Visiting Pearl Harbor

There seems to be a lot of questions about Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. I heard multiple conflicting things before going and online forums are full of future visitors trying to understand how they go about visiting.

I’m going to try and cover all the questions I’ve come across and give some tips for visiting Pearl Harbor. But lets start at the beginning.

Why you should visit Pearl Harbor

I’m going to make what I think is a fairly safe assumption that anyone reading this probably wasn’t alive in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. While I believe there are still some survivors, chances are most of us know from history studies or Hollywood blockbusters borrowing liberally from the facts.

Replica of the Japanese planes used in the attack on Pearl Harbor hanging in the Attack exhibit

Replica of the Japanese planes used in the attack on Pearl Harbor

For those who don’t know, a brief history lesson.

The treaties and reparations required of the aggressors of WW1 laid the groundwork for WW2, and it arrived on the doorsteps of the world in September 1939. War was great for the economy, and gave America’s a helpful boost coming out of the post 1920 depression era slump. In 1941 America had steadfastly continued to abstain from the fighting, though they had imposed economic penalty upon Japan for actions in China. America was a sleeping beast.

Japan calculated that if they could remove America from the equation in a surprise blitz attack, they would have free reign to continue their conquests in the Pacific without interference from the US Pacific fleet. They decided to attack the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, launching 353 Imperial planes from Aircraft Carriers that had managed to creep undetected across the Pacific. Hawaii’s remote location had made the base seem safe from air attack.

While it was an immensely successful mission, Japan’s attack did not cripple America as hoped, and the beast awoke and joined WW2 with fury.

Pearl Harbor was, at the time, an unprecedented attack on American soil and the worst military disaster in American History. Over 2,300 military personnel were killed, over 1,100 of them were on board the USS Arizona.

Even as a student of history there was so much that I hadn’t known.

Pearl Harbor is a powerful place.

Can you visit Pearl Harbor without a tour?

There seems to be a bit of pressure to get visitors to Pearl Harbor on organised tours but you can absolutely go on your own, it depends on the experience you want to have. A lot of the tours are only half day and include other things, but they also include pickup from Waikiki so if you don’t have transport and only want to spend a bit of time there perhaps seeing the Arizona Memorial, then an organised tour might be a good option for you.

You might hear that you should go on an organised tour to be guaranteed of getting a ticket, but it really isn’t that hard. We’ll go into that.

I’d recommend having a look at what there is to see at Pearl Harbor and decide what you want to visit, then decide if a tour is right for you. Some different combinations of options are below.

 

What is there to see at Pearl Harbor?

There are actually six sites in two locations that make up the Pearl Harbor historical site.

USS Arizona Memorial

This is the most well known of the Pearl Harbor sites, and often mistaken as the only thing to see there.

The USS Arizona Memorial marks the resting place of the USS Arizona battleship, sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona Memorial

On December 7, 1941 all eight US Navy Battleships were moored in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese began dropping specially engineered torpedoes designed to be effective in the shallow waters of the harbor. All eight ships were damaged, and four sunk.  The Arizona was hit by four armor piercing bombs dropped from above. The fourth to hit went through near the ammunition magazines, resulting in a massive explosion which marked the end for the Arizona. It was the only one of the battleships that was not raised.

It remains on the shallow floor of the Harbor, the watery grave of over 1000 men. Shiny bubbles can be seen raising to the surface from time to time, oil seeping slowly from the rusting metal below.

The Arizona memorial is built over the sunken battleship. Boats run throughout the day taking visitors to the memorial where they can look down upon the Arizona lying just below the surface. The Arizona Memorial visit runs for 75 minutes, including a 23 minute documentary in the cinema which runs before boarding the US Navy shuttle out to the memorial. As at February 2019 the Arizona Memorial is closed for repairs. It requires re-anchoring to the floor of the harbor, and the potential for unexploded ordinance makes this a painstaking process. The boats continue to run however, taking visitors out on the water and around the memorial. The US Navy determines daily whether conditions are safe for the shuttles to run. You will need to book for this part of the day.

Image from above of the Arizona Memorial with the USS Arizona visible underwater beneath it

The Arizona Memorial and the USS Arizona as pictured on a Pearl Harbor exhibit

You can see amazing footage inside the wreck of the Arizona below;

While the memorial is definitely the highlight, there is far more to see at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center. The two exhibits are incredibly interesting and informative, and a walk around the harbor itself offers views of the Arizona Memorial and information exhibits along the path. It is worthwhile getting the audio tour to play as you walk around the site. If you have not purchased a package including this it is USD $7.50.

Rear section of a 20 foot Japanese aerial torpedo, on display in the Attack exhibit at Pearl Harbor

Rear section of a 20 foot Japanese aerial torpedo, on display in the Attack exhibit

 

USS Bowfin

standing on the USS Bowfin, a decommissioned US Navy submarine now located at Pearl Harbor

On board the USS Bowfin

Also located at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center, the USS Bowfin is a decommissioned US submarine now open for tours and exploration by visitors to Pearl Harbor. The Bowfin had a number of successful patrols in the Pacific during WW2, claiming fifteen enemy vessels with her guns and torpedoes before being retired for a time and then serving in the Korean War. The nearby museum is filled with the history of submarines in US service and includes a number of weaponry.

