Where the War Began

A new aviation museum preserves Pearl Harbor’s past.

Sixty-five years ago, the island was burning during a two-hour aerial assault that drew the United States into World War II. (National Archives)
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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.

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