Where the War Began
A new aviation museum preserves Pearl Harbor's past.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, September 2006
The first time I got a good look at Ford Island, in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, was through the left windscreen of a Cessna 172 on April 23, 1987. I was a member of the Hickam Air Force Base Aero Club, and I was getting checked out in the Cessna by my flight instructor. We entered the landing pattern above the short runway that bisects Ford Island. Though I was busy with throttle, flaps, and radio, I recall spotting the submerged battleship USS Arizona, now a memorial to the ship’s 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives in Japan’s surprise attack on the morning of December 7, 1941. I am a retired military pilot, and coming in at 1,000 feet, I could imagine how easy it was for the Japanese dive bombers and torpedo airplanes to strafe the U.S. naval air station below.
Last September, I was able to see Ford Island up close, as a guest of Allan Palmer, executive director of the soon-to-open Pacific Aviation Museum, which comprises much of the historic air station: an orange and white control tower and three of the surviving hangars. Hangar 37, the first building to be restored, is scheduled to open December 7; it will house several exhibits about the Pacific air battles that took place in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hangar 37 will offer amenities that many aviation museums do—a gift shop, food court, flight simulators, and theater. But only at the Pacific Aviation Museum can visitors see the scars of December 7: a bomb crater, strafing pockmarks on concrete ramps and taxiways, and the remnants of two hangars that didn’t survive the attack.
Palmer, a former fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran, escorted me to the front of Hangar 79, an 87,750-square-foot building that will eventually house the museum’s Korean, Vietnam, and Cold War exhibits (the collection includes everything from a North American F-86 Sabre to a Bell UH-1H helicopter). Weeds have sprouted through cracks in the tarmac, and the facility is in need of repair. Pointing to green window panes on the hangar door, Palmer asked, “See the bullet holes?”
Japanese strafing runs had left the glass panes full of holes. Several other windows looked as though they had been broken by vandals. “We’ll replace the broken panes and those that don’t have the original green tint, but leave the ones from the attack as they are now,” said Palmer.
Palmer drove past the museum’s other two hangars, which will eventually house exhibits. He pulled up a short distance from yet another hangar, still used by the Navy.
“Here is where the Japanese began their attack the morning of December 7,” said Palmer. “The Navy’s patrol bomber squadron was located here. The Japanese wanted to bomb the seaplanes on the ramp first, because they were the only aircraft that could find [Japan’s] carriers, so it was number-one priority. In photos from that morning, you can see a plane burning right over in that direction.” We walked a few yards closer to the hangar. “Here’s the evidence,” he said, pointing at the ground. Two lines of golfball-size holes had been gouged in the asphalt. “The pilot was probably in a bank when he fired,” said Palmer. “The machine gun on the [outer] wing made that pattern, and the [inner] wing’s bullets hit first, over there.” Two distinct strafe patterns were visible, one ahead of the other. I glanced up into the clear blue sky and imagined a Zero in a slight left bank, wings sparkling as the pilot fired his guns.
The next day, I drove to the museum’s main office, temporarily located in Honolulu, and met Mike Wilson and Syd Jones.
The son of a test pilot, Wilson is the museum’s curator. He had the opportunity to experience aviation first-hand as a commercial pilot before working in the restoration department of the San Diego Air & Space Museum. He joined the Pacific Aviation Museum in June 2005 and takes pride in historically accurate restoration. “Neanderthals in Speedos” is how he refers to improperly restored aircraft. “You wouldn’t put up with mistakes like that in a natural history museum,” he said, “but it happens all the time in air museums.” Wilson’s responsibilities involve planning exhibits and verifying the historical accuracy of everything associated with the collection’s aircraft.
Jones is the museum’s restoration director. He used to work for Tom Reilly Vintage Aircraft in Kissimmee, Florida, where he helped restore warbirds, including a Boeing B-17 and several North American P-51 Mustangs.