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USS Arizona Memorial tour draws respectful multitudes to Pearl Harbor

The USS Arizona Memorial is shown during a June 2012 visit by Pearl Harbor survivors.

For such a magnetic destination, the National Park Service does a magnificent job of keeping the crowds manageable and respectful at Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. The memorial gets more than 1 million visitors annually and is said to be the No. 1 tourist destination in Hawaii, beyond the beaches themselves.

A line of early arrivals forms before 7 a.m., but disperses quickly after the gates open (advance reservations are available at recreation.gov). Visitors get a free timed entry ticket for the USS Arizona Memorial tour, then can either tour the museums on the grounds or fill the lag by taking any of three other paid tours.

The five-minute boat trip onto the waters of Pearl Harbor to visit the memorial begins with a National Park Service film that sets the stage for the history of sunken battleship that visitors come to see.

The park service uses two launches to carry passengers, thus limiting peak crowds and spreading use out evenly throughout the year. The film and tour take 75 minutes, leaving the rest of the day to take in the air, submarine and battleship museums, which are also accessible from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.

The USS Arizona was sunk in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor. The ship serves as the tomb for 1,102 sailors and Marines who went down with it. A white memorial has straddled the remains of the sunken ship without touching it since 1962. Visitors have about 15 minutes aboard the memorial, between their boat rides.

The memorial's three main parts are the entry, assembly room and shrine. The central assembly room features seven large open windows on either wall and ceiling, to commemorate the date of the attack. The memorial has an opening in the floor overlooking the sunken decks. Visitors pay their respects by tossing flowers in honor of the fallen sailors. Oil from the ship continues to rise to the surface of the water.

The visitor center grounds, managed by the National Park Service, offer views of the scenic harbor, the Adm. Clarey Bridge to Ford Island, Arizona battleship memorabilia (including a ship's anchor and bell) and two museum halls that describe the lead up to World War II and the battles of the Pacific.

Also on the grounds are the other components of the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites: the shuttle bus stop to the Battleship Missouri Memorial and Pacific Aviation Museum, plus the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, both a short walk away from the main visitor center.

Pearl Harbor is well signed from the Honolulu freeway system, on the west side of the city. Parking is free and the lots are patrolled on bicycle by uniformed park service staffers who are there to answer questions and offer assistance. For security reasons, large bags are not allowed onto the grounds, but there are no security searches. Photography is welcome throughout (with the exception of photographing the surrounding naval facilities.)

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