Preservation Magazine, Fall 2022

Take in a New View of Pearl Harbor's "Sacred Battleground"

The Ford Island Control Tower and adjacent Operations Building.

photo by: Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum

During the tumult of the December 7, 1941, attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, United States naval aviators pursuing the Japanese fleet were guided by colleagues in the Operations Building on Ford Island, in the middle of the harbor. The adjacent 168-foot water tower—covered in scaffolding for its conversion into the Ford Island Control Tower—acted as an obstacle for low-flying Japanese planes. Just over five months later, the new control tower was operational.

The Navy deactivated the airbase in 1961 and later leased the airstrip to the Hawaii Department of Transportation, which used the control tower to monitor civilian runway landings until 1999. The tower was then abandoned and fell victim to rust hastened by ocean breezes. Meanwhile, the operations building served as a federal fire station until 1999, when it, too, fell into disrepair. The National Trust named Ford Island to its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2001, and successfully worked to protect the land from a proposed development.

When the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum opened on the island in 2006, its leaders knew letting the two structures disintegrate wasn’t an option—they’re too important to Hawaiian and aviation history.

“This is a sacred battleground, just like Gettysburg and other places Americans value,” says Rod Bengston, director of exhibits, restoration, and curatorial services. In 2012, the museum began renovating the operations building and the tower—replacing 53 tons of stabilizing steel; restoring original elements, including steel-framed windows; and updating the HVAC and electrical wiring.

The museum also refurbished the tower’s 1940s-era four-person elevator, which began ferrying tour groups to an access point for the top control cab when it opened to the public in May of 2022. Visitors see a sweeping panorama of the harbor and coast, including Battleship Row, the historic spot where eight Navy ships were moored at the time of the attack. The tour offers the first opportunity for visitors to gain a new, close-up perspective on an aviation battlefield that changed the course of history.

By: Christine Thomas

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