Pearl Harbor opens new visitor center for the USS Arizona
• Photo gallery: 1st phase of new Pearl Harbor monument
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
PEARL HARBOR — Thousands of visitors today are expected to pour into the first phase of a new USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, designed to replace the old buildings that have sunk nearly three feet into the unsteady ground around Pearl Harbor.
Herb Weatherwax, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched America into World War II, sat in a motorized wheelchair yesterday as he helped untie a maile lei to open the new visitor center at a ceremony for VIPs.
At the age of "92 1/4," Weatherwax hopes to be around when the second — and final phase — of the center opens Dec. 7 on the 69th anniversary of the Japanese attack.
"I hope to live that long," said Weatherwax, who was an Army private stationed at Schofield Barracks during the attack.
Weatherwax looked around the new visitor center yesterday and proclaimed it "outstanding."
It offers a new bookstore that's nearly twice the size of the old one, an education and research center, a snack bar, administrative offices and a centralized ticketing operation so visitors can more easily attend the other World War II-era attractions around what's commonly referred to as the USS Arizona Memorial: the USS Bowfin Museum, USS Missouri Memorial and Pacific Aviation Museum-Pearl Harbor.
For Weatherwax, the critical part for tourists will be the addition of more and larger bathrooms.
"That's very, very, very important," Weatherwax said. "The older place was so cramped up, and there's always a big line-up at the bathrooms."
By congressional proclamation, the USS Arizona Memorial has been renamed the "World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument."
Its land-based visitor center also will get a new name, but for now it's being called the "USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center replacement and expansion project."
2ND PHASE TO START
As the new, unnamed center welcomes its first visitors today, construction will simultaneously begin on the second phase — on the grounds of the old center — for a total cost of $58 million.
The actual memorial that straddles the remains of the USS Arizona was built in 1962.
The original visitor center opened in 1980 on 11 acres of soil that had been dredged to expand the Halawa Basin area. When it opened, the center was designed to sink no more than 18 inches into the reclaimed soil, but instead it dropped more than 30 inches, causing water to seep into the basement and erode the concrete structure.
It also was designed to accommodate only 2,000 visitors each day — not the 4,500 tourists and residents who actually show up at Hawai'i's No. 1 tourist attraction, which does not charge for admission.
The new center was built on top of 180 pilings driven 200 feet into the soil; the pilings are designed to keep the new facility stable, said Tom Fake, regional project director for the National Park Service, which runs the USS Arizona Memorial.
When the second phase is finished, the 23,600-square-foot visitor center will be almost twice as large as the old one and will sit on 6 additional acres, for a total area of 17.4 acres.
The second phase will include exhibits aimed at looking beyond the Japanese attack, with titles such as "Road to War," "O'ahu 1941," and "Attack and Aftermath."
It's intended to open in time for the annual anniversary commemorating the Japanese attack, which has been held at Pearl Harbor's Kilo Pier.
This year, the ceremony will return to the visitor center's back lawn, which will be three times larger.
WHAT'S IN STORE
Until the visitor center is complete, tourists who begin arriving today will view a 23-minute movie about the Pearl Harbor attack outdoors instead of in the old theater, which will be renovated and upgraded with digital equipment.
An undulating roof design that's part of the first phase is intended to improve the air flow outside for visitors, who will look beyond an outdoor exhibit of the Arizona's anchor out toward Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial.
"We designed it with comfort in mind for the visitors," Fake said. "We provided lots of shade, lots of seating areas.'
U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, was instrumental in securing both federal and private money for the new visitor center and attended yesterday's ceremony.
"We've been waiting for this a long time — a building that we hope will never sink," Inouye told The Advertiser after the ceremony. "More importantly, this building will bring all the forces together — not just the Arizona, but the Missouri, the Bowfin, all the heroes. That's the way it should be."
Before the start of yesterday's ceremony, Inouye — a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions in World War II — greeted survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, many of whom will continue to greet visitors and share their individual stories.
"I'm glad I'm here to witness this event," Inouye said. "It's a day we won't forget."