The Pearl Harbor structure stood tall and proud during the 1941 Japanese attack but has fallen into disrepair
By William Cole, Honolulu Star Advertiser
Ken DeHoff calls it the Empire State Building of Pearl Harbor.
Right now the iconic control tower on Ford Island is a beacon of rust and neglect.
But DeHoff, executive director of the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, sees beyond that to the day the eye-catching, 158-foot-tall, riveted-steel complex will be a magnet for World War II research, and could possibly offer one of the best panoramas in town.
Viewed from the crow's-nest, Pearl Harbor and Ford Island sprawl out below, with Diamond Head to the east. Even the "Mighty Mo" battleship looks small from the 150-foot-high top deck.
As far back as 2001, officials of the nonprofit Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island envisioned leasing the adjacent landmark tower. The Navy and the museum finally signed the deal on Sept. 2.
DeHoff provided last week a rare inside look ahead of what likely will be a years-long renovation that could cost $10 million.
"There's just so much history in aviation right here on Ford Island," DeHoff said.
Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart crashed on Ford Island's Luke Field in 1937, and the Pan Am Clipper made landings nearby in the same era.
On Dec. 7, 1941, one of the first radio broadcasts of the Pearl Harbor attack was made from the tower. According to published reports, at 7:58 a.m., Vice Adm. Patrick Bellinger, the commander of Patrol Wing 2, announced, "Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!"
"It (the control tower) has been seen by millions of people, whether it's on land looking at it from the Arizona Memorial or looking at it in the movies 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' and 'Pearl Harbor,'"
DeHoff said. "It's a landmark, and once we make a building a landmark, I think America wants us to preserve it. Not much different than the Liberty Bell, not much different than the (historic Navy ship) USS Constitution."
If this were a home, however, it would be listed as a "handyman special." The faded red and white paint is visible from a distance. Up close, rust is evident on the 17 flights of metal stairs -- 142 steps in all -- that zigzag up the mauka side.
Although the stairs are still solid enough to walk on, corrosion has eaten holes through parts of the metal walkways.
Graffiti, broken glass and beer bottles litter the adjacent operations building. Dust and grime and peeling paint are everywhere.
There is asbestos to deal with in ceiling and floor tiles in the operations building, and lead-based paint on the water tank tower, DeHoff said.
The first phase of the restoration will be to board up windows, re-roof the buildings and remove the asbestos. After that will come the tower.
"What we have so far is about $4 million to get started, and that's to take care of the steel structure and take care of the cap which sits on top of the tank," DeHoff said.
Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie was "instrumental" in securing $3.84 million in federal funding for the project, he said.
Either a water-blasting or sandblasting process is being looked at to remove the old paint. What color goes back on the historic structure still needs to be determined. The tower early on was camouflaged, DeHoff said.
DeHoff, a Cobra helicopter pilot in Vietnam, hopes to have scaffolding and barrier fabric going up around the tower by the first of the year.
The museum will have to raise funds for the additional restoration cost, and that is being rolled into a $100 million capital campaign to further expand the museum. The museum's annual fundraising dinner will be held Dec. 2.
The control tower deck is now empty of the radios, furniture and other equipment that would have been there in the 1940s.
The tower itself was a dark color at the time of the attack, and the crow's-nest had not been completed but the rest of the complex was there, according to the Navy.
Bombs blew out low-level windows.
The naval air station was decommissioned in 1962, officials said, and from 1970 to 1999 the airfield was used for touch-and-go landings for civilian pilots.
In the early 1990s, the first floor of the operations building had a garage, kitchen, dining room, officers mess, training room, bunk room and offices. The second floor had offices and a one-time chapel that was used later for storage space.
Above the operations building, the four-story aerological tower now holds an old refrigerator, a chair and desk, and not much else.
The former chapel is a jumble of junk, including some empty filing cabinets, chairs and an electric typewriter. About the only vintage electronic device is a tall "Carillonic Bells" machine likely used in the chapel.
The museum plans to put in offices and a public research center on the first floor of the operations building.
"I want a place where people can come and sit and read about World War II, whether it's the Marines or the Army or the Air Force or the Navy, that this is a place you can comfortable sit and do research and find out what happened in the Pacific," DeHoff said.
The long-range restoration estimate of $7.5 million does not include repairs to the five-person elevator that runs up one side of the tower.
"I've still got to do the elevator because I still want to be able to take people to the top of the control tower -- 150 feet up," DeHoff said.
Last week, Fred Harris, 76, stood craning his head skyward as he took in the tower.
"I'm drawn to this because I'm amazed it's still standing after all the activity of 1941," said Harris, a Vancouver, B.C., resident who was visiting the aviation museum.
"I think it's absolutely superb. I think it's something that is history and should be maintained," Harris added. "There are too many things that are historical and just let go, and history is gone. You can't get that back."
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
The crow’s-nest of the Ford Island control tower stands at 158 feet, atop a red-and-white water tank. At the base of the water tank is a two-story operations building. The iconic tower has fallen into disrepair, covered in rust and filled with debris.