HONOLULU, Hawaii -- Bob Kinzler and his buddies in Schofield Barracks were sleeping in, recovering from a late-night beach party, when the explosion shattered the Sunday-morning quiet. ``We thought it was something in the mess hall,'' Kinzler, a retired engineer, told the kids. Very quickly, the young soldiers realized it wasn't a kitchen fire: ``Pearl Harbor was a flood of deep orange flames,'' Kinzler said.
It was just before 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese had attacked, in one swift surprise strike decimating the U.S. Pacific Fleet and spurring the United States finally to enter World War II. On that day, 2,388 Americans died on Oahu -- their average age 23. Eight battleships sank; more than 170 aircraft were destroyed. Many other ships and planes were badly damaged. The USS Arizona sank in nine minutes, killing most of her crew -- 1,177 men, including more than 20 sets of brothers and one father and son who were all serving on the same ship.
They were buried at sea where they died, in their ship, just below where we were standing on the starkly beautiful USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, about three-quarters of a mile offshore. The 184-foot memorial spans the mid-portion of the sunken battleship. We could see the oil that still seeps from the ship's ruptured bunkers. The names of all the men who died are etched on the white marble wall. We stood silently, thinking about how we might have felt if one of those young soldiers had been part of our family.
In the memorial's museum back on shore, we see the letters some of the sailors had written home before they were killed and the condolence telegrams many of their families received afterward. There are huge photos of the burning ships.
Kinzler, president of the Oahu chapter of the survivors' association, told us one sailor, Charles Britton, was barely 17 when he died. Many were just out of high school. Children and young civilians were among the casualties that day, too. Pearl Harbor survivors, he told us, share their stories with visitors every day.
Nearby, kids and their parents can explore the World War II battleship Missouri. It was on the decks of the Missouri, of course, that Japan surrendered in 1945. Young military history buffs also will want to tour the USS Bowfin, the submarine nicknamed the ``Pearl Harbor Avenger,'' which sank 44 enemy ships.
The USS Arizona Memorial was that rare historic site that seemed to move the kids as much as it did me. It is a must-see for Oahu tourists, drawing nearly 1.5 million visitors annually, but Kinzler and others here worry that kids who visit no longer appreciate its significance.
``They have no idea when they come what happened here,'' said Kathy Billings, superintendent of the USS Arizona Memorial National Park. That may change next year when Disney releases ``Pearl Harbor,'' its big-budget retelling of the beginning of the war, complete with plenty of action, a love triangle and star Ben Affleck. If the film is a hit, the kids will be begging to come.
Meanwhile, the chance for such an important on-the-spot history lesson is just one reason families should include a stay in Oahu on their Hawaii itinerary and not skip it for more beach time on the outer islands. We loved Oahu precisely because there were plenty of beaches -- 125 miles worth -- along with so many other options to spend our time. ``You're not just stuck at a resort with nothing else to do,'' explained Californian Colleen Maxwell. ``It seemed cheaper, too.''
Sure, we had plenty of fun in the sun at Hilton's Hawaiian Village, the large (2,000-plus rooms) guaranteed-to-please-any-family resort on a spectacular stretch of Waikiki Beach. Young ``Baywatch Hawaii'' fans will recognize familiar locales from the TV show and, during the summer, can keep an eye out for the crew and stars who might be filming at the resort. But there was Diamond Head to climb (go early before it gets hot), the Waikiki Aquarium, the giant 1.7-mile-long garden maze at the Dole Pineapple Plantation, swimming with the dolphins at Sea Life Park and the chance to watch the surfers tackle the huge North Shore waves. The shopping especially pleased 14-year-old Reggie. She and 9-year-old Melanie loved the kitsch at the outdoor International Market Place built around a 100-year-old banyan tree.
The free Friday-night King's Jubilee at the Hilton was a big hit, too -- hula show, fireworks and keiki parade, though Melanie was too shy to participate.
I couldn't persuade the kids to tour with me around the island. (Spend an afternoon in a car when they could be swimming -- uh-uh.) Luckily, the Hilton, like other resorts here, has a well-organized kids' club. Melanie was glad to join the craft project of the day while I toured and Reggie worked on her tan.
One cold, cloudy morning, though, I dragged the kids away from the hotel to Hanauma Bay, the famous marine sanctuary that offers some of the most spectacular snorkeling in all of Hawaii. ``This place is great because the kids can see the fish without snorkeling,'' explained Kara Skinner, who moved to Hawaii with her Navy pilot husband and kids earlier this year and visits often. (Come early before all of the parking spaces are taken.) There were as many local parents and kids as tourists enjoying themselves. Wherever we went and wherever they were from, parents and kids were as enthusiastic about kid-friendly Oahu as we were. No wonder. It's a rare vacation spot that wins raves from kids and adults.
I know one family that will be back. My kids made me promise -- before the plane took off.
(NEXT: Surf's up, as growing numbers of wave-loving kids learn the sport.)
-- Call the USS Arizona Memorial at 808-422-2771 or www.nps.gov/usar. Pick up the Junior Ranger guide.
-- Kids eat free with parents at many of the Hilton Hawaiian Village restaurants. Ask about Bounceback rates starting at $209 that include continental breakfast. The all-day Keiki Club costs $32, including lunch, $10 less for siblings. Call 800-HILTONS or www.hilton.com.
-- Outrigger Hotels is offering a variety free family activities this summer from stargazing to moonlight tours of the Honololu Zoo. Visit their Web site at www.outrigger.com/familyfunguide and download a free Family Fun Guide to kid-friendly attractions and restaurants. Get a free night with a five-night stay with the Big Kahuna package, rates starting at $112 a night. Call 800-688-7444. Check the Web site for information about Outrigger's new bargain Ohana Hotels, with rates starting at $79 this summer, or call 800-462-6262.
-- Older parents and grandparents can save 25 percent and get the seventh night free with Aston's 50-plus rates at a condo or hotel. Call 800-922-7866 or www.aston-hotels.com.
-- Kids can play with the dolphins at the Kahala Mandarin Oriental and parents can swim with them. Summer rates start at $239, including breakfast for two. Families can also pay more but get a second room at half off and free Keiki Club with the family package. Call 800-367-2525 or www.mandarinoriental.com/kahala.
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate