If you have even the slightest interest in naval history, Honolulu implies Pearl Harbor. A casual look at the city road map hints at Honolulu’s rich history, and there are naval-based street names scattered throughout the city. I thought it only fitting that the Nimitz Highway takes you from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor.
Historical treasures lie beyond this sign
Pearl Harbor is an active naval base, mostly off limits to civilian visitors, but there are vast public areas dotted with monuments, exhibits, and museums. It could take days to do any justice to this incredible historical preserve. With only limited time available, I decided I’d focus on one or two areas in detail. Blasting through the whole place in half a day might give you bragging rights, but you’d get more out of buying an armload of postcards at the gift shop.
You can make a very good argument that submarines came of age during World War II, so I was most interested in the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum. It’s centered around the wonderfully restored and maintained USS Bowfin (SS 287), an early Balao-class fleet submarine. Most of the submarine is open to visitors. There were a few off-limits areas I’d have loved to have explored. But, I’ve been a museum educator for 20 years, and I’ve learned there are areas you just have to rope off. (Sigh!)
USS Bowfin (SS 287) In the foreground is a section of the Memorial Circle
A fleet submarine’s conning tower was actually a secondary pressure hull.
For example, the access ladder to USS Bowfin’s conning tower is roped off. I see why — I can easily imagine people falling off the ladder and filing lawsuits. To my pleasant surprise, there was a separate exhibit: the conning tower from another Balao-class submarine, USS Parche (SS 384). Since it’s displayed without the enclosing sail, you can see how the conning tower was small pressure hull grafted on to the main pressure hull. The open-air display also provides plenty of extra room to move around and get good photos.
One advantage of crossing six time zones is that getting up early was easier than usual for a guy who prefers astronomer’s hours. Getting to Pearl Harbor early in the morning meant I beat the worst of the crowds. During the hours I spent exploring USS Bowfin there weren’t a lot of visitors. That made it a lot easier to take my time, peek into obscure corners, and get a lot of photos. The museum provides an audio guide to the submarine. It seemed to be well done, but I didn’t use it much. I’d done a lot of research on World War II US fleet submarines, and the guide didn’t fit in well with my engineering-driven exploration.
Submarine Rescue Chamber
There’s a tremendous amount of stuff to see on the submarine museum grounds. For a naval history enthusiast, it’s a marvelous experience. For example, here’s a Submarine Rescue Chamber. It looks like a garbage can with an orange lid, but there’s a lot of fascinating history behind it.
Up to the 1930s, when a submarine sank, there was virtually no chance of survival for the crew. Charles “Swede” Momsen, facing substantial official inertia and outright opposition, changed that grim situation. Momsen proposed, built, and tested a prototype rescue chamber that eventually evolved into this version. An improved version of his prototype proved its value when USS Squalus sank in 1939. That story amazed me when I was a kid, and it impressed me no end when I read the details as an adult.
Left: USS Missouri; Right: USS Arizona Memorial
The Submarine Museum is on the landward side of an arm of Pearl Harbor. USS Missouri (BB-63) and the USS Arizona Memorial are on Ford Island, just across that arm. Since Ford Island is part of the active naval base, you the only way for tourists (visitors!) to get there is on shuttle boats operated by the US Navy. I was considering going over to tour USS Missouri, but the crowds waiting for the shuttle boats put me off. Fifteen hours of being sardine-canned into airplanes had left me tired of tightly packed crowds. Fortunately, you can get some incredibly good views of USS Missouri from the Submarine Museum grounds.
I had no particular desire to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. Somehow, it seemed to me like sneaking into a private cemetery. As it turns out, the Memorial is easy to see from the Submarine Museum grounds, and there’s the Memorial Circle just next to USS Bowfin. It’s a beautiful monument, and an ideal place for paying quiet respects.
The Submarine Museum building itself houses a modest museum dedicated to submarine history. Its layout is a bit hap-hazard and the signage is sparse, but it has some remarkable artifacts on display. There’s a beautifully executed cutaway model of USS Bowfin that really adds to the tour of the boat itself.
By early afternoon — and a beautiful Saturday afternoon at that — the public grounds were getting crowded. I decided against visiting more Pearl Harbor museums, and set out to see a bit more of Honolulu before continuing on to the Big Island and my appointment with the Transit of Venus.
Here’s an assortment of photos of my visit to Pearl Harbor.
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