O‘ahu: Military History and Pearl Harbor Sights

A bugler in a white navel uniform plays with the USS Arizona memorial visible in the background.

A bugler plays at the 71st Anniversary Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration. Photo © Dustin W. Sisco/Official U.S. Navy Imagery, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

O‘ahu differs from the other main Hawaiian Islands in that there is a strong military presence here. All four branches of the military have installations on the island, and men and women in uniform are a common sight from the windward to the leeward side.

General Schofield first surveyed Pearl Harbor in 1872, and this world-class anchorage was given to the U.S. Navy for its use in 1887 as part of the Sugar Reciprocity Treaty.A few military strategists realized the importance of Hawai‘i early in the 19th century, but most didn’t recognize the advantages until the Spanish-American War. It was clearly an unsinkable platform in the middle of the Pacific from which the United States could launch military operations. General Schofield first surveyed Pearl Harbor in 1872, and this world-class anchorage was given to the U.S. Navy for its use in 1887 as part of the Sugar Reciprocity Treaty. In August 1898, four days after the United States annexed Hawai‘i, U.S. Army troops created Camp McKinley at the foot of Diamond Head, and American troops were stationed there until it became obsolete in 1907. Named in General Schofield’s honor, Schofield Barracks in central O‘ahu became (and remains) the largest military installation in the state. It first housed the U.S. 5th Cavalry in 1909 and was heavily bombed by the Japanese at the outset of World War II. Pearl Harbor, first dredged in 1908, was officially opened on December 11, 1911. The first warship to enter was the cruiser California.

The Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor and other military installations on December 7, 1941. The flames of Pearl Harbor ignited World War II’s Pacific theater operations, and there has been no looking back. Ever since that war, the military has been a mainstay of the island economy. Following the war, the number of men, women, and installations decreased; today there is a force of more than 55,000 active duty personnel, with all branches of the military represented.


Sights in Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor Historic Sites

The USS Arizona Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, USS Oklahoma Memorial, and the Battleship Missouri Memorial comprise the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites. Over 1.7 million people visit the USS Arizona Memorial and the historic sites each year, making this one of the most heavily toured areas in the state. The four sites together tell the story of Hawai‘i’s and the United States’s involvement in World War II, from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to the surrender of the Japanese. Pearl Harbor also serves as the central point of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

Once you arrive and find free parking in one of several designated lots, enter the 17-acre park where you’ll first see the visitor center (808/454-1434, 7am-5pm daily) and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum. If you’re planning on touring any of the historic sites, especially the USS Arizona, arrive as early as possible and head directly to the Visitor Center to get in line to receive a stamped ticket for a tour time. Admission to the monument is free and the 1.25-hour program includes a 23-minute documentary and a short boat ride to the memorial. Tickets are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. On a busy day, be prepared to wait several hours for your tour.

A better option is to reserve tickets online. You can select the date, time, tour, or tour package you’d like to take. When you arrive at the Visitor Center, a separate line awaits for those who have reserved tickets.

If you do have a long wait ahead of you, check out the other historical sites, like the USS Bowfin Museum, or take the shuttle bus, which departs every 15 minutes, to the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Other than the USS Arizona Memorial, which is free, all sites charge admission for adults and children ages 4-12. There are also package tours, half-day tours, and one- or two-day passes available. Alleviate the wait time by taking advantage of the online ticket reservations to streamline your visit to Pearl Harbor.

The Pearl Harbor Historic Sites park is located off Kamehameha Highway, Route 99, just south of Aloha Stadium. There is ample signage coming from both directions. If you’re on the H-1 freeway west, take exit 15A and follow the signs. You can also take TheBus, nos. 20 or 42 from Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki, or nos. 20, 42, or 52 from Ala Moana Center or downtown and be dropped off within a minute’s walk of the entrance. Depending on stops and traffic, this ride could take over an hour. Also, The Arizona Memorial Bus Shuttle (808/839-0911), a private operation from Waikiki run by VIP Transportation, takes about half an hour and will pick you up at any Waikiki hotel. It charges $11 round-trip; reservations are necessary, so call a day in advance. Because the park is on an active military base, there are no bags allowed inside the area. There is a $3 bag storage fee.

Keaiwa Heiau State Park

In ‘Aiea, the Keaiwa Heiau State Park (808/483-2511) is home to a healing heiau located in a forested state recreation area. Four-foot stacked rock walls enclose a sacred area once used for treating and healing ailments and injuries with plants, fasting, and prayers. The heiau is at the entrance to the park. The 384-acre park itself is a reforestation project from the 1920s. Groves of Cook pines and lemon eucalyptus scent the air and give an alpine feel to the area. There are picnic tables and four large tent camping sites available Friday through Wednesday by permit only. There are also exceptional views of Pearl Harbor. At the back of the park is the trailhead for the ‘Aiea Loop Trail. To park is located at the end of Aiea Heights Drive.

Hawaii’s Plantation Village

Hawaii’s Plantation Village (94-695 Waipahu St., 808/677-0110, 10am-2pm Mon.-Sat., $13 adult, $10 out-of-state senior, $7 children ages 4-11), in Waipahu, is an outdoor museum telling the story of sugar plantation life in Hawai‘i from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Almost 30 original structures featuring personal artifacts, clothing, furniture, and art have been assembled to create a village that speaks to the hard work of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants of many different ethnicities during this time period. Guided tours by local docents take about 90 minutes and start every hour. There are also demonstrations and hands-on activities throughout the village.


Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon O’ahu.

Leave a Reply

2 Comments

  1. CHELSEE CRAWFORD says:

    Which branch of the military was taken over?

    • Kimi Owens (admin) says:

      Hi Chelsee,

      Both the Army and the Navy had installations at Pearl Harbor in 1941, though the attack was mainly focused on the ships in the harbor itself. Several of the ships which were sunk in the attack are memorialized and the locations are listed above in the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites section.