Where the War Began
A new aviation museum preserves Pearl Harbor's past.
- By Ralph Wetterhahn
- Air & Space magazine, September 2006
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Inside a warehouse at Honolulu International Airport, some of the Pacific Aviation Museum’s treasures await transport to their new home. A Stearman N2S-3 Kaydet, covered with a polyethylene sheet, looked as clean as it must have on October 15, 1942, when it rolled off the factory line in Wichita, Kansas. This particular Stearman, serial number 07013, was flown by a future U.S. president. In December 1942, 18-year-old Navy aviator George H.W. Bush flew a solo sortie in the airplane. Years later he recalled his feelings about flying another Stearman: “I was a little scared at first, but the plane was forgiving, and I made it through,” he wrote to a reporter for this magazine in 1994.
From the warehouse, Wilson and Jones led me to an atrium inside the airport. There, in a splash of sunlight, hung an Aeronca 65TC monoplane trainer. Built before World War II, the Aeronca was airborne during the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, the trainer was operated by the Gambo Flying Service, and a Gambo flight instructor was teaching his son to fly when a wave of Zeros swept past. It wasn’t until after the father and son landed at what is now Honolulu International Airport that they realized the Aeronca’s tail had been shot up, damage that is still visible.
During a phone interview after my visit to Ford Island, Palmer tells me that his aircraft wish list includes “certainly anything Japanese theater. A Val dive bomber comes to mind first. There just aren’t very many of those. There are one or two still in jungles here and there. But then there’s things like Corsairs, P-40s, Hellcats, Betty bombers. We’ll acquire as many of those as we can.” In the meantime, Military Aircraft of Riverside, California, is making a full-size fiberglass replica of a Curtiss P-40 for the museum’s Pacific theater exhibit.
Palmer is most pleased with two recent acquisitions: a Japanese Zero fighter and a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, “two really centerpiece airplanes that were major combatants during the Pacific campaigns of World War II,” he says. The Mitsubishi-designed Zero A6M2-21, built under license by Nakajima, was the same type of fighter that attacked Pearl Harbor, although the museum’s Zero rolled out of the factory a year later, on December 14, 1942. This Zero was based in the Solomon Islands, where it flew against American fighter squadrons, including the U.S. Navy’s VF-17 “Jolly Rogers,” Greg “Pappy” Boyington’s VMF-214 “Black Sheep,” and the Cactus Air Force of Guadalcanal. More than 20 years after the war’s end, Bob Diemert, a pilot and aircraft restorer, recovered the Zero on Ballale Island in the Solomons and took it to Canada, where he rebuilt it. Diemert later sold the Zero to the Commemorative Air Force, which flew the graceful fighter at airshows for 10 years. Of all the aircraft in the collection, the Zero might be Palmer’s favorite. “It’s a real ‘wow’ factor for people visiting here, particularly the Japanese,” he says, “because they can see something that’s been recovered, and is here where it all took place. They can stand out there in the grass near the cracks in the concrete runway and kind of imagine all of this going on all around.”
The museum’s F4F-3 Wildcat was manufactured in 1943. The U.S. Navy accepted the fighter on April 3 and assigned it to the aircraft carrier USS Sable. It’s possible the Wildcat and the museum’s Zero could have tangled in a Pacific battle or two had the Wildcat not crashed in Lake Michigan during a training flight on June 21. The F4F-3 never saw combat and had only 150 hours on it when John Dimmer brought it out of the lake in 1991 and restored it to flying status. The Wildcat was on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle when the Pacific Aviation Museum purchased it from Dimmer last December.
In addition to the Zero and the Wildcat, Palmer has rounded up a Douglas C-118, a McDonnell Douglas F-15, a North American SNJ-5B, and a Soviet MiG-15, among other aircraft. These artifacts will no doubt draw a steady stream of aviation fans, but the real attraction of the Pacific Aviation Museum is its historic Ford Island setting.