Pearl Harbour – Why don’t we learn from history?

By now you guys may have twigged that I love history. My love is not based on any great intellect, it is more just a general fascination with how people lived and why things happened.

For history buffs, a trip to Hawaii would not be complete without a visit to Pearl Harbour and the USS Arizona Memorial.

Located around 11km north-west of downtown Honolulu, it is possible to get there by public bus, but after our disastrous public transport the previous day (see my post about public transport hijinks in Hawaii), we opted for a more expensive but more reliable shuttle bus. As it turned out, our ‘shuttle’ bus shuttled us to every hotel in Waikiki (slight exaggeration) and even dropped some passengers at the airport. All before arriving at Pearl Harbour itself. Yes, I know, I know, I need to relax…

So many names, so much sadness

A bit of prior research revealed that it is important to arrive at Pearl Harbour sooner rather than later due to its popularity. As we pulled into the carpark at 800am, it was wall-to-wall tourist buses and a sizeable queue of people snaking out the gate and down the path.

Our driver recommend we move our butts to join the queue, and after arranging for him to pick us up at 1230, we broke into a holiday jog across the carpark and joined the throng. We weren’t 100% sure of what we were actually queuing for, but found out from a helpful guide that we needed to get through the entrance gate, leave our backpacks and bags in a locker, and then queue for a ticket for the boat shuttle out to the USS Arizona Memorial.

Again, we did as we were told, and the crowd and the queue moved quickly through the various turnstiles, and up to the USS Arizona ticket window. I smiled sweetly as the disinterested ticket man and requested two tickets. He grumpily slid two tickets across the counter, and as I went to take them, I noticed the tickets were for the 1200pm boat shuttle! Surely not! It was only 815am, surely there must be an earlier tour? What were we going to do for the next four hours? We love history, but not four hours of bombs and explosions, and death and destruction. Would we miss our return trip on the shuttle bus?

Thankfully the Travel Gods smiled on us that morning. As I was trying to elicit a sympathetic response from the ticket man, a tour guide walked up to our counter and handed back a dozen unused tickets for the 830am tour. I begged for two, and we bolted before the officious ticket man could change his mind.

Note for the unwary: gates open at 700am. Arrive early!

The sinking of the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbour, Hawaii
The sinking of the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. Photo:

From that point on, we enjoyed the most sobering and fascinating three hours of history. For those who avoid history like the Plague (also history!), Pearl Harbour is the site of the catastrophic Japanese bombing of the American naval fleet and air force on a sleepy Sunday morning on December 7 1941. As I stood in the manicured grounds, watching a gentle breeze flutter the flags and the sun sparkling off the harbour, I did my best to imagine the horror and fear that would have gripped this community on that day. Luckily for me, I can never truly understand what they experienced, but during my visit to the memorial I did my best to learn as much as possible.

With our precious ticket firmly grasped in hand, we strolled to the tour meeting point. We were ushered into a small theatrette to watch a short film covering the history of the site and the development of the memorial. It was an excellent introduction and brought the chattering crowd around me down to earth with a thud. The death and destruction that occurred that day in 1941 was breathtaking, and yet it seems that we have learned nothing, and continue to repeat history. We continue to blow each other up and resort to war as the only problem-solving technique. I still shake my head.

Arriving at the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbour
Arriving at the USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbour

Suitably subdued, we boarded a small shuttle boat for the short trip out to the memorial. The memorial floats over the sunken wreck of the USS Arizona which went down with 1 102 seamen on board. As I peered over the side of the memorial, I could see parts of the gun turrets through the oily water. The sea water is covered by a sheen of oil slick as the USS Arizona is still releasing its oil reserves even 74 years after the attack.

After a somber 15 minutes we were ushered back onto the boat and back to the mainland. The Pearl Harbour site is so popular that the system must operate like clockwork. As we motored back to the shore, I noticed that only the very small children continued to chatter and jig about. As a whole, the adults had been given significant pause for thought.

USS Missouri, Pearl Harbour
USS Missouri, Pearl Harbour

Back on land, we started to explore the vast array of museums and the copious amounts of information displays. By this time, the crowds had swelled dramatically with the majority of tourists appearing to be from Japan. It took me a while to get my head around that, but I guess it is important for the Japanese people to understand their role in this moment in history.

There is more to this site than just the USS Arizona memorial. It also features the ship, the USS Missouri, and the USS Bowfin submarine. Both above water. It you are a real military history buff, you could spend days here reading every plaque and viewing every piece of military paraphernalia. We were content to walk through the various museums and installations which explained the history of the site, the scale of the attack, the naivety or unpreparedness of the Americans, and the comprehensive planning of the Japanese.

We pause to reflect under the Stars and Stripes, USS Arizona Memorial. Pearl Harbour
We pause to reflect under the Stars and Stripes, USS Arizona Memorial. Pearl Harbour

This all adds up to a very sad event, when people’s lives changed forever. Why do we not learn from our mistakes? Why do we not use history to avoid the tragedy and insanity of war?

Yes, this was a thought provoking experience, but isn’t that what travel is for?

July 2015

The Basics

What: Entry to the Pearl Harbour Centre is free.

Where: The Pearl Harbor Visitor Centre is located approximately 11km north-west of downtown Honolulu, on O’ahu Island.

When: The Pearl Harbor Visitor Centre is open seven days a week from 700am to 500 pm. It is only closed three days a year; Thanksgiving Day, December 25. And January 1.

Why: A whole range of reasons including to pay respect and to learn.

How: public transport is available and shuttles are plentiful. Inside the centre, the paths and buildings etc. are fully accessible for wheelchairs. I am not sure about the boat ride out to the memorial.

The USS Bowfin submarine, Pearl Harbour
The USS Bowfin submarine, Pearl Harbour

Who: Myself and The Brave Man* and thousands of American and international other tourists.

Related Posts: For more background on our Hawaiian escape, have a look at my post about cruising around the islands.

Related Blogs: For another perspective of Pearl Harbour, have a look at:

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

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