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Iconic Pearl Harbor towers embody history and resilience

Like giant redwoods or city skyscrapers, four towers — with a fifth under construction — rise up above Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam as bastions of eye-catching purpose, history and design.

They're hard to resist visually, even if their original use is not widely known.

Pretty much any time Jim Neuman does a tour of Pearl Harbor, "almost without fail, somebody will ask me, 'What is that tower over there?' Because it does stand out," the Navy Region Hawaii historian said of the 171-foot Freedom Tower on the Hickam side of the base.

Delton Walling was a 19-year-old signalman 2nd class who watched in horror on Dec. 7, 1941, from atop another of the towers — this one for harbor control — as Japanese warplanes flew 30 feet below him and just 100 feet to the side, dropping torpedoes that slammed into nearby Battleship Row.

"You would look right in their plane and see the pilot, his scarf flying out through the canopy, but he's looking directly ahead because he has such a short area to get down over those buildings and get down to the water to drop those torpedoes," Walling, 92, recalled last month.

Mark Branlund, meanwhile, taught submariners from 1967 to 1970 how to escape underwater using a "Steinke hood" in the water-filled 134-foot dive tower on Pearl Harbor's sub base.

Submariners entered a lockout chamber at a water depth of 50 feet which was then flooded, and had to shout "Ho! Ho! Ho!" to expel expanding air from their lungs as they rose 350 feet a minute to the surface.

The Ford Island control tower has been called Pearl Harbor's "Empire State Building."

A new tower finally is under construction at Hickam -- a $7.4 million, 140-foot ramp control tower that will be used to taxi around an increasing number of military aircraft passing through the base as part of the nation's "pivot" to the Pacific.

The towers' grandeur may be what makes them so fascinating, and there's no question they're iconic.

A couple practically demand attention: The harbor control tower is checkerboarded and the Ford Island tower is striped, both in international orange and white.

"If you see any movies about Pearl Harbor -- the attack on Pearl Harbor -- you are going to see this tower," Neuman said of the Ford Island control tower. "It just stands out."

The four older towers have stood as sentinels overlooking many decades of history that unfolded below.

Walling, who spent the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, in the circa-1925 harbor control tower taking in explosions going off all around him at both Hickam and Pearl Harbor, said he had to think over whether he'd come out from California for the blessing of the newly renovated tower.

"It took me a long time to decide -- all of five seconds," he joked before the April 25 ceremony.

The Navy expected the repair job for the 89-year-old water tank (the crow's nest was added a year later and an elevator sometime after that) to cost $5.6 million in 2011. But soon after, it was determined a much larger amount of structural steel repair was required to make the tower safe, pushing the cost of the job to $11.2 million, the Navy said.

On the morning of Dec. 7, Walling wasn't even supposed to be in the tower.

"I had a buddy who owed me $400 and he was being transferred in a couple days and I knew I'd never see him again," he said. "So I was up there trying to get what I could."

A catwalk ran around the top of the tower and a small office in the center provided the only shelter from the elements.

Communication with ships came via Morse code flashed with a 30-inch light as well as semaphore flags, said Walling, who was on Adm. Husband Kimmel's staff when Kimmel headed the Pacific Fleet.

A telephone in the room was used to relay information, he said.

Walling said seeing all the destruction was hard to take.

"We're at war. We were a bunch of happy-go-lucky kids for a year and a half before that moment. Before they (the Japanese) got done with us in 30 minutes, we were men," Walling told sailors who work in the tower now.

No planes strafed the tower because the Japanese fired only on targets they were ordered to attack, he said. "They never touched the tower in the yard because that wasn't on their schedule and they didn't know that was communications for the Pacific Fleet."

The men in the tower didn't fire on the Japanese attackers, either -- because they didn't have weapons, Walling said.

"We were coming out of the Great Depression, and we didn't have any money for nuthin', " he said. "I never saw a pistol. I never saw a gun all day."

Walling figures he gives 20 speeches a year about Dec. 7.

"I have no problem making a speech as long as I'm away from the tower, because I don't have these memories right in the face," he said. "The minute I get near that tower and get up in it, then the emotion starts to take."

On the nearby sub base, the riveted steel escape training tower had been in use since 1932.

Branlund, a gunner's mate and instructor there from 1967 to 1970, trained submariners using the "Steinke hood" and tested a full-body escape suit.

The hood version included an inflatable life jacket, hood and transparent face panel that allowed a wearer to breathe a trapped air bubble on the way to the surface.

The tank held 118 feet of water with lockout chambers at 18, 50 and 100 feet, Branlund said.

The water -- all 280,000 gallons of it -- was heated to 92 degrees and breathe-hold divers were stationed throughout the tank using breathing bells filled with air called "blisters."

"The concept behind the old Steinke hood was you fill the jacket with air and as you rise through the water the air would escape out of the vest part into the hood part, and it was totally breathable," said Branlund, 66, who now lives in Wenatchee, Wash.

The "Ho! Ho! Ho!" part came in as a way for instructors to make sure submariners going through the training were exhaling the expanding air -- and grab them if they weren't.

"If they held their breath traveling through the water at 350 feet a minute and if they held their breath for 15 to 20 feet at the most, their lungs would explode," Branlund said.

Branlund and other instructors also regularly put on dive tower demonstrations -- including one for Elvis and Priscilla Presley.

With the VIPs at the top of the tank, a swimmer would take a breath, head down to 100 feet and pull himself up hand over hand on that single breath, he said.

The water was filtered to a degree that "you could see a coffee cup on the bottom at 100 feet," Branlund said.

The dive tower was drained in 1983, said Neuman, the historian.

A crow's nest conference room was built atop the empty tower and was nicknamed "The House that Jack Built" in a reference to Rear Adm. Jack Darby, a Pacific Fleet submarine force commander.

There was only one other dive tank like it, in Groton, Conn., and that tank was torn down not too long ago, Neuman said.

"So that (the one at Pearl Harbor) is really the only tower of its kind left," he said.

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