There's plenty of history at Pearl Harbour: even a Kiwi link, finds Helen Van Berkel.

Tomorrow the minds of New Zealanders travel to battlefields around the world where our men and women have fought with extraordinary gallantry, their acts of bravery changing the course of history. One of those names lost in the passage of time is that of Air Vice Marshall Sir Leonard Monk Issitt — who, on behalf of the Dominion of New Zealand, signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan, at 9.22am on September 2, 1945.

Issitt is literally a footnote to history: Canada's Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrove managed to sign on the wrong line, leaving Issitt to add his signature floating in the space at the bottom of the page.

A replica of the historic document can be seen in a glass case in the spot where it was signed on the Missouri, now a floating memorial at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. "Big Mo" was already under construction when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, and went into active service in 1944. Fittingly, it is the last battleship the US built. The fighter planes and the bombers Japan unleashed on Pearl Harbour that sunny Sunday morning ended sea warfare — now we have other ways of killing each other.

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We caught the 20 bus from Waikiki to the Pearl Harbour monument, and gave ourselves a day to explore the USS Bowfin submarine and the Arizona, plus the Missouri and the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island. Walk-through exhibitions detail the events leading up to the war in the Pacific as Japan and US jostled for economic dominance in the area.

Shuttle buses take tourists from the Pearl Harbour Visitors Centre to Ford Island, where the Missouri is moored across the Admiral Clarey Bridge.

It takes about two hours to explore the restored Missouri, which still has a teak deck, albeit rebuilt. Follow the green arrows to the spot where the instrument of peace was signed and below decks to the cramped crew quarters. Occasionally disconcerting recorded onboard noises make it sound as though someone else is there with you as visit the machining rooms, the donut rooms — the donuts arranged on trays — the mess, the post office, the quarters of the higher-ranked officers. It's surprisingly roomy in the communal areas below decks although the narrow berths offer only a curtain for privacy.

The conflict with Japan ended on the Missouri but it began on the USS Arizona, and it is fitting that the last battleship the US built faces her fallen sister, who lies where she sank with such tremendous loss of life on that sunny morning in 1941.

The Arizona Memorial is a shuttle boat ride from the visitor centre back on the mainland, where your tour begins with a short film about the shocking events that brought the United States into World War II.

Actress Stockard Channing's grave voiceover details the stealthy gathering of the Japanese forces and the arrival of the first death-dealing planes out of the dawn. The first wave of planes took 11 minutes to unload their deadly cargo of torpedoes. When the attack was over, 188 US aircraft were destroyed, 2403 Americans were killed and 1178 others were wounded.

It's a subdued crowd that leaves the theatre for the shuttle boat to the USS Arizona Memorial, a 56m white structure that straddles the great ship's hull. The rise and fall of the tide laps the barbette of one of the turrets and below the surface the ghostly shape of the Arizona looms. The US Pacific Fleet's battleships were lined up at 16 mooring quays in the famed "Battleship Row". The Arizona sank in 12m of water, a tomb for 1102 of her 1177 sailors and marines who died that day. Many never got out of their bunks. You are walking over the graves of those doomed young men, to where the vast list of name upon name is etched on the huge marble wall at the far end of the memorial.

The USS Bowfin submarine is another attraction worth visiting at Pearl Harbour. Photo / Helen Van Berkel
The USS Bowfin submarine is another attraction worth visiting at Pearl Harbour. Photo / Helen Van Berkel

The ship is recognised and honoured as a military cemetery. Oil leaks periodically into the waters of Pearl Harbour, a sorrowful rainbow known as the tears of the Arizona.

The memorial is plain, white and designed to leave you to your contemplations.

In haunting underwater footage in the introductory film, the overarching Arizona memorial is seen from below, its white lines distorted by the gentle swells. It's an eerie piece of cinematography. Those young men died before their war began, innocents in their bunks. We revere them as heroes, even as bombs once again rain down on faraway battlefields. Tomorrow we think of our fallen, many laid to rest in places far from home.

But the best memorial to the sacrifice of all the lost warriors, surely, is when war itself is merely a memory.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Hawaiian Airlines

flies from Auckland to Honolulu, with one-way Economy Class fares from $559.

ONLINE
nps.gov/valr/planyourvisit/index.htm