A Brief History of Pearl Harbor Prior to World War II

Aerial view of Arizona Memorial and Mighty Mo Missouri battleship at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

Sean Davey/Aurora Photos/Getty Images

It was the native Hawaiians who originally called the Pearl Harbor area, "Wai Momi," meaning "Water of Pearl". It was also called "Puʻuloa". Pearl Harbor was the home of the shark goddess Ka'ahupahau and her brother (or son) Kahiʻuka. The gods were said to live in a cave at the entrance to Pearl Harbor and guard the waters against man-eating sharks.

Kaʻahupahau is said to have been born of human parentage but to have changed into a shark. These gods were friendly to man and it is said that the people of Ewa whom they protected would keep their backs scraped clean of barnacles. The ancients depended on Kaʻahupahau to protect the harbor's abundant fish ponds from intruders.

The harbor was teeming with pearl-producing oysters until the late 1800s. In the early days following the arrival of Captain James Cook, Pearl Harbor was not considered a suitable port due to a coral bar obstructing the Harbor entrance.

Pearl Harbor Museum
TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

The United States Obtains Exclusive Rights to Pearl Harbor

As part of the Reciprocity Treaty between the United States of America and the Hawaiian Kingdom of 1875 as Supplemented by Convention on December 6, 1884, and ratified in 1887, the United States obtained exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor as part of the agreement to allow Hawaiian sugar to enter the United States duty-free.

The Spanish American War (1898) and the need for the United States to have a permanent presence in the Pacific both contributed to the decision to annex Hawaii.

Following annexation, work began to dredge the channel and improve the harbor for the use of large navy ships. Congress authorized the creation of a naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1908. By 1914 other bases housing U.S. Marines, as well as Army personnel, were constructed in the area around Pearl Harbor. Schofield Barracks, constructed in 1909 to house artillery, cavalry and infantry units became the largest Army post of its day.

Hickam Air Force Base
 Bruce Clarke/Getty Images 

The Harbor Expands 1919 - 1941

Expansion work at Pearl Harbor was not, however, without controversy. When construction began in 1909 on the first dry dock, many native Hawaiians were outraged.

According to legend, the shark god lived in the coral caves under the site. Several collapses of the dry dock construction were attributed by the engineers to "seismic disturbances" but the native Hawaiians were sure that it was the shark god who was angry. The engineers devised a new plan and a kahuna was summoned to appease the god. Finally, after years of construction problems, the dry dock was opened in August of 1919.

In 1917 Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor was purchased for joint Army and Navy use in the development of military aviation. Over the following two decades, as Japan's presence in the world as a major industrial and military power began to grow, the United States began to keep more of its ships at Pearl Harbor.

In addition, the Army's presence was also increased. As the navy assumed full control of Ford Island, the Army was in need of a new base for its Air Corp station in the Pacific, thus construction of Hickam Field began in 1935 at the cost of over $15 million.

Pearl Harbor Hawaii
jimfeng / Getty Images

Pacific Fleet Established

When the war in Europe began to rage and tensions between Japan and the United States continued to increase, the decision was made to hold the Navy's 1940 fleet exercises in the area of Hawaii. Following those exercises, the fleet remained at Pearl. On February 1, 1941, the United States Fleet was reorganized into separate Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.

The newly formed Pacific Fleet was permanently based at Pearl Harbor. Further improvements were made to the channel and by mid-1941, the entire fleet was able to be birthed within the protective waters of Pearl Harbor, a fact not unobserved by the Japanese military command.

The decision to base the new Pacific Fleet at Pearl forever changed the face of Hawaii. Both the military and civilian workforce increased dramatically. New defense projects meant new jobs and thousands of workers moved to the Honolulu area from the mainland. Military families became a major group in the already diversified culture of Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor Memorial in Hawaii wall with names
FrozenShutter / Getty Images

A Much Different World Today

It has been over 60 years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii marked the entrance of The United States into World War II. Much has changed in the world since December 7, 1941. The world has seen several other wars - Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. The entire face of the globe, as we knew it in 1941, has changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists. China has grown to the status of a world power just as the sun has set on the British Empire.

Hawaii has become the 50th state and people of Japanese descent and those of mainland roots reside together in peace. The economic vitality of Hawaii today depends largely on tourism from both Japan and the U.S. mainland.

However, that was not the world on December 7, 1941. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese became an enemy of the United States. After almost four years of war, and countless dead on both sides, the Allies were victorious and Japan and Germany were left in ruin.

Japan, however, like Germany, has recovered even stronger than before. Today, Japan is an ally of The United States and one of our largest trading partners. Despite recent economic problems, Japan remains an economic power and arguably the major world power in the Pacific region.

People Visiting USS Arizona Memorial Pearl Harbor Hawaii
HaizhanZheng / Getty Images

Why We Remember

We remember the soldiers of the Allied and Axis powers, the millions of innocent non-combatants who lost their lives on all sides, including those of Hawaiian blood who died because their land, through an accident of nature, was a target due to its strategic location in the Pacific.

Was this page helpful?