December 7, 1941 was, as noted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address, “a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
The attack took place early Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The American servicemen stationed there were literally caught sleeping—many would never wake up again. Ford Island, in the middle of the harbor, was a military base—and today it is home to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum (PHAM), an institution with a direct and poignant connection to the attack that took place 81 years ago.
About the Museum
The not-for-profit museum was founded in 1999, the goal was to develop an aviation museum in Hawaii. The concept of a museum on Ford Island was the vision of Sen. Daniel Inouye, with the emphasis of the museum relating to the attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the U.S. into World War II.
In 2006 the first part of the museum, Hangar 37, opened. The museum’s hangars date back to the war and show damage from the attack that remains, including bullet holes in the windows and walls. Outside the hangars the aircraft ramp also shows damage—one of the more memorable sites includes bullet holes on the concrete made by a Japanese Zero that was strafing the ground. There is a void of a few feet, then the bullet holes pick up again—on that fateful morning in 1941 there was an aircraft parked where the void is today.
Every year since its opening, the museum has marked the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, often by inviting veterans who were there that day to return to Ford Island and tell their stories.
“Even this year, we have been incredibly fortunate to have the support and participation of WWII veterans, many of whom were here on Ford Island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941,” said Elissa Lines, executive director of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. “Their stories inspire and astound our visitors. You may feel you know the history, and then you meet another veteran who shares a story that is so personal, so amazing.”
This year, 101-year-old Jack Holder shared his experience of that morning, “His recall of that date in his life was emotional, personal, and so frightening—what must have been going through the minds of our servicemen,” Lines said.
Exhibits That Tell the Story
One of the most visible exhibits is an outdoor tower that provides visitors with a 360-degree tour of America’s WWII Battlefield. From atop the tower, you get a full view of the first battle field.
Museums strive for preservation, and for the PHAM that means collecting oral histories of the people who were there the morning of the attack. Their recollections are often vivid and emotional—and particularly poignant when you realize that at the time of the attack the person telling the story may have been in their teens or early 20s—yet so many years later they recall the event like it was yesterday.
The PHAM also has aircraft that span several decades of American airpower, including the 1940s. In addition, the museum is currently restoring three Japanese aircraft—a Zero, a Aichi D3A Navy Type 99 Carrier Bomber, and Nakajima B5N Navy TYpe 97 Carrier Attack Bomber, with the latter two known better by their American code names of a “Val” and “Kate.”
“The Val, Kate, and Zero are now in our hands,” Lines said. “Work over the next 2 to 5 years will allow us to present a stunning exhibit on the very grounds of the American WWII aviation battlefield, just yards from battleship row, our hangars served to provide shelter and respite. The ramp aircraft ablaze, the soldiers, sailors and airmen running to find shelter, to save their friends and crewmen, and put out the fires destroying the field.”
It is particularly important to collect the oral histories so that they can be shared, Lines noted, as that generation is quickly disappearing.
“Oral history, vivid photos, many of which are newly found, video—these are and will be the best tools to share the impact. The voices of the veteran bring the deepest impact. For our younger visitors, museum programs like Pearl Harbor to Peace—available at the museum and virtually—and Sacrifice for Freedom, help convey a message of strength, resilience, responsibility and reconciliation. Those who fought for our nation during WWII did so to protect our freedom, to free other nations from tyranny, to give voice to the humanitarian beliefs upon which our nation was founded. They fought for their families, their communities—it was personal. And they fought for one another on the battlefield. Those are difficult concepts but reflective of the values and character we hope to instill in our children.”
“The desire for peace, for all nations to work together to protect and serve humankind is the take away,” Lines said. “Our friendship with Japan, once our enemy, is a stunning example of what is possible—respect for our enemy, understanding that although they faced each other on the battlefield, even our WWII veterans can come together with their Japanese counterparts and acknowledge their common hope for peace, friendship, and respect.”
Sacrifice for Freedom
The museum is part of Sacrifice for Freedom, a national initiative to find student/teacher teams who will spend several months researching the war experience of someone from their state who fought in WWII and is buried at Punchbowl, the National Cemetery of the Pacific.
“Through that research, they learn of the loss, the life not lived, of a soldier who in many cases is no older than they are right now—18, 19 years of age, who stepped forward to protect their country and their neighbors,” Lines said. “After months of research and in some cases, getting to know the families, they come to Hawaii to eulogize their hero at their gravesite. Days are spent exploring the Oahu battlefields.”
The purpose of the program is to help the next generation of leaders understand that war is not inevitable, but rather a choice.
And it’s a purpose that has found an excellent home at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum—a visitor cannot help but feel the power of that narrative echoing around them while walking amongst the standing artifacts of the past.
Collect those stories while you can
You may know someone who was alive on December 7, 1941, and has vivid memories of that day. Virtually every family has someone with a recollection, such as the little boy or girl watching the family gathered in the living room to hear President Roosevelt speak. Then there are the young men with stories of how they went downtown to enlist in the Navy but ended up in the Army and or Air Corps because the line to join the Navy was too long.
You may have heard stories from the student pilots on the east coast who were forced to take the wings off their airplanes and keep them in the hangar for the duration of the war, or the civilian pilots on the West Coast who were forced to make the trek 50 miles inland to continue their training due to concerns about further attacks.