History in the air
|Video: Pearl Harbor survivors remember Ford Island during the attacks|
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
FORD ISLAND — The prop-driven aircraft at the Pacific Aviation Museum-Pearl Harbor are among the most recognizable warbirds of World War II.
But it's their stories from Pacific air wars, and setting on this 433-acre historic island, that are the most impressive at the new nonprofit museum, which opens Thursday, the 65th anniversary of the surprise attack.
"The Pacific Aviation Museum is a significant addition to the Pearl Harbor sites — USS Arizona Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and the USS Missouri Memorial," said Allan Palmer, the museum's executive director. "We are proud to share the historic stories of men and women aviators of the Pacific and pay tribute to those whose bravery helped give us the freedom we enjoy today."
Aircraft from both sides of the battle now hang silently in the air, and stand frozen in time on aircraft carrier decking, with plasma screens and historical footage re-creating the cacophony of war.
A Zero fighter, built in 1942 and the 500th produced by Nakajima, was given to the emperor as a token gift, and recovered in the Solomon Islands in the 1960s.
Now avocado-hued with a black engine cowling, the tight-turning fighter was repainted to look like the Zero that crashed on the island of Ni'ihau on Dec. 7.
The aircraft remained on the Forbidden Isle for more than six decades until its owners, the Robinson family, loaned what remains to the museum.
A P-40E Warhawk replica is marked up like the planes that Lt. Ken Taylor and Lt. George Welch took off in from Hale'iwa to battle the Japanese air invasion force.
The aviators, who had attended a dance the night before at Wheeler Army Air Field and stayed up playing poker, piled into Welch's Buick and speeded off to the North Shore airfield the morning of the attack, Palmer said. Taylor took to the air in his tuxedo shirt.
The aircraft and a handful of others, including a B-25B Mitchell bomber, Navy Wildcat fighter, a 1942 Stearman biplane that President George H.W. Bush soloed in, and an Aeronca civilian aircraft aloft at the time of the attack, are the start of the $84 million museum that's opening in Hangar 37.
In years to come, it will expand to two other cavernous hangars and feature military aircraft and exhibits through Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.
Arizona Memorial historian Daniel Martinez said such a museum is long overdue. Ford Island has been called the "Gettysburg of the Pacific" as ground zero for the Dec. 7 attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but it also has far-reaching ties to U.S. air power in the Pacific.
Ford Island was purchased in 1913 by the Army for use as an airfield and was named Luke Field in honor of Lt. Frank Luke, an Army aviator killed in World War I.
"It's really important that aviation has its role in Hawai'i history and American history and world history because of the significant achievements that were made here," Martinez said.
Much of that history was deeply personal on Dec. 7, 1941.
Herb Franck, who's featured on a film museumgoers will see, was a 22-year-old aviation machinist mate 1st class with a PBY seaplane squadron on Ford Island when Japanese aircraft bore down on the island and battleship row.
"It was absolute chaos. Unbelievable. It was so depressing because with the battleships burning, the whole sky was just dark. You couldn't see the sun," said Franck, who's now 87 and lives in California. "Most of the pictures don't show it, but there were a lot of people on the ships that were blown apart, and there were bodies or parts of bodies hanging off the trees and on the ground."
Between 1,000 and 10,000 people are expected to pass through Hangar 37 on Thursday. The doors open at noon with grand-opening ceremonies at 11:30 a.m. The museum closes at 5 p.m.
In a business partnership, the trolleys that run from the Bowfin submarine park to the battleship Missouri on Ford Island also will be used for Pacific Aviation museum patrons.
Tickets can be purchased at the Bowfin or at the aviation museum. On Wednesday, the counter that will sell those tickets at the aviation museum still was being constructed. As was the restaurant and gift shop in the 42,442-square-foot hangar, built in the 1920s and renovated at a cost of $9 million.
"We think we're going to make it," Palmer said of some of the last-minute work. "Most of the heavy work is done inside the exhibit area."
A big satellite image of the Ford Island area is laid out on the foyer floor. Footage and accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Ford Island will be shown on a 12-foot screen in a 200-seat theater, and scenes of 1941 Honolulu followed by the sounds of air raid sirens and bombs dropping are part of the experience on the way to the exhibit area.
Hawai'i opera technical director Gordon Svec, who painted some of the aircraft backdrops, said a "phenomenal amount of research" went into historical accuracy.
In one exhibit, when it was discovered the tail markings on some Japanese planes were from the wrong attack wave, they were repainted to be correct.
The museum has jumped from an expected cost of $50 million to $84 million, and as more money is raised, the other two hangars will be opened. Palmer said the museum has raised $14.1 million, which includes $9.46 million in federal grants and $1 million in state funds. A national fundraising campaign will begin in early 2007.
An SBD Dauntless dive bomber replica is coming from the Mainland, the museum will get a recently retired F-14 Tomcat fighter, and an F-15 Eagle is scheduled to one day come from the Hawai'i Air National Guard.
A big, single-rotor UH-3 helicopter and Huey and Cobra helicopters sit in Hangar 79, awaiting future exhibits that will include dioramas, an aircraft carrier section and two-story B-52 bomber cockpit.
Part of the aviation museum experience is proximity to parts of Ford Island that are little changed from 1941. Hangar 37 is adjacent to the now rusting barber pole control tower complex, which is expected to someday be part of the museum.
Windows in Hangar 79 still bear bullet holes from the attack.
Those expected to be at the grand opening include Gen. Chuck Yeager, the World War II fighter ace and first man to break the sound barrier; Wally Schirra, a retired Navy captain and one of the seven original Apollo astronauts; Pearl Harbor survivors like Franck and Ernest Olson, who witnessed Japanese aircraft fly overhead; and John Finn, a Medal of Honor recipient who manned a machine gun at Kane'ohe Bay and continued to fight back even though he had been wounded many times.
The museum includes a B-25 bomber painted to represent Ted Lawson's "Ruptured Duck," the seventh to launch off an aircraft carrier deck in 1942 in the famed Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.
The raid on Japan led to the Battle of Midway, a decisive naval and air victory for the United States and turning point in the Pacific that could have gone differently and changed the course of history.
"Even Sir Winston Churchill made a comment after the attack that that was the greatest naval victory in the history of warfare," Franck said.
Reach William Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org.