USS Arizona Memorial
WWII Valor in the Pacific
Of the many historical sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands, Oahu’s Pearl Harbor is one of the most famous and distinctive. Its singular importance in 20th-century history is hard to overstate. Visiting is a must for any curious traveler - and an essential part of that visit must be the USS Arizona Memorial.
What follows is a complete introductory guide to this one-of-a-kind site. We’ll take you through the history, the specific importance of the USS Arizona, what makes the memorial unique, and how to prepare for your visit. Of course, feel free to skip to whichever section is most relevant to your curiosity!
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History of the USS Arizona
As many of you know, Oahu’s Pearl Harbor was the site of a surprise Japanese military strike on December 7th, 1941, that killed 2,403 US personnel. Until 9/11, it was the deadliest foreign attack the United States had ever witnessed. Then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt indelibly declared it “a date which will live in infamy” while he asked Congress to sign a declaration of war with Japan the next day.
At the time, Hawaii was not yet a US state. It remained a US territory used largely for military purposes, not unlike Guam today. As a result, most Americans in 1941 had never heard of Oahu. President Roosevelt made an interesting and deliberate statement in his address. He called it “the American island of Oahu.” This novel terminology established ideologically what would later be established legally in 1959: Hawaii is the United States.
Of course, more globally impactful than the role the attack played in Hawaii’s relationship with the US was the role the attack played in World War II. One fateful morning, the Japanese Imperial Army propelled the United States from neutral to engaged in the largest war in human history. The attack, which Japanese officials reportedly called “Operation Z,” was later ruled a war crime in the Tokyo Trials of 1946.
That many of the United States’ actions in the years that followed were also criminal has been argued for decades. From the incarceration of over 125,000 law-abiding Japanese Americans to the atomic decimation of as many as 200,000 Japanese civilians, the ensuing years saw some of the darkest moments in US history, which are still ethically controversial.
All of it began in this one harbor in Honolulu.
The USS Arizona
So how does the USS Arizona play into this?
In short, the USS Arizona was the epicenter of the Pearl Harbor attack. Several bombs struck the 600-foot battleship, and following a large explosion, it sank to the bottom of the Oahu sea floor. This killed 1,177 officers and crewmen, nearly half the event’s death.
Before Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona had witnessed a colorful history spanning several decades - including taking President Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I and appearing in a Hollywood film with James Cagney.
However, its dramatic end in 1941 has long since become its defining legacy. Unlike virtually every other vessel damaged that day, the USS Arizona could not be repaired and thus never recovered. It is still sitting right where it sank, just a few hundred feet off the coast of Ford Island, east of Honolulu.
The modern-day memorial is built directly above the wreckage. Aerial views make this quite obvious as, thanks to Hawaii’s famously clear water and the battleship’s mere 40-foot depth; you can easily see the USS Arizona with the naked eye.
The memorial can only be accessed by boat. It is a distinctive structure, almost like a white floating hallway in the middle of the sea. The structure is designed to allow a limited number of people to observe, directly below their feet, the wreck of the USS Arizona.
The 100+-year-old ship is so close to the surface that certain pieces are visible above water. As mesmerizing and rare as this is, it is also quite somber. Most officers and crewmen who sank with the ship in 1941 could never be recovered. Therefore, the site serves as a tomb for 900 sailors and Marines.
The officers and crewmen who lost their lives aboard the USS Arizona are each commemorated by a marble wall in the shrine room of the memorial. The wall has been periodically restored over the decades due to erosion caused by saltwater. The most recent restoration took place in 2014.
According to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites website, the USS Arizona Memorial is Hawaii's most frequently visited tourist attraction. An average of 3,000 to 5,000 people ride the boat and scale the ramp to pay their respects inside this 185-by-36-foot floating structure daily.
All of the available programs can be booked online at recreation.gov. The 45-minute visit, complete with transportation to and from the site aboard a US Navy vessel, is technically accessible. However, you will have to pay a $1 non-refundable reservation fee per ticket, and in the likely event you'll arrive by car, you'll also need to pay a $7 parking fee per vehicle.
You should arrive at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center at least 1 hour before your scheduled departure time, mainly to ensure that you can find parking.
As for rules, there are some to plan for. Bags are prohibited at the Visitor Center, except for clear plastic stadium bags or bags containing medication or medical devices. There is also a strict no food or drink policy, except for water. Food trucks and vendors are at the nearby Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum if you want to incorporate lunch into the outing.
There are also no bathrooms in the memorial itself - however, there are multiple in the Visitor Center.
What to Expect
To our knowledge, there are no other memorials like this one anywhere on Earth.
Ask any historian, and they'll tell you WWII was one of the most world-changing events in human history. Indeed, the world we live in today, even just looking at a map, in many senses, can trace its origins to the events that took place between 1939 and 1945 and the ensuing results.
Pearl Harbor and the sunken ship resting visibly beneath it are as integral to that century-defining story as nearly anything else. What makes the USS Arizona so unique is how accessible its wreckage remains. Most memorials occupy the space where the events occurred while leaving it to the visitors' imagination to fill in the gaps of what it must have looked like before.
While much has changed in Hawaii since the mid-20th century, the principal locus of the attack that brought America to war remains virtually untouched - left in the same position the Japanese bombs blew it into. The events of December 7th, 1941, are, therefore, unusually palpable even now, more than 80 years later.
One of the reasons the USS Arizona Memorial is so heavily visited is it was designed and constructed with a keen understanding of this palpability. There is even a massive, square hole called the Viewing Well on the floor. As you might expect, the top of the USS Arizona stares up, hauntingly close, from inside this alluring chasm.
The shape of the memorial is also very deliberate and thoughtful. Designer Alfred Preis describes the shape as follows: "Wherein the structure sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory…The overall effect is one of serenity. Overtones of sadness have been omitted to permit the individual to contemplate his responses…his innermost feelings."
There is also something profound about floating in an enclosed space in the same spot as the officers and crewmembers before the blast. It is not, to our knowledge, common for the National Park Service to put freely-admitted visitors on a Navy vessel nor to sail them out to a specific location in the middle of a bay - but such are essential components in making this one of the more immersive and hard-hitting memorial sites on the planet.
We hope you find this helpful guide to Oahu's USS Arizona Memorial. As always, mahalo, and best wishes for your visit!