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Historic Missouri finds hard-fought home in Hawai’i

By James Kim. The USS Missouri, a decommissioned battleship permanently moored in Pearl Harbor and only a few minutes drive from downtown Honolulu, offers visitors a chance to engage history as a full sensory experience, which is a much more meaningful and rewarding way to learn about the past than what is usually offered in books and classrooms.

Seeing the Missouri in pictures cannot compare with witnessing the sheer size and scale of the 887 foot 3 inch long and 209 foot 8 inch tall ship.  It is as long as twenty-two Thebus 40 foot buses and taller than Aloha tower (184 feet).  Each link in the 1,200-foot long chain, which supports the ship’s anchor, weighs over 100 lbs.  But the ship’s most striking feature is its nine 16-inch guns.  Each barrel is approximately 67 feet long and weighs 116 tons.  The guns are capable of firing human-sized 2,700 pound shells up to 23 miles with pinpoint accuracy.  Rich Costick, a tour guide at the Missouri, likened this to “launching a Volkswagen Beetle 25 miles and parking it in a garage.”

The Missouri’s participation in three major conflicts spanning half a century gives this ship a historical legacy that is hard to match.  It participated in World War II, the Korean War and the first Gulf War.  With its impressive fire power, the Missouri’s main role in a conflict was to support ground troops from afar.  But it also served as an escort for other naval vessels, including aircraft carriers, and as a symbolic representation of America’s commitment and presence around the world.

The Missouri was decommissioned on March 31, 1992 and moored as a part of the Navy’s reserve fleet in Bremerton, Wash.  In January 1995 the Missouri became eligible for the Navy’s ship donation program, which allows ships to be donated to non-profit groups willing to maintain them as historical landmarks.  Four groups, representing Bremerton, Wash., San Francisco, Calif., Long Beach, Calif., and Honolulu, Hawai’i, emerged to competitively bid for the right to acquire the Missouri.  The application process was complex, which according to the Navy’s website, involves the presentation of plans concerning financing, mooring, and community support, among others factors.

The USS Missouri Memorial Association, which consists of business, military, and other local leaders, faced stiff competition in their bid to bring the Missouri to Hawai’i.  For instance, the San Francisco bid argued that mooring the ship there would attract more visitors to the ship than other sites.  The Bremerton bid proposed to make the Missouri the focus and face of a $130 million waterfront redevelopment project.  But the symbolic nature of the Association’s bid was perhaps too attractive for the Navy to pass up, which proposed to place the Missouri adjacent to the USS Arizona memorial, and thus, represent the beginning and end of U.S. involvement in World War II.

Congressional politics also played a role in the drama to bring the Missouri to Hawai’i.  After, then Secretary of the Navy John Dalton announced that the Missouri had been awarded to the Association in Hawai’i, the General Accounting Office questioned the validity of the bidding process by citing the unprecedented addition of new application criteria two weeks prior to the conclusion of the review process.  This led U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Bremerton) to request that the Navy re-open the bidding process to an independent review board under the basis that the new criteria had skewed the bidding process in favor of the Association and Hawai’i.  But Dalton remained steadfast with his decision, saying “I remain confident that my selection of Pearl Harbor was in the best interest of the Navy and our nation.”  Ultimately, Dalton’s decision was approved by Congress despite another attempt by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash) to re-open the review.

The Missouri departed Bremerton, Wash., May 23, 1998 and began a 2,639 mile 20 -day voyage across the Pacific by tugboat.  It arrived in Pearl Harbor on June 22 and was moored permanently at Ford Island’s F-5 pier facing the USS Arizona memorial.  It opened as a memorial museum on January 29, 1999 in a celebration involving 2500 people including veterans and community leaders.  Today, 1.6 million people visit Pearl Harbor each year, according to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.  Not all of them hail from the U.S. because visitor guides printed entirely in Mandarin and Japanese are available.

But the Missouri is more than just a museum for tourists.  It also serves as a venue for important social and cultural functions as well.  On June 24, 2000, the Star Bulletin reported that a traditional Japanese tea ceremony had been held onboard the ship in honor of American and Japanese soldiers who died during World War II.  Flower wreaths were cast into Pearl Harbor while participants prayed for world peace and continued friendship between the two countries.  President George W. Bush visited the ship in October 2003 to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate fallen soldiers.  Doing so is something of a presidential tradition as all commanders in chief have done so since John F. Kennedy.  The Missouri has also hosted fireworks shows and celebrations for veterans.

Operating hours for the Missouri memorial are from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm every day.  It is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  On December 7, the memorial opens at 8:30 am.  Adult admission costs $20 and a child’s admission is $10.  Military and kama’aina rates are available with valid identification.  Special rates are also available for schools and non-profit groups.  For more information go to ussmissouri.org.