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Making Family Connections at Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii

View through the open roof of the USS Arizona Memorial.

Poignant, inspiring, sad, thoughtful, important. Those are the words I jotted down in my notebook as I toured the newly expanded WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument and associated Pearl Harbor Historic Sites on Oahu earlier this month. To be frank, I didn’t know much about the site before I visited — my childhood introduction to the USS Arizona Memorial was The Brady Bunch TV family’s visit in the 1970s. In a high school history class, I vaguely remember covering the events leading to the United States’ involvement in World War II. In recent years, I rented Pearl Harbor from Netflix.

However, after touring the memorial firsthand, watching a fascinating documentaries about that fateful day, listening to survivors speak emotionally about their distant memories, and walking through museums filled with historic artifacts and memorabilia, I came away with a much more thorough understanding of how the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor affected so many American lives and how and why it altered the course of our nation’s history.

I also found out that my husband’s great grandfather, at the time a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He survived, but 2,390 servicemen and civilians on Oahu that day did not.

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A visitor to Oahu could spend an entire day touring the multiple sites at Pearl Harbor. Different organizations work together to operate various areas of the complex. For example, the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument is a National Park Service entity, but the U.S. Navy runs the ferry to the USS Arizona Memorial, which is what most Pearl Harbor visitors come to see. Admission to the USS Arizona Memorial, its associated 23-minute film about the Pearl Harbor attack, and the thoughtful museum galleries “Road to War” and “Attack” are all free.

The USS Missouri, otherwise known as "Mighty Mo."

But, if you’re so inclined, you can also pay to board the retired Battleship Missouri Memorial and tour its multiple levels (little boys are enamored with the massive anti-aircraft guns) or visit the Pacific Aviation Museum filled with historic aircraft on Ford Island. Both of these attractions can be accessed via shuttle from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.

You can also pay a fee to tour the USS Bowfin, a fleet attack submarine in service in the Pacific during WWII. This exhibit on the water, adjacent to the grounds of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, also home to lovely grassy areas filled with benches for contemplation, the actual anchor and bell from the USS Arizona, the Tree of Life art sculpture, snack shop and book store.

To see the USS Arizona Memorial up close, you need to secure timed tickets; they’re first come, first serve, with no advanced reservations. With 10:30 a.m. tickets in hand, my husband and I first entered the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater to watch a documentary detailing the “nations at conflict.” Viewers learn how the Japanese planned an early morning surprise attack on the Hawaii military base to prevent the United States from interfering with the Empire’s invasion of Asia and the western Pacific. Really, it’s amazing that the Japanese pulled it off. Their submarines had to travel 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Oahu under strict radio silence to avoid being detected.

But Japan indeed surprised the unsuspecting U.S. armed forces: Japanese submarines armed with torpedoes and aircraft dropping huge bombs sank not only the USS Arizona, but three other battleships. Waves of Japanese military planes wreaked havoc on other cruisers and destroyers docked in and around the harbor. Meanwhile, military bases on Oahu were also hit from the air: airfields with hundreds of planes, plus a Marine Corps air station, a Naval air station and barracks were destroyed or damaged, and hundreds of men were killed or wounded. Within two hours the surprise attack was over. The next day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on Japan.

The deck of the USS Arizona lies about six feet underwater beneath the white memorial. To the left is a concrete mooring built after the battleship sunk.

After we viewed the poignant movie, we took a short boat ride to the stark white, 184-foot-long USS Arizona Memorial, which straddles the submerged battleship that sank with 1,177 of its crew on board. Many are still entombed there.  Naturally, a visit to the memorial is a sobering one. Oil still leaks from the sunken ship leaving a rainbow film on the harbor. A marble wall in the memorial is engraved with the names of those killed on the Arizona.

Exhibits detail what life was like in America in the 1930s, as well as in Japan.

Visitors spend just 15 minutes or so at the memorial site, and then return to the dock by boat to reflect at the Remembrance Circle or read informative plaques and thoughtful quotes at the Pearl Harbor Overlook. My husband and I spent at least an hour in the two complimentary museums. In “Road to War,” exhibits reveal what daily life was like in Japan and the United States in the 1930s. We learned that American servicemen in Hawaii, were generally lonely souls, missing girlfriends and creature comforts on the mainland. In “Attack,” video kiosks reveal historical newsreel footage with powerful and emotional Pearl Harbor survivor stories, and a 10-minute film in a small theater explains the fascinating tactical details surrounding Japan’s ballsy military maneuver.

From a civilian eyewitness interview: "... flames and smoke. It was horrible, actually."

On video screens, we watched senior citizens, who were civilians on Oahu, recall their childhood memories of December 7, 1941. I was struck most by one eyewitness who said she and her siblings climbed to the roof of her family’s garage as Japanese planes flew overhead. One airplane came so close to her house, she could see the facial features of a pilot as he passed by.

Another fascinating anecdote detailed in the exhibits: U.S. radar operators  picked up a radio signal of incoming planes at 7 a.m. on the morning of December 7. They passed on the message to their superiors, who misidentified the Japanese bombers as U.S. planes, so no action was taken against them. As noted in the Pacific Historic Parks’ audio tour brochure, it’s “One of the greatest ‘what if?’ stories in history.”

