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The glorious collection of sites (and sights) that constitute the American National Park system evokes all kinds of emotions from visitors: awe at Mother Nature's bounty, thrill for adventure, and curiosity about our nation's history. But in my view, one site in Hawaii is unique for the sober reflections it can arouse in us when we visit. And that's because it is a tomb, and a sunken one, at that.

The official name is World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, a real mouthful and politically correct, but the old name is easier to remember -- the USS Arizona Memorial.

When you visit the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, just outside Honolulu, you pay tribute not only to the capsized battleship, nor only to the fact that it was here that America entered World War II; you are also honoring the 1,177 people who died on the ship, the majority of whose remains lie inside the upturned behemoth to this day.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a bomb that struck the forward section of the Arizona caused a huge explosion and sank the battleship in nine minutes. Six military sites were bombed, some 21 ships were destroyed or damaged, 320 airplanes destroyed or damaged, and 2,390 lives were lost. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan, and within a few days of that, we were at war with Germany and Italy as well.

The Arizona site became the responsibility of the National Park Service in 1980. The park is located at the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.

Highlights

Check in at the Visitor Center, which is the portal to the USS Arizona Memorial and other Pearl Harbor historic sites. In the center are a theater, museum galleries, a bookstore and gift shop, as well as a snack bar, restrooms and an exhibit on the events that led up to the attack.

Tickets to the USS Arizona are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Wait outside the Pearl Harbor Memorial Movie Theater for the movie and tour of the ship itself to begin. There are 30 tours per day, with 150 people on each tour. In summer, you may have to wait up to two or three hours to get on your visit, though far less than that in other seasons. Each program, including the movie and tour, takes about an hour.

For reasons of decorum, cell phones must be turned off on the Memorial, in the Navy shuttle boat, and in the movie theater. Also, dress must be appropriate, meaning no bathing suits or profane T-shirts. Military visitors in uniform must wear dress whites or better (no battle dress uniforms permitted on the Arizona). For security reasons, you can't take purses, camera bags and other items that could offer concealment onto the Memorial, though you can check them near the center for $3 per bag. There are audio tours in seven languages for rent at the Visitor Center and brochures about the Memorial in 35 languages.

A permanent structure has been built across the overturned hull of the Arizona, which you reach by a Navy shuttle boat from the shore. The Entry Room contains the flags of the nine states for which the eight great battleships and the USS Utah were named. The Assembly Room is an open area where ceremonies are held and visitors may reflect and look at the remains of the ship below them. The Shrine Room holds the great marble plaque with the names of the 1,177 sailors and marines who perished on the Arizona. The room also honors the Arizona survivors who have chosen to be interred along with their submerged shipmates.

Admission Fees and Hours

Admission to the Memorial is free, though tickets are required. The Visitor Center is open daily from 7am to 5pm, except for Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 25, and Jan. 1. Programs to the Arizona operate from 8am-3pm, daily.

Nearby Attractions

Near the Arizona Memorial are the Naval Station Pearl Harbor, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor.

There are seven sites in the state of Hawaii that are operated by the National Park Service, four of them on the Big Island of Hawaii itself. Another is on Maui, and one on Molokai. The Arizona is the only national park destination on the island of Oahu.

Visitors

There are about 1.5 million visitors annually (about 4,500 per day) to the Memorial. Park officials estimate about 70% are American.

More Info

USS Arizona Memorial (tel. 808/422-3300; www.nps.gov/valr)