Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor is getting a name change, modifying its exhibits and has a new mission: to better tell the Dec. 7, 1941, story emphasizing the hallowed ground upon which it stands and from which aviation defenders fought back.
The new name — the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum — makes that clear.
By concentrating on the space between the devastation of the USS Arizona and peace secured on the battleship Missouri — and represented by adjacent memorial museums — the aviation museum believes it can find a new niche.
The desire is to showcase how “aviation rose out of the ashes to inspire America’s hopes through innovation and determination to fight back,” according to a new branding study.
Plans include opening both the shorter Ford Island aerological tower used on Dec. 7 and the 168-foot orange and white control tower to the public in late 2020 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific, said museum Executive Director Elissa Lines.
Since it opened in 2006, the museum has tried to attract visitors mostly with a variety of historic and noteworthy aircraft in and around two big hangars.
Now, the nonprofit wants to emphasize its Dec. 7 roots as part of an American battlefield, including the history that is enmeshed with those hangars and the nearby control tower complex during and after Japan’s surprise attack.
At that time, the 42,000-square-foot Hangar 37, now the museum’s entry point, was home to VJ-1, a utility squadron with nine J2F “Ducks,” single-engine amphibious biplanes and an equal number of JRS-1 flying boats.
Squadron members mounted machine guns in the back seat of the J2Fs and fired back at attacking planes. Five JRS-1s flew out to find the Japanese fleet — unarmed except for a few Marines with Springfield rifles.
Bullet holes from the attack still pepper blue-glass windows on the gigantic rolling doors of the museum’s 86,000-square-foot Hangar 79.
“There are 2 million people who come to Pearl Harbor (annually),” Lines said. “Of those 2 million people, 260,000 to 270,000 choose to come to our museum.”
The museum has generally charted 5 percent to
10 percent growth in annual attendance. By comparison, neighboring Battleship Missouri Memorial attendance is over 600,000 annually, Lines said.
A branding study done in December and January based on interviews with 600 people concluded there’s an impression the museum is just one of over 600 aviation museums across the country.
Meanwhile, visitors want the immersive experience of the Pearl Harbor attack.
“This has led us to say, OK, the experience isn’t delivering,” Lines said. “When you pulled up in the bus, you saw helicopters and jets, which really were not here on Dec. 7, 1941.”
The gradual rebranding has already started.
A rare Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” — the type of bomber that delivered the death knell to the USS Arizona and the most intact aircraft of its type on display in the United States — recently was moved to Hangar 37 to be next to another Oahu attack plane, a Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero.”
Opposite those, hanging from the ceiling, is an American P-40 fighter, one of the Pearl Harbor defenders that rose up to fight that day.
Seeing the “Kate” — even in its unrestored state — and knowing its role at Pearl Harbor made an impression on Seattle resident Ron Gangnes, 66, who visited the museum recently with his wife, Randina.
“It’s emotional,” he said. “My wife’s father was a survivor of Pearl Harbor and so we’re here. And this is having quite an impact on me. To see the actual planes and to hear the stories again is humbling.”
Lines said dozens of new but smaller historical items will be placed on display in Hangar 37, including a leather and sheepskin flight jacket worn by George Welch, who chased
Japanese attackers in his P-40 Tomahawk.
Money has been raised for the $775,000 repair of the original Otis elevator to take four people at a time to the crow’s nest atop the 168-foot control tower for what Lines calls “freedom’s view.”
The museum received a $1.5 million grant from the Emil Buehler Perpetual Trust to renovate the first floor of the control tower complex, and work is expected to start this month.
Officials hope that by late 2020, public access will be provided to the aerological tower — the shorter control tower in use on Dec. 7, 1941, for runway control — as well as the orange and white control tower, which opened in 1942.
Hangar 79 eventually will be used to tell the story of the World War II air war. For now it will remain a repository for jets and other more current aircraft, Lines said.
She said the museum is getting ready to reorient the visitor arrival experience to a “more pristine tower (complex) and what you would have seen on Dec. 7 … so you have a better sense of where you are.”
Instead of sitting down to see a movie on the first year of the war, arriving visitors will receive an orientation from a docent “that helps you understand what happened here on Dec. 7 and then the years that followed,” she said.
“I think we’re on a journey,” Lines added, “and we just started that journey.”