story by Roland Gilmore
photo by Gerlinde Gorla
“We’re just about in the middle of the island,” says Alan Palmer, standing in the parking lot of the Pacific Aviation Museum as he recreates the events of Dec. 7, 1941. “There would have been airplanes literally swirling all around this spot. Bombing over here, hitting the Utah over there with torpedoes … this was the center of the whole thing.”
Out in the middle of Pearl Harbor, 433-acre Ford Island is quiet these days, the landing strip that bisects it no longer in use. A few hundred yards from where Palmer stands, the concrete is visibly pockmarked—the remnant effect of molten shrapnel scattered by a bomb blast all those years ago. It all feels reverential, even a bit haunted—and thus a fitting place for the new aviation museum, which opened last Dec. 7.
Housed in a 42,000-square-foot airplane hangar, Phase I of the museum commemorates the first year of World War II, beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor and progressing through the Pacific air campaign in the Solomon Islands. Phase II, which will eventually be housed next door in another massive hangar (this one 82,000 square feet), will look at the latter part of the war, while Phase III (in yet another hangar just beyond the second), will address the wars of Korea, Vietnam and beyond.
This is no small undertaking: Since Palmer was brought on as the museum’s director in 2002, roughly $14.1 million has been raised from federal, state and private sources—enough to outfit the first hangar with a restaurant, 200-seat theater, gift shop and roughly a dozen historic planes. But it will take approximately $70 million and several more years to see Phases II and III through to completion.
Even so, Phase I is in itself awe-inspiring. Last November, in the final feverish work days before the museum opened, Palmer paused in front of a Grumman Wildcat that had been painstakingly restored after having spent more than fifty years submerged in Lake Michigan. Himself a retired military pilot and Vietnam veteran, Palmer’s love for his current job is clearly evident … and so he can be forgiven a statement of the obvious when, taking it all in, he says, “These old planes are really something, you know?”
Pacific Aviation Museum