June 18, 2008

Ewa's 'lost battlefield' of World War II may disappear under developments

Historian fighting to preserve base hit on Dec. 7, 1941

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

KALAELOA — Bushwhacking through knee-high weeds and thorny kiawe, John Bond points out the stretches of asphalt and concrete where World War II fighters once roared into the sky at the former 'Ewa Marine Corps Air Station.

There's not much left to see of the airfield, with only foundation outlines, a quonset hut and concrete building or two standing, but the original runways are still there.

Tucked away in a jungle on the old base are also dozens of arched concrete aircraft revetments, some of which are used as horse stables.

It's what happened here on Dec. 7, 1941, and how that long-neglected history could be paved over by future development, that's now of concern to Bond, who wants to see key parts of the base preserved.

The graphic artist and amateur historian imagines how up to 24 Japanese Zeroes attacked low and fast, striking some of the first blows in the minutes before Pearl Harbor was touched.

The defense was "heroic stuff," with Marines manning the machine gun of a damaged U.S. aircraft, Bond said.

"It's like a John Wayne movie at that point," Bond said. "People are firing .45s and Tommy guns. Man, what a movie that could have been. Nobody ever made it."

Nobody ever made it because few seem to even know that one of the first battles of World War II happened over 'Ewa Field, or, for that matter, that the base even existed.

Bond, who lives in 'Ewa Beach and has done a lot of research into the Marine Corps air station, has started a one-man campaign to preserve the original part of the airfield, which began as an airship mooring station in the mid 1920s, and grew considerably in size during the course of World War II.

Famous dogfights involving Japanese fighters and two Hale'iwa Field pilots — George Welch and Ken Taylor — occurred over 'Ewa Field on Dec. 7, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz drove through in 1944.

Many confuse the Marine Corps air station with the separate airfield at Barbers Point. 'Ewa Field lies just off Geiger Road where it skirts around the old runway to become Roosevelt Road.

Bond calls it the "Lost World War II Battlefield."

"There are guys who fly all the way out to the Pacific to hack through jungles to look for B-29 wheels or bullet hole fragments," Bond said. "But here's a base in urban Honolulu that was a battle where Marines were killed. The war started here, and there's not even hardly anything about it. It's amazing."

development feared

Bond's cause for concern is a planned land swap that could lead to development of the land.

The Navy, which owns the 'Ewa Field land, plans to lease to Ford Island Properties 499 acres for 40 years with an option to take title to the property.

The Navy said the lease still is being negotiated, with an agreement expected by the end of August. Ford Island Properties is part of the Hunt Development Group, and the deal grew out of a change to a previous agreement in which Ford Island Properties was granted leasehold interest to 40 acres on Ford Island.

Officials said Ford Island Properties planned to build 433 civilian residential units on Ford Island, but Navy concerns were raised about civilian home ownership on what is an active military base.

Hunt agreed to give up the Ford Island land in exchange for the 499 acres in Kalaeloa.

The Navy in January said the market value of Ford Island Properties' leasehold interest at Ford Island was appraised at $61 million, and the 499 acres at Kalaeloa — which includes much of the old 'Ewa Field land — was appraised at $75 million.

As part of the deal, Ford Island Properties will contribute $16.6 million toward improvements on Ford Island.

Steve Colon, president of the Hawai'i division of the Hunt Development Group, said in a statement that the Kalaeloa land "offers an opportunity to create needed jobs near the urban center of Kapolei," but added that specific plans have not been made for its use.

Bond believes Hunt will build shopping centers and expensive homes on the land, which abuts Barbers Point Golf Course.

The Navy said it conducted a "cultural resource inventory survey" in 1997 for Naval Air Station Barbers Point. According to the State Historic Preservation Office, 'Ewa Field was declared "excess" and was absorbed into the adjacent Barbers Point base in 1952.

Barbers Point was shuttered in 1999 by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Navy Region Hawai'i said in a statement that "it's honorable that Mr. Bond wants to preserve history, and we certainly understand his concerns about the airfield."

The Navy command said the long-term lease will recognize the center of the former 'Ewa Field airfield as being eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

land parceled out

That area encompasses about 4 to 5 acres where the runways crisscross, and where the original 1920s airship mooring mast and later control tower were located.

There also is further complication to Bond's hope that key parts of the old air base can be preserved. The Navy points out that as part of the base realignment and closure process, portions of 'Ewa Field are to be conveyed to other entities besides Hunt. They include:

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is to receive land to the south of the airfield with some of the concrete aircraft revetments.

The city is to get a portion of the main runway and land where a hangar once stood.

Bond wants a much larger area preserved than the 4 to 5 acres proposed by the Navy. He thinks sections of both runways that were in existence on Dec. 7, 1941, should be set aside, along with the old mooring mast and control tower locations, and some of the base entry roads in the vicinity of the intersection of Vinson and Philippine Sea.

"That's the original main gate," Bond said. "That's where FDR came through. That's a historic road."

The base grew in size during World War II, and Bond said he's not interested in all of the existing land, including the aircraft revetments that were built later in the war. It's the Dec. 7 sites that he's most focused on.

Bond is pursuing nomination of the base land to the National Register of Historic Places, and the preservation he'd like to see would require Hunt and the city to set aside land.

"This area's going to be nothing but shopping malls and housing tracts," he said. "Why the hell can't we have some green space parks here?"

'Ewa Field is deserving of the recognition for the actions that set it apart as one of the first areas to be attacked on Dec. 7 and for the response mustered by outgunned Marines, Bond said.

Kane'ohe Naval Air Station, and Wheeler, Hickam and Bellows fields also were struck in addition to Pearl Harbor.

selected targets

At the time of the attack, there were nearly 50 aircraft on the ground at 'Ewa Field. Most were damaged or destroyed in three passes by the Japanese. Four Marines were killed.

According to one account, Marine Air Group 21 based at 'Ewa had 11 Grumman F4F Wildcats, 32 Scout dive bombers and six utility planes.

An originally classified Defense Department report on the raid said that "so precise and well-executed were the individual attacks that it appeared as though each plane previously had selected its particular target."

The Japanese aircraft aimed at the wings of the aircraft on the ground "with the purpose of riddling them, and setting fire to the gas tanks in order to render them useless for pursuit and interception."

Marines fought back initially with only small arms and rifles, and a Marine Corps account of the attack noted that Lt. Yoshio Shiga, commander of nine Zero fighters, recalled one Leatherneck, who, oblivious to the machine gun fire striking the ground around him, stood transfixed, emptying his sidearm at Shiga's Zero as it roared past.

"Years later, Shiga would describe that lone, defiant, and unknown Marine as the bravest American he had ever met," the report states.

A wild card of sorts exists for possible preservation of 'Ewa Field in the form of President Bush's directive last month for the Defense Department and Interior Department to consider Pearl Harbor and other locations in the Pacific for possible nomination as national monuments.

Frank Hays, Pacific area director for the National Park Service, which falls under the Interior Department, said the park service would defer to the Defense Department on the possible nomination of 'Ewa Field.