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Ford Island - Part I: Overview


Ford Island was the epicenter of the attack on December 7, 1941. Its seaplane base had dozens of long-range PBY patrol bombers capable of locating the Japanese fleet after the attack. Along her coast were moored seven of the Pearl Harbor fleet’s nine battleships. Ford Island is also where the Pacific Fleet’s three carriers would have moored had they been in port that day. The attack destroyed nearly all of the patrol planes. It also disabled the Pacific Fleet’s battleship force, making it impossible for the U.S. to carry the fight to Japan to spoil the Japanese expansion in the Pacific.

Today, Ford Island is still an active military base. However, it is now possible for tourists to visit parts of this historic battlefield. Pacific Aviation Museum gives visitors access to historic Hangar 37 and Hangar 79 and is in the process of renovating the famous control tower. The museum will eventually expand to include Hangar 54. Access to the Missouri is also on Ford Island. This is the first in a series of articles on Ford Island as it existed on December 7, 1941. It is written for students of World War II history, but we hope that others will find it an interesting read.

The Surrounding area

Figure 1 shows Pearl Harbor and the surrounding area. Ford Island is in the middle of the harbor.

Figure 1: Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, October 30, 1941 80-G-182874

On the eastern shore is the Navy Yard, where heavy repairs were done. The USS Pennsylvania (BB-28), the flagship of the battle fleet was in dry dock for overhaul. In the second wave of the attack, dive bombers damaged the Pennsylvania heavily damaged the destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372), USS Shaw (DD-373), and USS Downes (DD-375). On the 1010 Dock closest to Ford Island, the light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50) and the minelayer USS Oglala (CM-4) were moored during the attack. Both were sunk by a Japanese torpedo but were later restored. The Helena was lost at the Battle of Kula Gulf in 1943.

Many Japanese torpedo planes flew along the East Loch to get the longest possible straight runs for dropping their torpedoes. This put the battleships USS Oklahoma and USS West Virginia in an almost direct line. Of the 40 torpedoes dropped by Japanese aircraft, approximately 14 hit these two ships.

Note that Hickam Field, which was the U.S. Army Air Forces bomber field in Hawaii, is adjacent to Pearl Harbor. Today, the two bases are combined into Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam.

The figure also shows the narrow sea channel between the Pacific Ocean and Pearl Harbor. If a major ship had been sunk in the harbor while escaping, other ships could not leave or enter the harbor.

Finally, the figure shows oil storage near the submarine base. Admiral Nagano has been criticized for not launching a third wave to destroy the oil storage tanks throughout Pearl Harbor and ship repair facilities in the Navy Yard.

Ford Island

Figure 2 takes a closer look at Ford Island. This picture was taken on October 10, 1941. If it looks familiar to visitors to Pacific Aviation Museum, this is because the photograph was the basis for the Dru Blair mural that visitors see when they enter the main floor of Hangar 37.

Figure 2: Ford Island, October 10, 1941. 80-G-279375

The label Battleship Row lies at the bottom of a set of quays used by the bulk of Pearl Harbor’s battleships. On the day of the attack, the battleships Oklahoma (BB-37), Maryland (BB-46), West Virginia (BB-48), Tennessee (BB-43), Arizona (BB-39), and Nevada (BB-36) were moored there. The USS California (BB-44) was moored farther down at Quay F-3, just behind where the USS Enterprise is in the October, 1941 picture (at Quay F-2) [1]. These battleships bore the brunt of the torpedo, high-level bombing, and dive bombing attacks on Pearl Harbor that day. The USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), the other battleship in port that day, was in the Navy Yard undergoing overhaul. The other battleship in the Pearl Harbor force was the USS Colorado (BB-45). She was in undergoing overhaul on the West Coast.

No aircraft carriers were in port that day. The USS Enterprise (CV-6) was scheduled to have returned from dropping off 12 F4F fighters at Wake Island, but it was delayed by heavy seas. As noted in an earlier blog article, the Enterprise was normally moored where it was in Figure 2. The USS Lexington (CV-2) and the USS Saratoga (CV-3) normally moored on the other side of the island, where the USS Utah (AG-16) was moored on the day of the attack. On the day of the attack, Lexington was on its way to delivery dive bombers to Midway Island. Saratoga had just finished a refit and was entering San Diego’s harbor to pick up its air wing. The survival of these carriers was critical for the first year of the war.

The lower right corner of Pearl Harbor is the seaplane base. This base had four squadrons of Consolidated PBY Catalina patrol bombers. These aircraft had an operational radius of operation of 700 miles, so they could have found the Japanese fleet long after its attack. The seaplane base also was the servicing area for catapult-launched aircraft on cruisers and battleships when these ships were in port. Due to a communication mix-up, Japanese dive bombers hit the seaplane base at 7:55, almost five minutes before their torpedo bombers arrived to attack the battleships. The seaplane base is now home to Pacific Aviation Museum and active Navy facilities. Its landmark feature was the control tower in the airfield Operations Building. The photo shows that the tower was unfinished in October, 1941, just as it was on the day of the attack.