Torpedoes and torpedo tubes inside the USS Bowfin at Pearl Harbor

Torpedoes and tubes inside the USS Bowfin

It’s a pretty cool experience being able to walk through the cramped quarters of a WW2 submarine and walk across the deck. There is also an audio tour for the Bowfin which wasn’t included in my package. It would have been interesting to have more context to the things I was looking at.

Take a stroll through the Bowfin with me;

 

If you have purchased a package it is time to depart the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center on a shuttle for Ford Island, in the middle of the Harbor.  This is the location of the other four historic sites.

USS Oklahoma Memorial

The USS Oklahoma was hit by multiple torpedoes in the Japanese attack, the third causing the ship to capsize to the port side until halted by its mast hitting the Harbor floor. It remained there until July 1942 where the navigational hazard it posed in the harbor drove the decision to salvage the ship despite prohibitive costs involved. The USS Oklahoma was eventually stripped and sold, but in 1947 sunk in a storm while being towed to San Francisco for scrapping.

The USS Oklahoma Memorial was erected on Ford island in 2007 in remembrance of the 423 crew killed on board in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The USS Oklahoma Memorial on Ford Island, Pearl Harbor

USS Oklahoma Memorial

 

USS Missouri

A sculpture of a sailor kissing a woman, replica of a famous photo marking the end of WW2, stands on the dock in front of the USS Missouri

Replicated from a famous photo marking the end of WW2, this sculpture stands on the dock before the USS Missouri

I think the USS Missouri was probably my favourite part of my trip to Pearl Harbor.

Moored a short distance away from the USS Oklahoma Memorial, the USS Missouri is the last US Battleship. Now decommissioned it stands as a memorial and museum, and a fascinating glimpse into WW2 and life at sea.

While she was built after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was active in both the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and bears the scars which can still be seen of the attempt of a Kamikaze pilot on her starboard side. The plane hit just below the main deck level and while the Missouri suffered only superficial damage  the plane broke apart, the cockpit containing the dead pilot landing on the deck. Missouri’s captain decided that the young pilot had served his country with honor and should receive a military burial at sea. Unfortunately there was no Japanese flag with which to wrap the young man. It is a little known story  that a number of Missouri crew members spent that night sewing a Japanese flag for the pilots burial. It is a story you will hear if you take a guided tour of the Missouri. Part of the ships interior includes an area dedicated to the pilots story and identity.

A marker commemorating the signatures ending WW2 is permanently in the Deck of the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor

The Missouri was also the setting for the end of WW2, as the parties to the war all gathered on what is now known as the Surrender Deck to sign a document marking the end of the war. The moment is memorialised in the Missouri’s deck with a plaque that reads; “On this spot on 2 September 1945 the instrument of formal surrender of Japan to the Allied powers was signed thus bringing to a close the second world war. The ship at that time was in anchor in Tokyo Bay.”

 

 

 

 

 

The instrument of surrender on display on board the USS Missouri

It’s hard to get your head around the sheer size of the 900 ft long Missouri standing proudly at the dock. The Arizona memorial is a closer view from her deck than the Honolulu side of the Harbor.

USS Missouri, a decommissioned battleship at Pearl Harbor

USS Missouri

Guided tours run for about 20 minutes on a schedule that appears to line up with groups of people arriving on the shuttles rather than a set time. They will take you over the main deck and explain some of the ships layout and some historical points of interest, then send you free to wander the areas of the ship that are open to visitors. This includes most of the upper decks.

The mess hall on board the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor

Mess hall on board USS Missouri

 

The Operations Room on board the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor

Operations Room

 

The Bridge of the USS Missouri

The Bridge (one of two)

You even get to have a real sense of life at sea by walking through both the crew and officer quarters. You can check out footage of them both below;

I spent hours exploring the twists and passages of the USS Missouri, and it and the Arizona Memorial would be my top recommendations to make sure you visit in Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

Also on Ford Island with the Oklahoma Memorial and USS Missouri, it is the next stop on the shuttle from USS Missouri.

Unfortunately the day I was there I ran out of time and chose to head back to go on the USS Bowfin rather than visit the Museum.

The airfield, along with other airfields on the island, were hit before the Japanese commenced bombing of the ships, in order to ensure that the planes could not return fire once the bombing of the ships commenced. They had a surprisingly easy task, the Lieutenant General with oversight of operations on Oahu had ordered all planes parked wingtip to wingtip in the open so they could be easily guarded. He believed given the large population of Japanese on Oahu that the primary threat came from sabotage. It made the planes sitting ducks to the Japanese imperial planes, and 188 US aircraft were destroyed.

The Aviation Museum is located in two aircraft hangers and contains several WW2 planes, flight simulators and a growing collection of vintage aircraft.

USS Utah Memorial

The USS Utah Memorial is on the other side of Ford Island to the Missouri, but is not open to general visitors. Only visitors with Military identification and driving themselves are able to visit this memorial.

