Visiting Pearl Harbor National Memorial

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Visiting Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a must for anyone visiting Honolulu. This iconic site is one of the most visited on Oahu. It is incredibly important to both the history of Hawaii and the United States. Even if you are not a history buff, Pearl Harbor is well worth a visit.

Located west of the city, this National Parks site honors those who fought in the Japanese attack on the naval base here. This battle began the United States’ involvement in World War II. The memorial is an extensive area for visitors to learn about the battle and World War II in the Pacific Theater. 

The USS Arizona Memorial as viewed from the deck of the USS Missouri
Looking at the Arizona Memorial from the deck of the USS Missouri.

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial, which is operated by the National Park Service, is a large complex with several exhibits on the attack on Pearl Harbor. There is no entry fee or ticket required for this. The USS Arizona Memorial is also run by the park service but does require a reservation/ticket (more on that below).

Attached to the memorial are three other independently-run museums where you can learn more about naval history: the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. Visiting all of the sites at Pearl Harbor makes for a very full day.

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Planning Your Visit to Pearl Harbor

First and foremost, figure out when you will visit Oahu. Then you can set aside a day to experience all of the museums at this site. There is simply a lot to do and see. For those with even a passing interest in World War II or military history, there is an entire day’s worth of exploring. 

Check out our article on the best places to go on Oahu.

Once you have set the day of your visit, get online at recreation.gov. Here you can reserve tickets to go out to the USS Arizona Memorial. You must reserve these $1 tickets in advance. You can acquire the tickets eight weeks in advance for the date you are interested in or at 3 p.m. Hawaii time for the next day. You can also try to get a standby ticket. Unfortunately, those are limited and not available in times of high visitation. 

Pro Tip: Tickets for the USS Arizona Memorial often go fast. Be ready to buy your tickets as soon as they are released.

Pearl Harbor National Memorial grounds
Pearl Harbor National Memorial grounds

Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial is a 45-minute program, including a video and a trip out to the memorial itself. If you wanted to just visit the USS Arizona and explore the Park Service exhibits, you could spend just a couple of hours and feel like you have seen the site. 

Additionally, there is a 90-minute bus tour of Ford Island, which is operated by the National Park Service in coordination with the US Navy. That tour also requires a reservation at recreation.gov for $1. The tour covers the memorials for the USS Oklahoma and USS Utah, both battleships sunk during the attack. 

A Japanese Zero fighter on display at a museum.
A Japanese Zero aircraft at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

But there is so much more to see at the privately-run museums. I recommend you plan on spending the entire day.  

Starting Your Visit to Pearl Harbor

First, I recommend you make sure you put the correct address into your GPS: 1 Arizona Memorial Place, Honolulu, HI. This will make sure you are headed to the right location, not the active naval base. Yes, there is still a significant, active naval base at Pearl Harbor today.

Parking at the memorial is free but it might take you a bit to find a spot. This is a popular place to visit and the lots often fill up early. We were able to find a spot but it took a bit of hunting. 

Entrance of Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
Entrance of Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Walking into the memorial, you will find the Aloha Court. The Park Service designed this area to orient you to make the memorial easier to explore. Depending on your reservations to see the USS Arizona Memorial, I suggest you start your visit at the first of the two exhibit galleries: “Road to War.” This extensive exhibit analyzes the root causes of the war. Then it follows the events leading up to the attack. 

Grant looking at an exhibit in the Pearl Harbor National Memorial
Pearl Harbor National Memorial has extensive exhibits on the attack.

The second exhibit, “Attack,” details the events of the Japanese attack. This attack hit the US Pacific Fleet, which was mostly anchored at Pearl Harbor. The exhibit is quite comprehensive, with several artifacts from the battle itself. 

Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial 

As part of visiting the USS Arizona Memorial, the Park Service has a 23-minute film on the attack. You will start at the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater across the courtyard from the exhibits with this film. During our visit during COVID, the Park Service moved the film out to an adjacent lanai. The film is quite good. It walks you through the events of the battle, using historic footage to make it come alive. 

Watching the movie on Pearl Harbor.
The Park Service has a rather good informational film on Pearl Harbor, temporarily relocated out on the lanai due to COVID.

After the film, you will board the boat to take you out into the harbor. The marble memorial was completed in 1962 and sits astride the hull of the sunken battleship. There is an observation opening in the floor of the memorial to allow visitors to see the wreck. The battleship still seeps oil to the surface, “Tears of the Arizona,” to this day. The interior of the memorial is dedicated to the sailors of the ship who perished when the ship exploded.

The Arizona Memorial
The Arizona Memorial with the moorings for two other battleships.

I would love to be able to tell you about my visit to the USS Arizona Memorial. Sadly, my visit to the memorial was canceled by a structural issue with the boat dock. The closest I was able to get was from the dock near the USS Missouri.

Exploring the Rest of Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Aside from the exhibits, theater and extensive book store, there are interpretive displays and memorials to all who lost their lives during the attack. But your visit does not need to end there. Located on the grounds of the memorial is the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum. You can also take a free shuttle bus over to Ford Island (which remains an active-duty military installation) to see the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. 

