Located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Pearl Harbor is best known as the site of the Japanese military strike that propelled the United States into World War II. But Pearl Harbor's contributions to history didn’t begin—or end—on what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941. From epic rock concerts to astronaut visits, the storied lagoon has seen quite a lot. Here are 10 things you might not know about it.
1. Pearl Harbor's Hawaiian name is Wai Momi.
Translated, that means "Pearl Waters"—a reference to the plentiful shellfish that lined its floors. (The area is also known as Pu’uloa, or "Long Hill," due to its terrain.)
Unfortunately, overharvesting, pollution, and human-induced sediment changes decimated the harbor’s native oyster population by the end of the 19th century. But in February 2019, the U.S. Navy announced that it was teaming up with the University of Hawaiʻi’s Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center and O'ahu Waterkeeper to reintroduce two native bivalve species: The Hawaiian oyster and the black-lip pearl oyster. Since they filter out pollutants, their presence may help clear the water in the Pearl Harbor area.
2. A shark goddess was said to live in Pearl Harbor.
According to Hawaiian legend, Kaʻahupahau was a former human who had transformed into a shark. It was said that she lived with her brother (or son) in the caves beneath Pearl Harbor. Together, the pair defended the scenic lagoon and the Indigenous people who fished there. In 1902, the entrance channel was artificially widened so large American ships could pass through. (Hawaii wouldn't become a state until 1959, but it was annexed in 1898.) Locals became concerned that the project would upset Kaʻahupahau. When a newly finished dock collapsed in 1913, it was said to be the irate deity’s work. Others speculated that damage to the harbor caused Kaʻahupahau to leave—and she took the oysters with her.
3. Pearl Harbor’s resident naval station was established in 1908.
In 1887, 11 years before Hawaii’s annexation, the United States was given the exclusive right to set up a naval base in Pearl Harbor. But the federal government didn’t formally establish one there until 1908. Decades later, in 1940, that naval station became the main base of operations for what would soon become the U.S. Pacific Fleet, where it was intended to curb Japanese expansionism. The fleet’s relocation to Oahu set the stage for the devastating surprise attack.
4. The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor came in two waves.
Before the assault on Pearl Harbor, Japan stationed six of its Imperial Navy’s aircraft carriers, which carried 414 planes in total, at a pre-chosen locale 230 miles north of Oahu. The ships maintained radio silence to keep their movements a secret. On December 7, 1941, at 6 a.m., the first wave of Japanese planes took to the air, and just before 8 a.m., they began an all-out assault on the Hawaiian base. Caught unaware, the American forces were pummeled by bombs and torpedoes.
A second wave arrived on the scene at about 8:50 a.m. Unlike its predecessor, this one didn’t include any torpedo planes and it inflicted less damage. Still, by the time Japan’s second wave pilots returned to their carriers at 9:55 a.m., the U.S. had lost 188 airplanes while 159 more sustained damages. Some 21 American ships were sunk or damaged. And then there was the human cost: 2403 Americans died in the attack, and an estimated 1178 others were injured.
5. Thirty-eight sets of brothers were on the doomed USS Arizona.
Nearly all the American vessels that were hit during the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack were later repaired, but the USS Arizona wasn’t so lucky. The 608-foot Pennsylvania-class battleship went under after an ammunition magazine exploded. Some 1177 marines and sailors perished aboard the Arizona. Altogether, there were 38 sets of brothers, representing a total of 79 men, on the battleship at the time. Within that group, 63 individual men were killed.
6. Pearl Harbor was rocked by mysterious explosions in 1944.
On May 21, 1944, a tank landing ship (or Landing Ship, Tank) in the lagoon’s West Loch suddenly burst into flame. Next came a string of explosions that killed 163 people, damaged more than 20 buildings, and took out a grand total of six LSTs. The disaster’s cause has never been verified, but it has been theorized that someone may have accidentally set the whole thing off by dropping an explosive mortar shell.
7. Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida visited Pearl Harbor in 1951.
By all accounts, the visit was a muted affair. Yoshida was returning from a diplomatic visit to San Francisco when he opted to spend a little time in Hawaii. On September 12, 1951, the prime minister briefly met up with Arthur Radford, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor. Three other Japanese prime ministers have since visited the lagoon. Ichiro Hatoyama dropped by in 1956; Nobusuke Kishi made the trip in 1957; and Shinzo Abe gave a speech there (with Barack Obama by his side) in 2016.
8. Elvis Presley helped raise money for the USS Arizona memorial fund.
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the building of a USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. Three years later, the king of rock ‘n roll put on a benefit concert to raise money for the project. Presley sang “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and 13 other classic songs before a roaring crowd of around 5000 fans in Pearl Harbor’s Bloch Arena. The big event raked in over $64,000 and created public interest in the memorial—which was officially dedicated in 1962.
9. After returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 crew made a pit stop in Pearl Harbor.
Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. Due to concerns about lunar diseases, the astronauts were confined to a quarantine trailer—which was ferried to Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Hornet. The contraption was later transported to Houston, Texas, with all three space travelers still inside.
10. The naval base at Pearl Harbor merged with another military property in 2010.
Prior to 2010, Pearl Harbor’s resident naval base and the neighboring Hickam Air Force Base were two separate properties. But that year, they were combined into the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. According to its website, the base "provides services comparable to a large city to a population of active duty from all services, guard, reserve, family members and retirees."
A version of this story originally ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2021.