Today Hawaii is so synonymous with leis, luaus, and tropical suntans, it's weird to realize that most Americans had barely heard of this South Pacific U.S. possession before December 7, 1941, when the horrifying news came over the radio: Japanese bombers had attacked U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu. Hawaii wasn't even a state, but it was still American soil, which was under attack for the first time since the War of 1812. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it "a date which will live in infamy"; after years of pretending that World War II wasn't our fight, we realized it was.
Pearl Harbor is a site that inspires reflection on war and peace and our place in the global community. The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor is a truly special monument. Just 6 feet below the surface of the sea, you can see the deck of the 608-foot battleship USS Arizona, which sank in a swift 9 minutes, killing 1,177 of its men, more than half the total casualties that tragic day. Oil still oozes up from its engine room to stain the harbor's calm blue water -- some say the ship's still weeping for its lost crew. Moored a short distance from shore, the memorial is a stark white rectangle with a scooped-out roof that spans the hull of the ruined ship; on its walkways you can ponder over the ship's bell, dredged up from the wreckage, and a shrine room with the inscribed names of the dead. The gallant flagpole overhead is attached to the mainmast of the sunken ship. You'll ride out to the memorial on Navy launches from the visitor center; go early if you can, because you'll wait 2 to 3 hours at midday. A 20-minute film and exhibits at the center fill in the history for the kids while you're waiting for your assigned ship time.
Two other ships in the harbor tell the rest of the World War II story, so you're not left on a tragic note. Next to the Arizona, you can board a World War II submarine, the USS Bowfin (tel. 808/423-1341; www.bowfin.org), nicknamed the "Pearl Harbor Avenger" for the way it harried the Japanese throughout the rest of the war. This is a great place to see how submariners lived in their cramped underwater quarters. From the Bowfin's visitor center you can also visit the USS Missouri (tel. 877/MIGHTYMO [644-4896] or 808/455-1600; www.ussmissouri.com), a 58,000-ton battleship that fought at Tokyo, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Fittingly, the Japanese surrender was signed on September 2, 1945, on the deck of the Missouri. The guided tour, complete with 1940s music played on the shuttles to the ship, is a fascinating look at a massive seagoing vessel.
Nearest Airport: Honolulu International.
Where to Stay: $$$ Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, 2335 Kalakaua Ave. (tel. 866/956-4262 or 808/923-0711; www.outrigger.com). $ Kai Aloha Apartment Hotel, 235 Saratoga Rd. (tel. 808/923-6723; www.kaialohahotel.com).