After a refit and a name change, submarine museum resurfaces in Hawaii

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The Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, home to the WWII-era submarine USS Bowfin, is now open after a $23 million renovation.
The Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, home to the WWII-era submarine USS Bowfin, is now open after a $23 million renovation. Photo Credit: HTA/Tor Johnson

The USS Bowfin submarine museum reopened recently at Pearl Harbor after a $23 million comprehensive renovation and has been renamed the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum to better reflect the breadth of the exhibits.

The 13,000-square-foot museum charts the course of Navy undersea duty from the loss of the F4's 21 sailors off Honolulu in 1915 up through the newest $6.5 billion Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines.

The planning for the sweeping renovation started more than a decade ago, said retired Navy Capt. Chuck Merkel, executive director of the Pacific Fleet Submarine Memorial Association, which manages the museum. The work began in January 2019 and was only slightly delayed by the pandemic, Merkel said.

"It's really like a whole new museum," he said. "The museum has expanded, the interior has been completely redone. Previously, it very much felt like an old museum from the '70s or '80s. It was very static, with a bunch of artifacts and some text description. Now, we have a blend of artifacts and interactive exhibits."

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The exhibit improvements include the use of a range of media, including photos and video, and a handful of kiosks with different educational activities, like a mock submarine mission.

"We did a lot to introduce STEM concepts -- science, technology, engineering and math -- to enhance the educational value," Merkel said.

An exhibit at the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum.
An exhibit at the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum.

Additionally, three galleries take visitors through the history of the U.S. submarine force, including the development of nuclear propulsion in 1954 and the ballistic-missile models of the Cold War.

After navigating a variety of hurdles, including developing the plans, getting the changes approved by the Navy, acquiring the financing, and pandemic-related delays to the installation of the new exhibits, "it's very rewarding to have it all done and see visitors coming back," Merkel said.

The USS Bowfin itself launched Dec. 7, 1942, one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was nicknamed the "Pearl Harbor Avenger." The fleet attack submarine patrolled the Pacific during World War II from 1943 to 1945.

During the museum renovation, the Bowfin got a thorough cleaning and new coat of paint as it approaches its 80th birthday.

The Bowfin is just one of 15 decommissioned World War II subs presently on display in the U.S., most of which likely would have wound up as scrap metal or as target practice. The Bowfin, in fact, was slated for scrap, but in 1972 WWII submariner and Pearl Harbor survivor Admiral Bernard "Chick" Clarey and Rear Admiral Paul Lacy led the campaign with the Secretary of the Navy to acquire the Bowfin as a memorial to the U.S. Submarine Force at Pearl Harbor. With support from Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, the memorial was approved, and the Bowfin was towed to Pearl Harbor from Seattle.

After a nonprofit was formed to manage the memorial and museum and some cleaning and restoration work, the Bowfin officially opened as a museum ship adjacent to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor on April 1, 1981. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986, and the submarine has seen more than 9.5 million visitors since it opened.

"One thing I don't think a lot of people realize is the sacrifices the submarine forces made," Merkel said. "During World War II the submarine forces had the highest casualty rate of any of the U.S. armed forces."

Over the course of WWII, 52 U.S. submarines were lost, and there were more than 3,600 fatalities among the submarine force, representing one in five submarine servicemen during the war. The entry lobby of the museum houses a memorial wall to those who died serving on U.S. submarines and a kiosk that provides more information on the casualties.

"The updates really add a lot to the experience," Merkel said. "The reaction from the visitors we've had so far has been very positive. Even if you've been here before and think you've seen it, this really feels brand new, and there's so many new things to see."

The Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission is $20 for adults and $12 for children under the age of 13.

CORRECTION: This story and the accompanying summary that appeared in the Hawaii e-newsletter were updated on March 29. The originals stated that the Bowfin is one of 16 decommissioned subs on display at the museum. It is in fact one of 16 that are on display nationwide.

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