USS Bowfin with monuments to missing submarines
Memorials to all of the submarines lost in WWII with the USS Bowfin in the background.

These sites are not run by the Park Service. They do, however, work together with the Park Service to tell a comprehensive tale of the War in the Pacific. Indeed, you can purchase the tickets for these sites at the same time as the USS Arizona Memorial tickets. Check recreation.gov for the Passport to Pearl Harbor Historic Sites.

Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum

The Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum tells the story of the brave men of the Silent Service, the submariners. The US Navy used submarines extensively in the Pacific. Indeed, submarines were responsible for significant enemy losses. That said, they paid heavily for their success, with 52 submarines lost over the course of the war.

The museum goes into great depth (pun intended) about how the submarines operated. You will also learn about the various missions and successes these undersea sailors achieved. There are also exhibits on the legacy of submarines in the US Navy to this day. 

USS Bowfin
The USS Bowfin, a WWII submarine

The crown jewel of this museum, however, is the USS Bowfin. A World War II submarine, which had nine successful war patrols in the Pacific, is now a museum ship. As the son of a submariner, it is always amazing to me to board these small boats and see how my dad lived. Granted, he served on a later class of submarine but it was not that much larger than these. 

Walking through the sub, the cramped quarters will amaze you. Indeed, you will find bunks just about everywhere, including over the torpedos in the torpedo room. 

Bonnie checking out the crew bunks aboard the USS Bowfin.

Battleship Missouri Memorial

After visiting the Pacific Fleet Museum, grab one of the free shuttle buses across to Ford Island to visit the Battleship Missouri Memorial. The USS Missouri is one of the largest battleships ever built. It served at the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The ship continued to serve in the Korean War and then again during Operation Desert Storm. 

Most importantly, the deck of the USS Missouri served as the site for the surrender of Japan, making its final port of Pearl Harbor fitting, to say the least.

The main guns of the USS Missouri.
The deck of the USS Missouri

The battleship is simply massive, especially compared to the size of the USS Bowfin. Indeed, the “Mighty Mo,” the ship’s nickname, is 887 feet long and had a crew of more than 1,800. By contrast, the USS Bowfin is 311 feet long and had a crew of 80. 

As you walk the decks of this massive ship, be sure to check out the massive 16-inch main guns which fired projectiles that weighed more than 2,000 pounds and could hit targets 24 miles away. You should also keep an eye out for the marker on the deck for where the surrender of Japan took place. 

The marker where the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri
This spot aboard the USS Missouri is where Japan surrendered, ending WWII.

Once you head inside the ship, the contrast between the Missouri and the Bowfin becomes even more apparent. While still relatively cramped, there is a lot more space for luxuries, like a snack bar, a computer lab, and a library, aboard this large warship. 

And while the bunk rooms pile sailors into a tight space, it is practically cavernous compared to the Bowfin.

A long line of bunks aboard the USS Missouri
A bunk room aboard the USS Missouri

Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

Also located on Ford Island, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum offers an up-close look at the warbirds of the Pacific Theater of World War II, including Japanese Zeroes, the B-25 Mitchell (an Army Air Forces bomber launched from an aircraft carrier during the Doolittle Raid on mainland Japan), P-40 Warhawks (made famous by the Flying Tigers) and various other aircraft from the war. 

B-25 exhibit at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
Bonnie reading about the Doolittle Raid and looking at a B-25 bomber.

As you wander through the first hangar, the exhibits go into the roles of the various aircraft and how they impacted the War in the Pacific. The second hangar picks up at the end of World War II and goes through the Cold War into modern times. You will also find exhibits on restoring aircraft, including the Swamp Ghost, an Army Air Forces B-17 bomber awaiting restoration. 

Outside the hangars, you will find a collection of Cold War-era aircraft, including helicopters and former Soviet Union aircraft.

Modern aircraft at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum also has several more modern aircraft on display, including an F-5 and F-102.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Pearl Harbor

Visiting Pearl Harbor is simply a must-do when visiting Honolulu. At the very least, you should plan on visiting the USS Arizona Memorial and viewing the exhibits run by the National Park Service. Expect to spend at least half a day seeing those sites. 

We also recommend visiting the other three sites at the memorial: the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. While it makes for quite a full day, we both really enjoyed all of the exhibits we saw and learned a lot about the attack on Pearl Harbor, the subsequent War in the Pacific, and the impact those events had on the Cold War. 

Pearl Harbor National Memorial ranger talk
A ranger giving a talk at Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Even though we missed the USS Arizona Memorial, we still enjoyed the visit and got a lot out of our experience. And it was still a very full day. We highly suggest you get there early to enjoy the entire experience. Finally, don’t fret if you don’t get to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, you can still have a complete visit to Pearl Harbor without that.

Looking for more help planning your trip to Hawaii? Check out our other articles on visiting Oahu and Maui:

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