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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Ford Island builds on its history

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

FORD ISLAND — Herb Franck not only remembers Pearl Harbor, he remembers the first bomb blast there on December 7, 1941. At 7:55 a.m. a 250-pound explosive ripped apart Hangar 6, killing his friend Ted Croft, aviation ordinance man, 1st class.

Allan Palmer, executive director of the Pacific Aviation Museum, stands in front of the old Ford Island control tower, which has been used as a movie scene backdrop.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

At that moment Franck, a 22-year-old aviation machinist mate, 1st class, was having breakfast at the mess hall near where the USS California was moored. He heard the explosion and the sound of unusual plane engines, and ran outside to find low-flying Japanese Zero fighters overhead. That's when he and his mates noticed smoke and fire billowing from Hangar 6.

"Our squadron was on the south side of Hangar 6," said Franck, 85, who now repairs vintage aircraft engines for the San Diego Aerospace Museum. "They dropped the first bomb right there. Ted was in the duty section of the hangar when it hit. He would have been off duty in five minutes."

Croft was the only person to die that day on Ford Island — 450-acres in the middle of the harbor. But from the instant the first bomb hit Hangar 6, the island belonged to history.

Pearl Harbor, previously unknown to the majority of Americans, forever became a national focal point, like Gettysburg and the Alamo.

And for six decades Ford Island, complete with its bullet holes, strafe marks and other reminders of the attack, sat undisturbed — as if sealed in a time capsule. The fact that the military outpost could only be reached by ferry boat kept its history intact. The 100 folks living in three dozen quaint officers quarters built in the 1920s, along with 200 barracks soldiers, pretty much had the sleepy island to themselves.

While people everywhere knew of Pearl Harbor, few had heard of Ford Island, where the Pacific Fleet battleships were moored and the infamous attack on the base began.

In 1998, the Admiral Clarey Bridge connected Ford Island with Kamehameha Highway and Salt Lake Boulevard and progress could no longer be kept at bay.

Now the island is in the midst of a transformation that could dramatically alter its appearance, its function, and its visibility. In October, the Navy dedicated 140 homes next to the old airfield, the first new housing on the island since the 1920s.

An $84 million Ford Island master development project in the works by private developers calls for plans to build hundreds of two-bedroom apartments, dozens of two-story residential townhomes, and a waterfront promenade with shops and restaurants.

And the $50 million, 16-acre Pacific Aviation Museum-Pearl Harbor, the first phase of which is scheduled to open on Dec. 7, 2006, promises to open the island for the first time to hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

An icon of WW II

Flying legend Chuck Yeager, the man with "the right stuff," kicked off the museum's fund-raising campaign with a keynote address at a sold-out banquet at the Officer's Club at Hickam Air Force Base last week.

New housing is being built on once-sleepy Ford Island. The Navy dedicated 140 homes next to the old airfield.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"This is a tremendous endeavor," Yeager told the crowd. "As I've said, you're starting late, but I think, looking at the talent you've gathered together, you'll hack it."

In Yeager's first visit to Ford Island, he walked away impressed with the sense of history he found there.

That reaction is not unusual, according to Allan Palmer, executive director of the aviation museum.

"Last year, right here where we're standing, Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra looked around and almost got tears in his eyes," said Palmer as he planted his feet on the concrete not far from Ford Island's most noted icon, the red and white striped control tower that has been featured in major motion pictures.

"He said, 'Back when I was a young fellow, the attack that happened here was what got me to go down and sign up for the Navy — and I flew throughout the rest of the war, and Korea, and got into the space program.'"

Schirra said his whole life had been shaped by the events of Dec. 7.

It's that passion that the aviation museum wants to tap into, said Palmer, who served two tours as a fighter pilot in Vietnam, and has an extensive background in operating aviation museums.

Aviation museum

The Ford Island museum will augment Pearl Harbor's existing three attractions, the USS Arizona Memorial, the Battleship USS Missouri Memorial, and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, said Palmer.

This is one of the hangars that will become the Pacific Aviation Museum, with exhibits on the history of flying.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

The main components, when complete, will be three vintage hangars — original bullet holes and all — that will feature a phantasmagoria of multi-level interactive attractions, flight simulators, vintage aircraft, large screen films, dioramas and even a full-scale WW II-era aircraft carrier deck. The idea is to transport visitors through time and place them at every aspect of the story of aviation from 1913 to the present.

The focus will be on the Pacific, and of course Pearl Harbor, but the museum will include major components dedicated to the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Pearl Harbor did more than just catapult America into World War II, says Palmer. The attack was the first major air campaign using aircraft carriers — a monumental technical advance.

"That moment changed forever the thinking about warfare," he said. "That all happened right here in the harbor and it was seminal moment in history. And yet, there's not an airplane in sight."

Time to modernize

That could soon change. Herb Franck sees it as good news.

In March of 1942 Franck left Ford Island and shipped out to Australia. But he returned 17 years later for his last tour of duty in the Navy — this time as the commander of the naval air station. Even then, he says, he was stunned at how the island looked the same as it did when he left.

In 1964, the airfield was officially decommissioned and activity on the island slowed to a snail's pace. Franck, who still visits the island nearly every year, believes the Pacific Aviation Museum is the best hope to preserve Ford Island's fragile past. As for the housing, shopping centers and other changes, Franck believes they were inevitable.

He's enthusiastic about the thought of thousands of American kids visiting the place where the Pearl Harbor attack began and experiencing firsthand the events of that morning.

"If the government did not put some valid use on the island after it was no longer an active air-field, it was only a matter of time before a lot of its history would have gone by the wayside," said Franck.

Like Yeager, Franck thinks the museum is long overdue. He fears the process of forgetting Pearl Harbor has already begun.

Not long ago Franck spoke to a high school senior touring the aerospace museum in San Diego.

"I asked him, 'Hey, do you know about Pearl Harbor?' And he said, 'No, who's she?'

"True story. That kind of tears you apart."

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