Pearl Harbor is well known because of the surprise Japanese attack during World War II that brought the United States into the war. But Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, had a rich history long before that infamous day in December. Teach kids facts about Pearl Harbor’s history, legends and current use as well as the attack.

Beginnings

Hawaiian warriors wooden carved sculptures
Hawaiian warriors wooden carved sculptures

Pearl Harbor was called both Wai Momi and Pu’uloa by early Hawaiians. Wai Momi means “pearl water,” and Pu’uloa means “long hill.” Legends said that Pearl Harbor was where the shark goddess, Ka’ahupahau, lived.

U.S. in Pearl Harbor

USS Paul Hamilton entering Pearl Harbor
USS Paul Hamilton entering Pearl Harbor

The United States had noticed that Hawaii -- and Pearl Harbor, in particular -- was a good place to have a naval base in the Pacific Ocean. The kingdom of Hawaii and the United States ratified a Reciprocity Treaty in 1887 and allowed the United States Navy to use the harbor as a base.

Naval Stations

USS Russell near Naval Station Pearl Harbor dock
USS Russell near Naval Station Pearl Harbor dock

The Navy first docked at a harbor at Honolulu and referred to it as Naval Station, Honolulu, then Naval Station, Hawaii. It wasn’t until 1908 that the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was officially founded. Over the next 11 years, the United States Navy continued to work on expanding and improving the harbor.

December 7th, 1941

Aerial view of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor taken from Japanese plane; Dec. 7, 1941
Aerial view of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor taken from Japanese plane; Dec. 7, 1941

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called this day “a date which will live in infamy” because of the attack. On this date, Japanese forces attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base with no warning. The United States had been reluctant to join the Allies in World War II, but this attack showed the U.S. that isolation was not an option.

Aftermath of the Attack

USS Arizona burning in Pearl Harbor during Japanese attack, to the left is the USS Tennessee and USS West Virginia
USS Arizona burning in Pearl Harbor during Japanese attack, to the left is the USS Tennessee and USS West Virginia

The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,402 U.S. Navy personnel and wounded 1,282. Fifteen ships and 188 aircraft were also destroyed, dealing a major blow to U.S. Naval Forces at Pearl Harbor. Many soldiers were trapped in ships and drowned in the harbor before they could be rescued while others were killed instantly in the attack. The United States declared war on Japan because of the attack on December 7, 1941. As a response, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States since they were allies with Japan.

Pearl Harbor Today

U.S. Marine Corp gun salute in front of the USS Missouri
U.S. Marine Corp gun salute in front of the USS Missouri

The Pearl Harbor Navy base is still an active navy base today. The base is home to much of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet. Although there is a memorial at the harbor, visitors are only allowed in certain areas as the rest are only available to military access.

Visiting Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona memorial looms in background below U.S. Flag
USS Arizona memorial looms in background below U.S. Flag

The USS Arizona Memorial was established in 1958 and visitors can watch documentaries, purchase resources and learn about the day of the attack. Kids can get on the ship and find interpretive exhibits to learn more about Pearl Harbor.