Going to Pearl Harbor is a strange experience. There have been so many books, documentaries, and movies about this place and the surprise Japanese attack in 1941 that dragged the United States formally into World War II that it should not be a tourist destination of surprises. But for all I knew about it my travel companions; my wife (not so much) and son, my parents, and my grandmother were not so informed. For them (my wife excluded) the place was a journey of discovery.

Getting there from Waikiki Beach without a hire car proved to be very easy. We simply jumped on the number 42 bus and 40 minutes later were delivered to the Naval Base. It should be noted, Pearl Harbor is still an active Naval Base with the associated restrictions that go with it. My mother was shocked that we were not allowed to take our bags into the site. She even wanted to argue with someone about it (at which point I thought that throwing her into the brig for a few hours of solitary confinement may teach her some sense – then again no chance). After her initial call to arms, we eventually headed into the memorial site.

Another tip for the uneducated traveller, if you want to visit the USS Arizona memorial then you have to get there early and book your place. There are only a limited number of places each day, so if you get there after 10am there is a good chance that you have missed out. To be honest I am glad that we did miss out. I know I would have felt that hollow feeling of walking on a grave site, a place where over 1,000 soldiers perished in the sinking of the battleship. So seeing in person the white memorial from a distance was good enough for me. We ended up buying tickets to see the USS Bowfin submarine, USS Missouri battleship, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. This would turn out to be a very interesting and surprising trip.

The USS Bowfin

The World War II US Navy submarine the USS Bowfin is a museum that is maintained to the same condition as its time period. The tickets allowed us to descend into the very bowels of the ship to briefly experience life as a submariner (minus enemy torpedos, depth charges, and other smelly submariners). After boarding on the deck, you are quickly into the forward torpedo tubes. The light and the different coloured metals was surreal, and with the only natural light coming from the open hatches. As you walk back through the ship, the officer’s quarters, mess hall, crew quarters, bridge, and engine room are all preserved and laid out like they would have been during the ship’s service. Swinging a cat is definitely off the agenda here, and even walking through the bulk heads is an adventure in contortion – camera bag banging as I walked through. All the machinery and controls from the era are all in place too. Walking through here was… fun. I was like a little kid on a boat, and in some rooms I had it all to myself. Climbing back onto the deck via the aft torpedo tubes, just to remind you that this boat had a deadly intent, you arrive back again to daylight and the conning tower. The USS Arizona and the USS Missouri are across the water from the deck guns that watch protectively over the harbor. I had to wait for my wife and father to tour the submarine as we had to take turns taking care of the Pok – who loved all the “rockets” (translation missiles) that were on display. A couple of hot dogs in the belly and then it was off by bus to the USS Missouri

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The USS Missouri

This was not the first time that I had been on the Mighty Mo, I had been on her decks before in Sydney Harbour for the Royal Australian Navy’s 75th birthday celebrations. Back then she was still an active ship, but was not long for decommissioning. But even as we approached the ship, I was still awestruck by her size. She is one big, mean, bad-ass boat. With those nine massive 16″ cannons bristling on her deck you can’t help but feel in awe of her capacity to deal out some punishment. The Pok was able to board this ship with us, though climbing up the ramp with him on my shoulders was not what I was expecting. He did want to salute the captain when he boarded the ship, which amused the tour guides. Our tour guide was a young woman who was still at university and she was great. She was full of enthusiasm, and very knowledgeable about the ship and its history. The Mighty Mo had a very different feel from the Bowfin in that it had been retrofitted with modern weapons systems for when it went back into service for the second time. There were launch tubes for Tomahawk cruise missiles, Vulcan Phalanx anti-air turrets, and the main tower was bristling with modern tracking systems. But the real prize to visit when on the Missouri is the spot where the Japanese Imperial military forces signed the treaty to end the war. The story about this moment in history is quite interesting, particularly the bit about how they could not find a table suitable for the day of the signing. Did I say before that this ship was big? Our group was getting tired and we still had one more site to visit.

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The Pacific Aviation Museum

Another quick bus trip to a couple of hangars at the back of the base and you reach the Pacific Aviation Museum. As a lover of all things that fly, I dragged my family to this site. It was definitely less crowded here and for those who skip this destination you really miss out. After all, the naval war in the pacific was fought in large part by the aviation arms of the respective navies. In the first hangar, you are greeted by the sight of a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighter bomber plane. Almost in response to the Japanese plane hanging from the ceiling is a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. Further inside is one of the few surviving Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers which were famous for their role in the battle of Midway. Yes, I was nerding out a bit seeing all these beautiful old flying machines but my son was enjoying it too. The second hangar, which I think even a few of the visitors to the first missed out on was for me the highlight of the trip. This is where all the fighter jets and helicopters were and this collection was even better. Greeting you on entrance to this hangar is a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 opposed by the North American F-86 Sabre from the Korean War, when jets were deadly simple. As I turned to look at the rest of the hangar, I was surprised to see an uber fast Lockheed F-104 Starfighter sitting on the deck with its wings detached, which was famous to me from when Chuck Yeager tried to set the world record for altitude but exceeded its limits and narrowly avoided death in the ensuing crash. The highlight of my whole trip was talking to one of the museum attendants about the the “Starfighter”. As it turned out, it had just arrived that morning and all the attendants were swarming over it. All the attendants are retired ex-USAF engineers who maintained planes throughout their careers. They continue their labour of love into retirement, and I think they have got it worked out. Why go to a retirement village when you can hang out with other blokes and have fun fixing planes. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 on the deck, the first that I had ever seen in the flesh, and then a flight capable McDonnell-Douglas F15A and Grumman F14 parked further down. I could go on, but all I can say is go visit this small museum and you will be well surprised at the quality of the displays on exhibition.

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