At the opposite side of the island was the servicing area for carrier aircraft when the carriers were in port. This area had been a U.S. Army Air Corps base, Luke Field, until 1939. It was often still referred to as “Luke Field” despite the fact that it was then a Navy facility. The runway, by the way, was never called Luke Field. “Field” was the U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Army Air Forces name for an air base, not for the base runway. Also, although the Army established Luke Field before NAS Pearl Harbor moved to the southern tip of Ford Island a few years later, Luke Field never covered the entire Island. The rudimentary air strip in the middle of the island evolved into the 1941 landing mat as a joint runway for Luke Field and NAS Pearl Harbor.

The Series

This is the first of a series of Pacific Aviation Museum blog articles on Ford Island as it existed on December 7, 1941. This series will examine the history, buildings, aircraft, ships, and people who were at ground zero for the devastating attack that dragged the United States into World War II.


[1] U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command, Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941: "Battleship Row" during the Pearl Harbor Attack, http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/pearlhbr/ph-bba.htm

Comments on “Ford Island - Part I: Overview

  1. Dave Dodson on 2015 10 30 said:

    I was stationed on Ford Island in 1965-1967 while serving with the Commander, ASW Force Pacific.  The building we were billeted in was immediately next to the quay where the USS California was moored at 8:05 AM, December 7, 1941.  The building was constructed of concrete and still bore evidence of the Japanese straffing of the California on the harbor-side.  There was no bridge to Ford Island then as all our activities were highly classified and access to the Island and our building was military only.

  2. Ron ingram on 2015 01 08 said:

    I lived on Ford Island 1950-51 my dad was stationed there for 4 years. I went to the 2nd grade - the school was close to where the AZMemorial was later built
    Grades 1-6 in. 4 classrooms

    old ferry ran to Pearl City - many memories

  3. Mark Otterlei on 2014 10 03 said:

    My Dad, LCDR William K. Otterlei, flew Navy Beach Craft twin engine air craft on Ford Island, after his tour as XO in the Blue Sharks VP-6 squadron at NAS Barbers Point. Our family lived on Ford Island from 1958 through 19060. Our house was located right across from the Air Craft Carrier dock and near the USS Utah. My Mom Shirley, 2 brothers Bill and Steve, and our sister Lisa had so many wonderful childhood memories on Ford Island! Like climbing and carving our initials in the big Banyon Tree on Officers Hill, fishing off the Admirals Pier at night, swimming out to Turtle Island, going to the movies and hanging out at the old bowling alley, and taking a boat back & forth every day to school. Our neighbors were the Commander Dalton family. Chuck Dalton was in my wedding many years later in California!  Ford Island will always remain in my fondest of memories along with all the brave sailors and solders who last their lives that fateful morning of December 7, 1941 !! Mahalo

  4. Administrator on 2014 03 19 said:

    Thanks for the bit of history, Carolyn. I don’t know of any first-hand but I’ll forward your comment to the team. Mahalo!

  5. carolyn murphy on 2014 03 18 said:

    What a sight!  My mom, 82 at present, was there on that day and watched from her home up on the hill.  She walked by Battleship Row every day going to school on Ford Island.  Her Uncle, was serving Lt. JG on the Dobbin and survived.  She is the only one left of her family and has said for years she wondered if there were any civilian survivors still alive, and known, whom she might have known as an 8 year old.  She was moved to Admiral Green’s house from Pearl City and she could see all the men jumping into burning oil trying to get off the ship. That always makes her weep.  What a horrible thing for a child.  I would like to find a source for survivors families who were there also.  Any ideas?

  6. Joshua Ilac on 2014 03 07 said:

    @michael crabtree The island is still a active military base there are two bike lanes one on each side of the runway and also there’s a lot of loose rocks down the runway but thanks to the crew at pacific aviation museum aka Pam and the mighty Mo the battleship Missouri they help bring history back for the youngergeneration.

  7. Ray Panko on 2014 01 24 said:

    Yeah, those computers are dangerous. Actually, a spell check wouldn’t help. Needed a full brain check. Thanks for the catch. As you may have guessed, I’m a professor in an IT department. BTW, do you have any pictures of the tower from that time? We are trying to determine when it became red and white instead of camouflage.

  8. Administrator on 2014 01 24 said:

    Thanks all for the great posts!  Please understand it takes a few days to see your posts because we have it set to moderation thanks to all of the spam we get daily!  Your support and interest is appreciated!

    - The Webmaster

  9. Joe Genné on 2014 01 24 said:

    Great history.  Keep the series coming.  Thanks.

  10. Jinny Hepburn Black on 2014 01 24 said:

    First, thank you for the wonderful work that you all do. Second, thank you for this series on Ford Island. I lived there, as a 9 year old, 1956-57, with my family. My Dad was in the Navy for thirty years, retiring in 1970, as LtCdr. He was on Eniwetok in WWII. I remember walking past the control tower that appears in so many photos of Ford, to go to the base movie . . . cost 10 cents. I sold Girl Scout cookies, to sailors coming of ships docked at the pier, known only 15 years before, as Battle Ship Row, on that Day of Infamy. For me, it brings back such fond memories . . . while for so many, it brought back thoughts of terror. We must never forget. Again, Thank You, and Thank You to all who have served our great country.  Jinny

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