For many Americans, the words Pearl Harbor call to mind black-and-white images of U.S. Navy battleships on fire, listing grotesquely in a chaotic churn of billowing, black smoke. The photos and film footage of those military vessels burning on the water are at least partly responsible for the 1.4 million Oahu travelers who pay their respects at the USS Arizona Memorial annually.
But there were, of course, other devastating elements of the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, that don't receive as much attention today from Hawaii visitors, including the bombing that destroyed Hangar 6 on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.
"Before the Arizona blew up, these hangars were bombed," said Kenneth DeHoff, the executive director of the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor. "The Missouri hadn't even been built. The Bowfin [submarine] was a year later, [and] this is where the war in the Pacific began."
Covering 17 acres today and just a 20-minute shuttle ride from the national park's main visitor center, the Pacific Aviation Museum opened at Ford Island, now a National Historic Landmark, with five planes in 2006.
Battleship Missouri Memorial
Evocative pilot images
Oahu travelers headed to Pearl Harbor in the next few months will want to set aside time for the Battleship Missouri Memorial's exhibition of rare images and artifacts from Japanese kamikaze pilots. Read More
Often thought of as an experience to take in after visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, along with options like the Battleship Missouri Memorial or the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, the Pacific Aviation Museum is now home to 50 aircraft, most of which are exhibited in two hangars that were part of the naval air base that sustained early bombing during the Japanese attack nearly 75 years ago.
According to DeHoff, a Vietnam War helicopter pilot whose father flew B-25 bombers across the Pacific in World War II, the museum site offers visitors a surprising spirit and sacredness they may want to think twice about skipping.
"There are 600 aviation museums in the U.S., and some people say they don't need to see another one," he said. "But this is the only one that allows you to walk on hallowed ground, where Americans gave up their lives, where airplanes were destroyed, where ships were bombed and sank."
While accumulating the growing fleet of historical aircraft, the museum has also worked to preserve several scars still remaining from the Dec. 7 attack.
"What people don't know is this is really America's aviation battlefield," DeHoff said. "There are still bullet holes in the windows we've got in Hangar 79. There are still bomb craters here that we're trying to protect and keep the Navy from asphalting over. There are more bullet holes in the concrete."
The nonprofit Pacific Aviation Museum recently raised $5 million for the renovation of the airfield's control tower, which has been featured in films such as 1970's "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and 2001's "Pearl Harbor."
Refurbishing the tower's exterior staircases and platforms required 52 tons of new steel, DeHoff said, and overhauling the orange-and-white facade took 200 gallons of paint.
"Give me another year and I'll have the elevator repaired," DeHoff added. "And people will be able to go to the top of the tower and see all of eastern Oahu."
There's certainly no need to wait another year to make a visit, however. The Pacific Aviation Museum does a wonderful job of showcasing its aircraft while telling a number of in-depth stories, not only about the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor but other military histories like Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo or the Battle of Midway and even Amelia Earhart's 1937 crash landing at Ford Island. Ultimately, though, it's the accounts of the site's courageous military service members that shine through.
"These three hangars had men working in them on that Dec. 7 morning at 7:55," DeHoff said. "They took cover, and then they manned guns, and they fought back."
Admission to the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor is $25 for adults and $12 for ages 4 to 12. Visit www.pacificaviationmuseum.org.