Most tours of Pearl Harbor include stops at the museums and monuments on Ford Island. Located in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Ford Island is a 441-acre island that’s prominent in both Hawaiian culture and American history. While it’s best known as the location of Battleship Row, the scene of massive destruction during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford Island also played a prominent role in military aviation.
Known today as Ford Island, the island was known to the Hawaiian people as Moku’ume’ume, meaning “island of attraction.” The history of American involvement on the island dates back to the mid-19th century. The island got its current name from Dr. Seth Porter Ford who came into possession of it through marriage. Not long after Ford’s death, the island became the focus of interest for the United States military. Though Hawaii was at the time an independent kingdom, the United States had been on the lookout for a base that could help provide a defense to its Pacific coast.
Making a Decision
In 1873, Army Major General John M. Schofield and Lieutenant Colonel Burton S. Alexander arrived on Oahu to survey the island for possible military base locations. While they looked at many parts of Oahu, their attention was drawn to the small island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. In the initial report to the Secretary of War, which was the first discussion about obtaining Pearl Harbor for military use, the two suggested that the island would be well-suited for naval stores and military equipment.
Toward the end of World War I, Captain John Curry established the 6th Aero Squadron, and negotiated the purchase of Ford Island as its base. Though Fort Kamehameha had been his first choice, after further investigation he decided that Ford Island would be the ideal location for his squadron.
The island seemed to be a natural fit for an air station, including a suitable approach and access to water for landings and take-offs. Perhaps the most important consideration, however, was that it was cheap and land on Oahu wasn’t easy to come by.
US Military Presence on Ford Island
On September 25, 1917, after the sale of land from the John Papa Ii Estate to the United States was complete, the 6th Aero Squadron left its temporary home at Fort Kamehameha and set up shop on the island under the command of Captain John B. Brooks. In the years that followed, much of Ford Island was cleared to make way for the first Army Air Service Station – Luke Field.
Luke Field Leads to Hickam Field
Named for World War I fighter pilot and Medal of Honor recipient Frank Luke, Luke Field housed the 6th Aero, which was made up of pursuit craft and bombers. Sixty-six bombers were based at the new airfield and by the end of 1935 Luke field was so overwhelmed with craft that a second air base needed to be constructed nearby.
To accommodate the overflow, the US Navy was eventually given control of Ford Island and the Army constructed what would later be known as Hickam Field, just onshore. In 1940, all Army assets on Luke Field were transported to Hickam. Within a year, on December 7, 1941, the newer Army field became one of the many targets struck during the Pearl Harbor attack. A Japanese Strike Force flew into Oahu’s airspace with the intention of crippling the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. To prevent an aerial counterattack, Japanese pilots devastated airfields across the island, including Hickam Army Airfield.
Along with Hickam, the Ford Island Naval Air Station also became a target of the Japanese fighters and bombers. On the morning of the attack, there were 70 planes stationed on Ford Island. Over the course of the two-hour assault, 33 of those were completely destroyed, nearly halving the number of functional aircraft.
With the nation at war, Ford Island was forced to take on more aircraft, which required a larger runway. By the time the runway was large enough to accommodate the PBY Flying Boat squadron and additional warplanes, it covered the entirety of the island’s center. For 16 years after the end of World War II, Ford Island Naval Air Station remained in service. In 1962, its designation as an active air base was removed, but its runway wouldn’t go to waste.
In 1970, Ford Island welcomed civilian pilot training, and aviation activity continued until 1999. Today, Ford Island is home to the Battleship Missouri and the USS Oklahoma and USS Utah Memorials, and the Pacific Aviation Museum is located in two of the former air station’s remaining hangers.