its crew.

An improved educational and research center will cater to the nearly 25,000 students who visit the memorial each year. The recently launched “Witness to History” distance learning program has allowed students from around the world to interview Pearl Harbor survivors via teleconference. The new center will feature upgraded teleconferencing facilities, a research center to allow access to historical documents and dedicated classrooms.

The museum will also provide the complete story of what happened throughout Hawaii on December 7, not just the attack on the harbor itself. Plans call for the new center to be built in several phases, with construction taking approximately 20 months. Opening and dedication ceremonies are targeted for December 7, 2008. Any additional revenues will allow for an extension of visiting hours.

For further information on museum programs and how to support the association, contact the Arizona Memorial Museum Association, 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, HI 96818, or visit the Web at

Across the harbor on 433-acre Ford Island, construction is progressing on the Pacific Aviation Museum. This complex will eventually occupy 16 acres and will include displays in hangars 37, 54 and 79, as well as in the control tower.

Ford Island has been designated a National Historic Landmark, and the Navy has embarked on an ambitious redevelopment plan to build 420 units of family housing for its personnel in addition to 34 acres of retail property. Since the preservation of historic buildings is outside the Navy’s mandate, a group including Air Force and Navy personnel, Hawaiian business people and retired military officers has joined to save the structures.

Once work is completed, several World War II–era aircraft will be on display in hangar 37, including the Navy Stearman trainer in which former President George H.W. Bush flew solo, the Aeronca biplane that was airborne on December 7, a Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a North American B-25 Mitchell, a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and a Grumman F4F Wildcat.

When the complete museum complex is opened in December 2006, hangar 37 will house a theater that will play a film of the December 7 attack that uses live footage and still photographs. The hangar will also include flight simulators, a retail outlet, an education center and a restaurant.

Hangar 54 will house a full-scale replica of a World War II–era carrier flight deck. Interactive exhibits will tell the story of the air campaigns in the Pacific. Hangar 79 will focus on Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War and will showcase the technological developments in aviation, from jet aircraft to helicopter gunships.

The island’s control tower, with its distinctive checkerboard orange-and-white paint scheme, will be renovated and will include space for executive offices, a dining room and a reception area. Total cost for construction and development of this museum complex is estimated at $74 million.

To check on the progress of the museum and the restoration of the historic hangars on Ford Island, contact Pacific Aviation Museum, 90 Nakolo Place, Suite #1, Honolulu, HI 96819. The museum can also be found on the Web at www.pacific

Warplane Is Right On Target

For those tired of a staple diet of documentaries covering World War II in the air, news of Grenada Television and WNET 13’s four-part series Warplane, which began running on public television stations across the country on November 8, might have caused more than a few yawns at first. Warplane, however, breaks new ground in a number of ways.

First, the show features some remarkable footage of vintage aircraft in flight that is truly a cut above what is ordinarily seen. Even after more than 60 years, a Supermarine Spitfire being put through its paces is a thing of beauty. More important, rather than relying solely on air show footage, the program carries out a number of experiments and vignettes that would delight anyone. Among the best are a test of the famous Norden bombsight that features an 80-plus-year-old bombardier taking to the skies in a B-25 Mitchell to see if he can still get his bombs “in the pickle barrel” and a commendable group of volunteers who are working tirelessly to rebuild a Boeing B-29 Superfortress one rivet at a time.

While these moments are highly entertaining, the real strength of the series is the narrative in which they are placed. Rather than assuming that these aircraft and the men who flew them operated in some sort of vacuum, Warplane spends as much time talking about the inventors and designers who devised these magnificent aircraft as it does on the people who flew them. Viewers will be amazed at how even the smallest technological advance could have unimaginable consequences and will better understand the important role military necessity plays in scientific development. Complex scientific problems are made clear through superlative graphics and eyewitness testimony.

Readers of World War II will probably be most interested in the second episode, “Air Force to Airpower.” Those who watch the entire program, however, will better appreciate just how remarkable an achievement it is that in only 100 years man has been able to go from the Wright brothers’ fragile wood-and-cloth flying machine to the stealth bombers of today.

Marker For A Mass Murderer

The Berlin Underworlds Association has unveiled an information panel at the site of Adolf Hitler’s underground bunker complex in Berlin, marking for the first time the site where the Führer spent his final days and committed suicide on April 30, 1945.

Formed in 1997, the historical society counts as its members a group of enthusiasts who explore and give tours of the city’s subterranean cemeteries, factories and air raid shelters. A spokesperson for the group says the information panel was designed to “dispel myths” about the Nazi leader’s underground shelter.

The dual language panel explains the history of the shelter through schematics and archive photographs. Most of Hitler’s bunker was destroyed by Russian troops in December 1947. The remnants were backfilled with sand and gravel in the 1980s when the East German government built apartment towers and a parking lot on the site, located only minutes from Berlin’s new Holocaust memorial.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.