Public is close to getting 'freedom's view' from historic tower at Pearl Harbor

The Ford Island Control Tower, which stood partially built during the Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941.


By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: September 14, 2020

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is ever so close to a crowning achievement: offering public access for the first time to the top of the international orange-and-white-striped historic control tower overlooking Ford Island and Pearl Harbor for what museum officials call “freedom’s view.”

The 158-foot riveted steel former water tank topped by an observation deck is now home to a working elevator thanks to a donation from U-Haul CEO Joe Shoen, whose parents founded the moving and self-storage operation in 1945, the museum said.

“Without a working elevator, visitors, especially veterans, have been unable to see the full view of Pearl Harbor and the historic battlefield that unfolds from this height,” said Elissa Lines, executive director of the aviation museum. “The elevator and accompanying interpretive exhibit will help visitors visualize the horror of Dec. 7, 1941, while experiencing the inspiring resilience that followed — the legacy of our Greatest Generation.”

Public access is expected by the end of the year with $800,000 in elevator renovations nearing completion. The museum expects to be able to allow 100 to 120 people per day to visit the top of the tower in a new tour.

The control tower complex itself has a bit of confusing history.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the water tank — then unpainted — was completed, but the crow’s nest control tower was not. In 1942 the tower was painted in an amorphous camouflage.

Above the two-story operations building is a two-story aerological tower intended for wind direction and weather forecasting which was the field control tower on Dec. 7, according to the museum. Operators were able to guide USS Enterprise SBD Dauntless scout planes to the Ford Island runway.

The upper control tower was completed on May 1, 1942, five months after the attack.

Sometime between 1944 and 1969, when “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was filmed, the tower was painted red and white, the museum said.

The restoration of the elevator, meanwhile, represents a 10-year effort by the museum to preserve what had been a crumbling control tower complex formerly under Navy control. During work on the crow’s nest, at least five of eight 15-foot I-beams supporting the 20-foot-wide octagonal observation deck’s concrete roof were found to be corroded and had to be replaced.

At the start of the project in 2011, rust had eaten holes through some of the 17 flights of metal stairs. Graffiti, broken glass and beer bottles littered the operations building.

At least $8 million in repairs stabilized the structure and returned the tower to its former glory. In 2014 the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust announced a $1.5 million grant for interior restoration of the operations building.

In late 2016, meanwhile, World War II veterans gathered to celebrate the $650,000 restoration of the aerological tower.

At the start of the control tower complex preservation effort, “the tower was looking like it could not survive another decade because it was in such deteriorated state,” Lines said. “So our first project was to restore the structural integrity of that building. The second project was to replace the aerological tower. The third project was to install a library into and fix the first floor of the operations building.”

Now the small elevator, installed in 1942, is nearing completion.

Lines said the elevator frame will remain as a historic element, but the cab will be new. The cab was small then and it’s small now. It will fit four people, one of whom will be the elevator operator.

“Elevator manufacturer Otis still had the drawings and the plans of the original elevator,” Lines said. “Repair of this required several steps, from rust abatement to renovation of the shaft and the updating of safety, electrical and motor systems.”

The elevator shaft and mechanisms, including the historic cab, were all in place but no longer operational, she said.

“The process of repair includes updating, improving, replacing and restoring each element of the entire lift system,” Lines said. “It is a major repair that will follow the historic design.” The elevator will need to be inspected upon completion, “but there is still a great deal of work to get to that point.”

A state grant for $250,000 launched the elevator project. With private donations and the “major gift” from U-Haul, total restoration will reach $800,000, Lines said.

There are plans “down the road” for an interactive experience in the upper control cab, but the panoramic view of all of Pearl Harbor alone “is very emotional,” she said.

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