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Pearl Harbor National Memorial

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is located in Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, on the island of Oahu in the State of Hawai'i. The Pearl Harbor area was designated a national historic landmark in 1964 for its strategic importance related to the United States' annexation of Hawai'i, and for the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack during World War II. Within close proximity to downtown Honolulu and the resort area of Waikiki, the Pearl Harbor site is the most visited destination on Oahu.

A Tropical Lagoon

Oahu’s landmark lagoon on the south-central Oahu coast would become a central point for the Hawaiian people long before the United States Navy made it the home of the United States Pacific Fleet.  The three large bays were home for tropical birds, fish, and other indigenous animals before it would be the home for destroyers, carriers, and everything in between.  The easternmost bay now known as East Loch where the Pearl Harbor National Memorial Visitor Center stands was once called Puuloa.  By the mid-19th century, the lagoon - Hawaii’s largest - would come to be called Pearl Harbor, in reference to the small oysters once found in the waters of the lagoon.

The large outrigger canoes as shown below brought the Hawaiian people from Polynesia to the island of Oahu,where they settled on the shores of Puuloa. The grass along the shores was used for thatching and weaving, and with the abundance of fish, and the nearby Halawa stream that drained into Puuloa where taro grew.  The lagoon provided a home to a variety of salt and freshwater fish that thrived and supplemented the Hawaiian diet.  Large oyster beds were only found in the waters of Puuloa and were harvested by the people who would eat them raw or cooked but would discard the pearls as they had no value until the arrival of foreigners.  Seeing the monetary advantage, Kamehameha, king of the new Hawaiian Kingdom, declared the harbor’s oysters “kapu,” or forbidden, to all but the king. 

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Guardians of Pearl 

Before Pearl Harbor was known as Pearl Harbor, the waters of Puuloa were guarded by the Shark Goddess Ka’ahupahau and her brother Kahi’uka.  Such guardian sharks, which inhabited the coastlines of all the islands, were benevolent gods who were cared for and worshiped by the people and who aided fishermen, protected the life of the seas, and drove off man-eating sharks.  


Legend says the Goddess Ka’ahupahau was renowned for leading the guardian sharks of Oahu in a battle protecting the people of Puuloa from the man-eating sharks led by Mikololou from the island of Hawai’i.

Acquisition of Pearl Harbor

In 1778, the British first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands with Captain James Cook, but within 50 years American influence was predominant.  In 1868, naval officers of the United States Pacific Fleet visited the islands to protect American business interests, negotiators of trade disputes, and defenders of law and order.  In 1873, Major General John Schofield was given a secret task by Secretary of War William Belknap to investigate the strategic potential of a United States presence in the Hawaiian Islands.  Gen. Schofield’s reports recommend that the United States establish a naval port at Pearl Harbor.  Also in 1873, with the death of Hawaii’s 6th monarch King William Charles Lunalilo, negotiations were underway for the cession of Pearl Harbor as a port for the duty-free export of sugar to the United States.


In 1875, the United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom signed the Reciprocity Treaty.  This treaty was ratified in 1887, and on January 20, 1887, the United States Senate allowed the exclusive right to maintain a coaling (fuel of the time) and repair station at Pearl Harbor.  By 1898, with the start of the Spanish-American War, a naval base in the Pacific was needed and offered a logistical outpost for the battles for Guam and the Philippines.


Naval Station Pearl Harbor

Following the annexation of Hawaii, the US Navy sought to create a permanent Naval Station for operations throughout the Pacific. Naval Station, Honolulu would be established on November 17, 1899.  By February of the following year, the name would change to Naval Station, Hawaii.  Since its establishment, the Navy devoted its time to improving the facilities and operations to accommodate the large cargo and warships that would need to use the harbor. 

On May 28, 1903, the first battleship, USS Wisconsin (BB-39), sailed into Naval Station, Hawaii Pearl Harbor for refueling and resupply.  In 1904 vessels of the Asiatic fleet would travel to Pearl Harbor, but dredging of the harbor was still in operation and with the lack of shipyards no repairs could be done to support these ships.  


In 1908, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was established and within the next decade the US Navy would build drydocks to support fleet operations in the Pacific.  During construction, Drydock #1 collapsed in 1913. It was completed in 1919 a decade after construction began.  In 1917, with the United States entering World War 1, Ford Island was purchased for joint Army and Navy use in the development of military aviation in the Pacific.  Naval Station Pearl Harbor supported operations in the Pacific, during World War I and World War II.

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World War II

On Sunday December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force attacked Naval Station Pearl Harbor and the surrounding military installations on the island of Oahu.  Six Japanese aircraft carriers with heavy escort under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo launched two waves of a combined 350 aircraft to disable the Naval and Army air stations on the island, culminating in a devastating attack on the recently reassigned US Pacific Fleet.  


The American losses were devastating.  In less than two hours, 2,390 Americans were killed on the island of Oahu, including 1,177 sailors and Marines killed in action aboard the battleship USS Arizona.  Twenty one ships were heavily sunk or damaged, including all eight operational battleships in the entire Pacific.  The attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States of America into what is now known as World War II.


Creation of an Icon

Since the attack on Pearl Harbor, many in the military and in the civilian world wished for the creation of a memorial site for the men and women who were lost during the attack. Talk about a memorial site started during the war, but it would not be until the appointment of Admiral Arthur W. Radford as the new commander of the US Pacific Fleet in April 1949 that a memorial site at the USS Arizona would be established.  A simple flag pole and dock would be created under his orders, “From today on, the USS Arizona will again fly our country’s flag just as proudly as she did on the morning of 7 December 1941.” - Admiral A.W. Radford, USN 7 March 1950.


In 1962, the USS Arizona Memorial was completed and opened to the public under the care and operation of the US Navy, receiving approximately 1 million visitors from across the globe annually from 1962-1980.  By the mid 1970s, the US Navy reached out to the National Park Service to take over operations and also establish a visitor center for guest services and educational opportunities.  In October 1980, the US Navy turned over operations of the USS Arizona Memorial to the National Park Service.

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Pearl Harbor Today

Since its inception, the USS Arizona Memorial has stood the test of time, now bringing in some 2.5 million visitors annually.  The visitor center has changed names - from the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center in 1980, to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in 2008 - and included the USS Utah Memorial, the USS Oklahoma Memorial, Battle of Attu, Occupation site on Kiska Island, Atka B-24 Liberator, and Tule Lake National Monument in California an internment camp for Japanese Americans in WWII.   

On March 12, 2019, WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument was separated and the newly created Pearl Harbor National Memorial would include the memorials for the only three ships to never return to service after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  In addition to the USS Arizona Memorial, USS Utah Memorial, and USS Oklahoma Memorial, the Pearl Harbor National Memorial includes stewardship of six chief petty officer bungalows on Ford island and the mooring quays of Battleship Row.

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