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As we were getting ready to leave the Pearl Harbor visitor complex, my husband remarked offhand, “My great grandfather was here.” Naturally, that stopped me in my tracks. I knew a relative had been an officer in the Navy, and had been stationed in China and other exotic locales in the early to mid-20th century, but I didn’t recall ever hearing anything about Pearl Harbor. Me: “Well, where was he? What was he doing? Was he actually here in the harbor, or back on land? Did he survive?”

John Freud Prentice Miller

Quent couldn’t deal with my incessant questions, so we called his mom, who called his Aunt Adele, the family’s resident genealogist and archivist. While gathering the scoop on the phone, Quent fed me bits and pieces, and I used my Blackberry to Google for details. Turns out, Lieutenant Commander John F. P. Miller, was indeed on board the USS Medusa on the morning of December 7, 1941. He took command of the ship, because her commanding officer was offshore at the time.

On my little phone screen, I pulled up information from Wikipedia and official Department of the Navy documents. I asked the friendly staffer at the National Park Service desk if she had a list of all the ships that were in the harbor that day, and she promptly handed me a map that showed exactly where the Medusa was stationed — between two peninuslas and across the water from Ford Island. Further away, on the opposite side of Ford Island, the Arizona and other ships were docked along side one another to form “Battleship Row.”

At that moment, U.S. history just became very, very personal.

Quent's great grandparents were all smiles on Oahu in late 1945 after WWII had ended.

Quent’s great grandpa was nearly 53 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In 1906, when “Jack” Miller was 17, he’d enlisted in the Navy as a Machinist’s Mate Second Class. In a brief autobiography he wrote in 1942, he noted, “At this time there was considerable agitation in the papers about a war with Japan, and being young and foot loose decided to enlist.”

Great Grandpa Miller served in WWI, and had worked his way up the naval ladder to Lieutenant Commander at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. My husband’s Aunt Adele describes her grandfather as one of the “most intelligent, calm, even-keeled people I’ve ever known” — exactly the type of man you’d want at the helm of a ship when reacting to the most fatal enemy attack in U.S. history.

While John F. P. Miller’s Action Report was officially recorded in January 1942 with the Department of the Navy, I appreciate even more the narrative he detailed in his autobiography a few months later:

Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, about a quarter to 8 a.m. I was having breakfast in the ward room. A few minutes later heard a terrific explosion. Looked through the port. It looked like Ford Island had blown up.

Immediately I sounded a general alarm. Within minutes we had every gun that was possible to bear shooting at the airplanes overhead. Heard a terrific explosion and found out later that it was the Arizona blowing up by Japanese bombs. We were kept busy, and someone reported to me that there was a Japanese submarine off our stern.  Immediately we opened fire. Immediately she fired a torpedo but it hit the dock. We hit her conning tower.

Late that afternoon when the Captain returned on board I reported sinking the submarine. He asked me if I had reported it to Commander Service Force. I told him I hadn’t. He sent an officer to report the sinking of the submarine. Admiral Calhoun reported immediately to the Commander In Chief. One of his staff remarked, “Are you sure it wasn’t one of our own that you sank?” You can imagine how I felt until the next morning when we sent a diver down. It was verified as a Japanese submarine.

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Every American vacationing on Oahu should take the time to visit the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. It’s certainly one of the most moving and thought provoking memorials I’ve ever encountered. If you’d visited the site prior to December 2010, you may want to return now that the $60 million renovation and expansion is complete.

Poignant, inspiring, sad, thoughtful, important… no matter how you might describe Pearl Harbor, or what emotions it might evoke for you, I am certain this is a visit that you will never forget, whether you have ties to the U.S. military or not. The Pearl Harbor visitor complex explains so thoughtfully and creatively this important day in history. The site honors not only the U.S. servicemen and civilians who died on December 7, 1941, but all those Americans who have ever bravely served our country.

If You Go:

Read the detailed “Plan Your Visit” information on the National Park Service website.

Diaper bags, purses, backpacks are not allowed inside the visitor center complex. Check them before you go in for $3 a bag; it is safer than leaving any valuables in your car. Parking is free.

The USS Bowfin, a submarine that was in service in the Pacific during WWII.

Admittance to the USS Arizona Memorial, the 23-minute documentary, the museums, the bookstore and the grounds at large is free, but you will pay to visit the associated USS Bowfin submarine, the Battleship Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Reserve at least four hours of your day for your visit (this is not a site to rush through); plan for a full day if you want to take in all of the attractions.

The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center opens at 7 a.m., and USS Arizona Memorial tours begin at 8 a.m. If you get there early, you will not have to wait long for a timed tour. If you arrive mid-morning, say, 10:30 a.m., you may not be able to join a tour until 1 p.m. Plan accordingly (i.e. if you have a couple of hours before your tour, visit the complimentary museums or pay to check out the nearby USS Bowfin).

