By MC3 Diana Quinlan, Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Detachment Hawaii
The renovation and reopening of the harbor control tower at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) was celebrated with a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony April 25.
The harbor control tower is a historic water tank and signal tower located near the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard that survived the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Originally constructed in 1925 to serve as a harbor control tower to provide an observation deck for monitoring ship movement in Pearl Harbor waterways, the Pearl Harbor tower is the only one remaining of three original water towers built jointly by the U.S. Army and Navy in the 1920s.
“This signal tower was built on top of a water tower, a very small structure, and from that signal tower service members would use flag signals to direct naval traffic in and out of Pearl Harbor,” said Jim Neuman, historian for Navy Region Hawaii.
“The harbor patrol team does not use those signals anymore, but they are still the ones who are assisting in the navigation of ships, and it has been going on for 88 years right here. The technology may have changed but the function really is the same,” Neuman said.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Navy personnel stationed at the signal tower identified and confirmed the enemy air attack by Japanese war-planes in the bombing of Pearl Harbor and provided the first telephone call warning to Rear Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, saying, “Enemy air raid – not a drill.”
“On Dec. the 7, 1941, I was standing right there,” said Delton Walling, Pearl Harbor survivor, pointing to the left top of the tower’s observation deck.
“Of course, it was not the setup you have now. We just had a steel rail around with the six-foot cabin in the middle, so we were out in the weather. We did not have cover or anything.”
Walling recalled his experiences during the early Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor.
“As we were standing here atop the tower that morning, at 0756 we had the colors ready to go up as we heard the roar of planes,” remembered Walling. “There were about 182 planes that came in. We thought we had a great naval maneuver happening but then on second glance we saw the ‘Rising Sun,’ and we knew that something was amiss.”
As Walling described it, black objects started coming out of the planes, but neither he nor his crew comprehended at that moment what was about to happen until the bombs hit Ford Island.
“As I was looking where that last bomb landed, another one was exploding right near us,” Walling said, describing the events.
“When I’m … telling all the stories about Pearl Harbor, I don’t feel the same emotions as being here in Hawaii, standing on this deck,” explained Walling.
“Here, I get overwhelmed with emotions. This is my last, maybe, last time being here. Time waits for no one, and it is not going to wait for this old Sailor,” he said.
Capt. Jeffrey James, commander of JBPHH, thanked everyone in attendance for their support and help in reconstructing the tower and expressed personal appreciation to Walling for attending and seeing his old post rebuilt.
“Not only does this tower serve a current, functional purpose but it is a monument – a monument to our history, to the Navy and to Pearl Harbor. I am very honored to be here today,” James said.
Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Hawaii awarded the contract to renovate the tower to contractor Nan Inc. The construction and repair included re-engineering and a significant amount of metal replacement. Once structural repairs were finished, new epoxy paint was applied to ensure protection of the historic tower from the harsh salt air environment along the harbor front. The steel-framed freestanding tower is nearly 200 feet high and supports a 40-foot diameter water tank and control tower office.
Other significant elements of the project included replacing the stairway from the control office to the balcony level walkway, adding an additional stairway to meet the fire code, new stairway lighting, protection from lightning, and a fire alarm system in the control office.
These upgrades have transformed the tower into a safe, functional space to accommodate port operations employees while still retaining its historical elements.
Today the harbor control tower still continues the tradition of overseeing the inbound and outbound movements of all vessels in the Pearl Harbor waterways. As the first line of defense in protecting the five lochs, the tower watch standers assist the anti-terrorism officer in the safe passage of maritime traffic in Pearl Harbor.