68 years ago today, the Japanese attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base, killed 2,390 people and propelled us into WWII.
PEARL HARBOR – Harold O’Connor, 88, was a Navy Fireman First Class on the USS Thornton, a destroyer seaplane tender, in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked.
“All the torpedo planes were coming right off our fantail,” O’Connor recalls. “I watched the West Virginia go up from two torpedoes that were dropped. All hell was breaking loose. I saw the bombs that hit the Arizona.”
That’s just one of O’Connor’s World War II stories from the Pacific. The Hawaii man was again on the Thornton in 1942 taking Marines to Palmyra Atoll, when the ship ran aground on New Year’s Eve. There he saw two torpedoes streaming toward where he stood.
“I said, ‘Goodbye world,’ and I hit the deck,” O’Connor said. “Nothing happened. I got up, and here come two more torpedoes. They came right under where I was standing.”
O’Connor’s recollections go beyond Japan’s 1941 attack on Oahu and so will the new $58 million Pearl Harbor center under construction for the USS Arizona Memorial here, says Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the emerging World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
President George W. Bush set that change in motion last year when he proclaimed the Arizona Memorial and visitor center part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes nine sites: five in Hawaii, three in Alaska, and one in California at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, which was where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II.
The challenge for the National Park Service, which runs the Arizona Memorial, is to expand its exhibits to incorporate the new Pacific mandate, Martinez says.
“We’re at the beginning of trying to interpret how we’re going to carry this out,” Martinez said. “There are other ways to communicate this story besides traditional exhibits, so we’re looking at ways to do it on the Web, we’re looking at ways to do it through interpretive programs, we’re looking at ways to do it through education.”
A visitor center had been planned long before Bush’s announcement. The existing facility, which was built in 1980, was sinking. It was too small to accommodate the more than 1.3 million people who visit the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction each year.
Visitors who arrive today at the center for the boat ride to Kilo pier on the Pearl Harbor Navy base – where a commemoration ceremony will be held -will be greeted by a circuitous path of 12-foot chain-link fences covered in black fabric batting, a construction barrier separating older buildings still in use at the visitor center from their new replacements.
The new facility will occupy 24,000 square feet and have nearly double the current museum exhibition space, according to the Arizona Memorial Museum Association. The campuslike design spreads new buildings and shaded walkways over a much larger area than before.
“You feel kind of confined here,” said visitor Shannon Howland, 50, of Seattle, who was waiting last week in the visitor center courtyard for the movie and boat trip to the memorial. “The more open they make it, the better it will be – just for the flow of people on a busy day.”
Construction began about a year ago, and the first phase, which includes an education center, restrooms, a bookstore and snack shop, is scheduled to open around Feb. 16, project director Tom Fake said.
The exhibits Road to War, Oahu 1941, and Attack and Aftermath will be part of the second phase, which is to be completed by Dec. 7, 2010.
The “attack” gallery will have an 18-foot mural depicting Battleship Row off Ford Island on Dec. 7, 1941. A one-third scale model of a banking Japanese torpedo plane will be hung overhead, and the roar of passing enemy planes will be heard in the exhibit, Martinez said.
An anti-aircraft gun that came off the sunken USS Utah, a 5-foot-by-9-foot riveted slab of the USS Arizona’s superstructure, and an oscilloscope showing the radar picture before the attack, also are included in the exhibit plan, he said.
Today’s events for the expected 2,000 people in attendance, will include a moment of silence, a “missing man” flyover, wreath presentations, featured speakers, a rifle salute and taps. The 7:55 a.m. attack killed 2,390 people.