Remember the USS Arizona Memorial is a memorial to honor those who died on December 7, 1941. From the NPS website: “Visitors are asked to assist in maintaining an atmosphere of decorum.” That means quiet voices and no cell phones.

I highly recommend the self-guided audio tour narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis and WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument historian Daniel Martinez. No, you won’t look silly wearing the audio device and headphones. It is very easy to figure out; simply enter the number you see posted at various places on the memorial, in the museum and on the grounds and you’ll glean some fascinating historic facts that you may not pick up if you’re touring on your own. The audio tour also includes narration from survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack. Like all of the exhibits and experiences here, the audio tour is both informative and moving.

Memorial Day Observances at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center on May 30, 2011, include:

  • 7:30 to 8 a.m.: Pearl Harbor Survivor Flag Raising, Bell Ringing Ceremony
  • 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.: Meet Pearl Harbor Survivors – Autographs and Book Signings
  • 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.: Pacific War in Minutre Model Exhibit & USS Arizona Memorial Public Tours
  • 2,390 flags representing casualties of the Pearl Harbor attack on display on the backlawn of the Visitor Center

These Memorial Day events at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center are free and open to the public.

11 Responses to “Making Family Connections at Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii”

  1. 1
    TwinCitiesGal says:

    Kara, what a beautiful post! I’ve been to Pearl Harbor and completely agree with your “poignant, inspiring, sad, thoughtful, important” description. I admire how you connected your family’s history to this historic memorial and thank you for sharing your family photos – what a nice touch!

    Thank you to all of the men and women who have served the United States – we honor you.

  2. 2

    Very nice post, Kara. I’m adding a link to my Memorial Day post at A Traveler’s Library.
    I had three relatives in the Pacific Navy, but after Pearl Harbor. My family history museum moment came in Fredericksburg Texas which has an amazing World War II Museum, including the new George H.W. Bush wing about the Air War in the Pacific . They have detailed displays about every possible branch of the service during World War II. It would take 2 or 3 days to do it justice.

  3. 3
    Jan Ross says:

    This was absolutely one of the best things we did when we were in Oahu. Our only mistake was coming with a tour group and we felt a little rushed. We would have stayed longer if we had been on our own – I recommend this instead.

  4. 4
    SoCalGal says:

    What a wonderful, thoughtful, introspective yet informative travel piece. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.

  5. 5

    Great post, Kara – this makes me want to return there (we toured it in 2003). My mom was born and raised on Oahu, because my grandfather worked for the US Navy, and was 7 years old when she lived through the bombing and ran with her sisters, mom and nanny to the hills. We tend to think of WWII and Pearl Harbor as “history” and forget how relatively recent it really is. To anyone reading this, I highly recommend the best book I’ve read in the past year: Lauran Hillebrand’s “Unbroken.” (She’s the author of Seabiscuit.) It’s the true story of Louis Zamperini (I may be misspelling that), an Olympic runner in the 1930s, who becomes a WWII bombadier and is shot down over the Pacific, and who then survives 47 days on a life raft and several years in POW camps. It gives a vivid account of Pearl Harbor, and it shows the very best and worst of the human spirit. I read it and then gave it to my mom (who’s now 76), and it opened all sorts of doors to memories in her mind about Pearl Harbor and WWII. Thanks for encouraging people to tour this important memorial!
    Sarah
    p.s. Coincidentally, I just looked up to my shelf of running trophies and spotted one from the Pearl Harbor Bike Path 10K. If any of your readers are runners, they should google the Mid-Pacific Road Runners Club for organized runs & races around Pearl Harbor. I loved running that race during our trip there! :-)

  6. 6
    Dave says:

    Such a fitting post to read the day after Memorial Day. Amazing, Kara, simply amazing. Love reading your work!

  7. 7
    ColoradoGal says:

    Thanks, all, for your comments! Indeed, this place really moved me. I look forward to bringing my kids some day.

  8. 8
    Chris says:

    What a sad place to visit, yet around Memorial Day there is no where else I’d rather be. What a great post!

  9. 9

    what a fantastic article. we all need to learn from – and honor – history. thank you for this!

  10. 10
    T.J. Hawkins says:

    Mrs. Kara Williams
    Mam, I read your article on Pearl Harbor. My name is T
    J. Hawkins and I live in Bryan, Texas. From the article I understand you husband’s g-grandfatherwas Lt.Cmdr. J.F.P. Miller. If so, then I have something that belongs in your family. It is the desk name bar that was presented to Cmdr. Miller by the crew of the Medusa in 1943. The desk bar was in the possession of my great aunt, Colonel Georiga M. Hawkins, U.S.Army, retired/deceased. Aunt “Skipper” was a Lt. (nurse) and stationed on Pearl on the morning of the attack. I discovetef the desk bar several years ago in her service trunk. She served in the Atlantic then Pacific Theaters of WWII. I would like to meet with your husband/family and give the item to your family.
    My email is: hwkns_thms@yahoo.com
    I will be happy to email you a photo of the desk name bar
    T.J. Hawkins
    T.J. Hawkins

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