An anchor retrieved from the wreck of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor Hawaii

Anchor retrieved from the USS Arizona

 

Is Pearl Harbor free?

Yes and no. The Arizona Memorial and the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center is free of charge, though it costs USD $7.50 for the narrated audio

tour. All other locations have an entry cost.

So yes it is possible to visit free, depending what you want to see.

 

Are there free tickets for Pearl Harbor?

Scultpture entitled Tree of Life incorporated into the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor Hawaii

Tree of Life sculpture at the Arizona Memorial

This was the biggest myth I heard about visiting Pearl Harbor. That you either had to rock up really early to get a free ticket, or take an organised tour to be guaranteed entry. Not the case.

There are a specified number of visitors that can visit the USS Arizona Memorial on any given day. The boats have a schedule of trips from the Visitor Center and there is a maximum amount of passengers in a boatload.

Every day, 1,300 tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial are reserved for walk-up visitors. These are for specified timeslots and available from 7am when the Visitor Center opens. These are the free tickets you hear referred to.

This is not the only way to get tickets. But you will need to book for a USD $1 reservation fee.

Just as there are timeslots reserved for walk-up visitors, there are timeslots and tickets reserved for online bookings. These become available at 7am the day before.

If you don’t care about going out to the USS Arizona Memorial, just rock up whenever you feel like it.

 

How to get tickets to Pearl Harbor

You can reserve your tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial online from 7am the day before. You will need to arrive at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to collect your tickets at least one hour prior to your scheduled timeslot.

 

How much is Pearl Harbor?

The sky seen through th barrel of the gun on submarine USS Bowfin at Pearl Harbor Hawaii

Looking through the barrel of a submarine’s gun

If you just want to see the USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor Visitor Centre then you can visit for free. The other sites will cost varying amounts.

For the convenience of just one ticket the USS Arizona Memorial + Passport Package costs USD $72 per adult. This includes the narrated audio tour of the Arizona and exhibitions, entry to the other locations and the shuttle between them.

A pass to the USS Missouri is USD $25 per adult which includes the same free guided tour included in the Passport package. A 90 minute special guided tour of the Missouri can also be purchased for USD $54 per adult but bookings must be made separately online.

Entry to the USS Bowfin is USD $15 per adult. This includes entry to the submarine museum and the audio tour.

Entry to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is USD $20 for a self-guided tour if purchased online, and USD $30 for a guided tour.

You can save money by buying tickets online individually for the sites you want to see, or buying each of them online will save you an overall USD $1.50 from buying the Passport Package once transaction fees are added on.

 

What can I take into Pearl Harbor?

Pearl Harbor continues to be an active naval base, and you are not permitted to bring in bags which can be used for concealment.

I was allowed in with the small carry pouch my camera is in, but anything larger can be checked at a cloakroom at the entrance for a USD $5 fee. I put everything I needed in my pockets, but a zip-lock bag will be permitted, and I did see someone using a clear plastic toiletries bag as a carry bag too.

Prams are permitted in the Visitor Center but not in the theater or shuttle to the USS Arizona Memorial.

US flag flying at half mast on board the USS Bowfin at Pearl Harbor Hawaii

Flag at half mast on board USS Bowfin

How to get to Pearl Harbor

The cheapest alternative if you don’t have a car is to get the bus, at a cost of USD $5.50 per adult. However given as it is close to 90 minutes by bus and 25 minutes by car, it’s not exactly the most convenient.

The Waikiki Trolley runs to and from Pearl Harbor for less than USD $50 per person.

Your hotel may also be able to organise a private shuttle for you.

If you are splitting costs with others then an Uber may work out more cost effective for you.

 

 

 

How long should I spend at Pearl Harbor?

This is entirely down to the individual, I easily could have spent longer than the over 7 hours I spent there in order to do everything, but I was on my own and had no one else to consider. With children factored in I’m sure it’s a very different matter!

The Visitor Center is open from 7am and the USS Arizona boats run until 3pm. The Missouri closes at 4pm while the Aviation Museum and USS Bowfin close at 5pm.

 

Can I get food at Pearl Harbor?

Yes. There are sandwiches and snack food available at the Visitor Center, and more options that include hot food at the USS Bowfin and USS Missouri.

 

Can I take photos at Pearl Harbor?

Yes. I didn’t come across anything that said no photos were allowed.

 

As is probably pretty clear from this post I had a great day at Pearl Harbor and I’d recommend it to any visitors to Oahu. I’ve tried to answer the most commonly asked questions, but if yours isn’t covered feel free to let me know in the comments below and I’ll be sure to add it in for you.

You can also check out my 7 day Oahu Itinerary for more Oahu ideas for your trip!

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Everything you need to know about visiting Pearl Harbor Hawaii. #DoYouNeedToTakeATour #FreeTicketsToPearlHarbor #GettingToPearlHarbor #USSArizonaMemorial #USSMissouri #USSBowfin #USSOklahomaMemorial #PearlHarborVistorCenter #PearlHarborAviationMuseum #GettingToPearlHarbor #PearlHarborTickets