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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2007

Museum will give Hawaii tower facelift

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Ford Island, then and now

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The 158-foot, riveted Ford Island tower was the site of the first radio broadcast of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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To make a donation or learn more about the Pacific Aviation Museum, go to www.pacificaviationmuseum.org

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Here’s a view from the tower in the Ford Island operations building as it looks today. The windows have no glass and the room is open to the elements. At one point, owls roosted inside the tower.

RICH COSTICK | Pacific Aviation Museum

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Daniel Martinez

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"This is a key component of Pearl Harbor history. It's a structure that witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Daniel Martinez | USS Arizona Memorial historian

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"It (the control tower) was in really bad shape. It was vandalized repeatedly. The kids would continuously break in and break the glass out."

Bill MARTIN | chief petty officer who was on Ford Island from 1960 to 1963

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PEARL HARBOR — If Ford Island is the Gettysburg of the Pacific, then the red and white striped control tower is its war-torn battle flag.

On Dec. 7, 1941, at 8:05 a.m., the two-story operations building in the complex and the four-story "aerological tower" were the site of the first radio broadcast of the Japanese attack, according to the Navy. During the attack, exploding bombs shattered lower-level windows.

The intervening 66 years haven't been kind, either, but a plan is under way to halt the rust and deterioration, and repaint the 158-foot-tall riveted-steel tower for the first time since a new coat was applied for the 1970 film "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

The Pacific Aviation Museum-Pearl Harbor, which is housed in adjacent Hangar 37, has made painting the control tower a priority.

"It's deteriorating rapidly," said museum President Clint Churchill.

The control tower will be encased in scaffolding for the job, which likely will cost more than $1 million.

USS Arizona Memorial historian Daniel Martinez said it's a worthy effort.

"This is a key component of Pearl Harbor history," Martinez said. "It's a structure that witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Churchill calls it "one of America's treasures."

Visible far from 450-acre Ford Island, the rusting water tower topped by a crow's nest has turned brownish and beige over time, but remains a dramatic and eye-catching landmark for history buffs.

The tower starred not only in "Tora! Tora! Tora!" but also Disney's 2001 film "Pearl Harbor" with some close fly-bys. One pilot passed so close in the latter film that he clipped a palm tree next to the tower and crashed.

The effort to restore the tower, meanwhile, has helped correct some lingering misconceptions about the iconic building, and launched an effort to seek more historical information.

Navy historical architect Jeffrey N. Dodge, who has researched Pearl Harbor for more than a decade, said construction of the control tower was started in early 1941, but the air traffic control room in the crow's nest was built after the Dec. 7 attack. By 1942 the tower complex was completed.

At the time of the attack, the tower was standing and the platform on top had been started. It was a solid dark color then, but by 1943 had been painted the familiar red and white.

Before the museum can give it a new coat of paint, it has to enter into a sublease for the property through the Navy and study the environmental impacts. Three hangars and the control tower were previously earmarked for museum use, but only Hangar 37 is open now.

The museum soon will embark on a national fundraising campaign to raise $75 million over four years to open the other two hangars, but the control tower deterioration is so great — with exterior catwalks rusted through in places — that the decision was made to use reserve funds now for the repainting project.

Churchill, the museum president, said the goal is to bring the control tower back to its full red and white barber pole glory in about a year's time.


Since the aviation museum opened, the adjacent tower has been a draw. Matthew James, a 29-year-old tourist from Australia, admitted he didn't know a thing about the control tower as he took a picture of it last week.

"I just like the look of it," he said. "It's an old control tower — I'd guess it's been there for a while."

KT Budde-Jones, the museum's education and volunteer director, said people will ask, "When are you going to take care of that?"

"People are concerned for it because they know that this was the centerpiece, that it is a witness (to the Dec. 7, 1941 attack) just like these other buildings, so they don't want these stories to disappear through time and neglect," Budde-Jones said.

Dodge said the control tower got its start with emergency funding pushed through Congress for the development of U.S. military bases in the Pacific.

"They realized there was going to be something happening in the Pacific very shortly," said Dodge, who is with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Hawai'i.


According to a 2000 Navy study on the control tower, Coast Guard Lt. F.A. Erickson witnessed the Dec. 7, 1941 attack from the roof of the operations building and aerological tower.

The tower was used to guide U.S. Navy aircraft onto the landing field at Ford Island, while also protecting them from friendly fire.

It was from there that the first radio broadcast of the attack was made when a chief radioman named Farrow broadcast repeatedly at 8:05 a.m. that Ford Island was under attack, the Navy report states.

The naval air station was decommissioned in 1962, officials said, but the control tower continued to be used for touch-and-go landings for civilian pilots. The facility subsequently suffered the indignities of rust and neglect.

Bill Martin, 73, a chief petty officer who taught submarine periscope photography, was on Ford Island from 1960 to 1963.

"It (the control tower) was in really bad shape. It was vandalized repeatedly. The kids would continuously break in and break the glass out," the 'Aiea man recalled.

When one of the upper level glass panes broke out in the tower, the Navy removed all the glass and left the room open to the elements. Owls sometimes roosted there. The museum plans to replace the windows or board off the openings.

For the movie "Pearl Harbor," the old operations room was transformed into a barracks with beds and equipment and posters on the walls. Old radio equipment and some desks — the real relics — were still up in the crow's nest.

These days, the Navy won't allow visitors past the chain link fence that surrounds the facility. Asbestos is in floor tiles inside.

At some point, the Pacific Aviation Museum would like to restore the lower levels for tours.

"In the longer run, we'd all very much love to restore the elevator and restore the tower up above," Churchill said. "But that's a longer term goal and if money were no limitation, but it is. We're a nonprofit, and we do what we can."

The museum continues to seek out information about the control tower. Despite its prominence, gaps remain. Budde-Jones, the museum's education and volunteer director, said the structure personifies the mystery of history.

"This could be like a 'CSI: Ford Island,' where we find people who have been sitting in the shadows not knowing that their stories and their memories are important to us understanding this iconic tower," Budde-Jones said.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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