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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017


The Boys of the Corps 
Story By: Shannon Wianecki

The outlook in 1933 was bleak. Nearly half of the country’s banks had failed. Some fifteen million Americans were unemployed and increasingly hungry. Apocalyptic dust storms were laying waste to farms in the Midwest. It was the nadir of the Great Depression. But it was also the year that Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and introduced the New Deal, a comprehensive series of government programs and reforms designed in part to rejuvenate the American workforce. Among the first New Deal initiatives was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed thousands of young men through public works projects in rural areas. For more than a few idle lads in the middle of the North Pacific, this was great news.

Roosevelt launched the New Deal with remarkable speed, though it still took almost a year for the CCC to reach the Hawaiian Islands. In January of 1934, Hawaii National Park superintendent Edward Wingate announced the establishment of two federal Triple C camps: the main camp at Kilauea on Hawai‘i Island for 175 men and a side camp at Haleakala on Maui for 25 men.

Although the Territory of Hawaii fared better than the Mainland during the Depression, it still suffered. Sugar and pineapple plantation workers saw their hours and wages cut. Smaller plantations folded. Thousands of Filipino sugar workers were deported. Crime was up. In the quiet Upcountry Maui town of Makawao, two unemployed pineapple workers were arrested in 1933 after stealing sweaters and canned goods from the T. Komoda Store; one of them said that “hunger and lack of a job” led them to commit the crime. The following year, two teenage brothers from Lahaina stole $976 from of the Bank of Hawaii in Pa‘ia, on Maui’s north shore. It was Hawai‘i’s first bank robbery.

When 18-year-old Alvin “Rex” Ornellas lost his job at the American Can Company, his father wasn’t about to let him loaf at home. The elder Ornellas sent his son to the new CCC office in Wailuku, which was recruiting young men to plant trees and build trails. Triple C enrollees received food, shelter and $30 a month—$25 of which was automatically sent home to their families. The recruits ate well. In the first year, camp commanders reported their “boys” each gained an average of nine and three-quarter pounds. 

Alvin Ornellas belonged to the CCC’s first Haleakala crew. It was a fitting assignment; he was born on July 4, 1916—just a month before Congress created Hawaii National Park, predecessor of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park. One century later Ornellas is the guest of honor at a party held at the Haleakala National Park visitor center. It is 2016 and both the man and the park are celebrating their hundredth birthdays. Attendees enjoy birthday cake and listen to “Uncle Rex”—still fit and whip-smart—tell stories about shoeing mules, chasing pigs and dodging trouble while building some of the state’s most treasured landmarks during his time in the CCC.

On his first day as a corpsman, Ornellas rode a truck with twenty-two other recruits up Haleakala. He’d never been to the top of the 10,023-foot-tall mountain. At that time, very few people had. Getting there was an all-day adventure. The road wasn’t complete; the pavement ended at eight thousand feet. “We walked from there to our stone house, carrying our bags of rice, poi, water—everything,” Ornellas tells his rapt audience.

The old Kalahaku Rest House was cramped quarters for the two dozen corpsmen, but it provided protection from the summit’s relentless sun, bone-chilling winds and occasional snowstorms. At night the men shuttered the windows and bur-rowed into their bunks. By morning the water for the horses would be frozen two inches thick in its barrel. The crew’s first task was to build a 2.5-mile trail from Kalahaku to the top of White Hill. The men dug into the lava rocks with picks and shovels. “There was already a trail, but we improved it,” says Ornellas. “We made it real good, up to federal standards—three feet wide and smooth as a sidewalk. When we finished a section, we would sweep it with yard brooms.”

Working in the extreme weather could be brutal. “On Maui we had no uniform, not even a good warm jacket,” says Ornellas.“Most of us had our own jackets, homemade kind. I didn’t have a jacket. My family was poor.” Within the first month, one corpsman died of pneumonia. “After that,” says Ornellas, “when the weather was bad, we stayed indoors.” 

Meanwhile, highway engineers finished paving the remainder of the road leading up to Haleakala. “The Speedway to the Sun,” as it was called, opened with a huge celebration in 1935. Dignitaries arrived by steamship for the dedication, wearing piles of lei heaped over their wool coats. The CCC boys served as valets for the 320 cars that crowded the summit. Lured by the new road and trails, tourists visiting the mountain increased exponentially.

For the next project, the Triple C crew migrated from Haleakala’s summit into the crater. The men lived in military-style pup tents at Holua while constructing the Halemau‘u Trail. Ornellas was promoted to assistant mule packer and got a $6 raise. He shared a tent with his boss, Lawrence Oliveira from Nahiku. “We became good friends,” says Ornellas. “He was a real mountain man. I learned how to hunt.” Neither guns nor dogs were allowed in camp, but an exception was made for Oliveira, who chased down wild goats and pigs with his two dogs, Prince and Queenie. “I loved those dogs,” says Ornellas. Queenie slept at the foot of his bunk.

The mule packers hauled supplies down Sliding Sands Trail to Holua, Kapalaoa and Paliku, where skilled contractors built the wilderness cabins in which people hiking the crater still sleep today. Using mamane logs and lava rocks, Oliveira helped build the footbridge between the Paliku visitor center and the ranger cabins. It, too, is still in use.

On their days off the men rambled all over the mountain, scaling cinder cones, exploring lava tubes and hiking up above Paliku to lake Wai‘anapanapa. “Not too many people have been there,” says Ornellas proudly. They caught pigs and carried live pregnant sows back to camp, where they raised piglets to cook in an imu (underground oven). They played cards, sang songs and sparred with one another. When Ornellas returned to Holua for a second term in 1936, he arrived during the middle of a boxing match. “They told me, ‘Eh, you want to fight?’ So I had to fight, brand new, just joined that day! But I won. I came from lower Pa‘ia, where we had a lot of rough guys.”

Ornellas is now such a sweet-tempered old man it’s hard to imagine him as a “rough guy,” though he was definitely kolohe (mischievous) in his day. He described being scolded for sneaking off the mountain in the camp’s truck, drinking the captain’s secret stash of booze and abandoning his post to attend a family lu‘au. And those, he says, are just things he didn’t get away with. Hijinks aside, the Haleakala crew managed to build or improve many of the crater’s major trails. Corpsmen cut the Halemau‘u switchbacks out of sheer cliffs, creating a gently graded path bordered in places by rock walls up to ten feet high. Despite thick fog, falling boulders and other hazards, they did not lose anyone over the edge—with the exception of one unlucky mule.

Both Ornellas and Oliveira worked at other Triple C sites in Hawai‘i. In addition to the federal camps at Kilauea and Haleakala, there were four territorial camps with multiple auxiliary locations across the Islands. The smallest CCC camp in the nation was nestled in the Maunahui forest on Moloka‘i, where young men built trails and planted kukui trees. All of the camps had similar missions: plant trees, build fences and footpaths, collect seeds and fight fires. But some locales had special jobs. The crew at Wahiawa on O‘ahu managed a bird and game farm. And the crew at Ha‘iku, Maui, logged 5,666 days eradicating giant African snails.

Oliveira spent time in camps at Ke‘anae and Polipoli, where Roosevelt’s Tree Army, as the CCC was called, earned its nick-name planting twelve million trees in the forest reserves. His cousin Eddie Oliveira also worked at Ke‘anae. In a 1998 interview for an oral history project, Eddie recalled playing softball and basketball against rival CCC camps. “It was nice, we had a lot of fun,” he said. “They gave you work clothes, boots, everything to go to work, all you needed, and a bunk.” His camp had a gymnasium and a small store. The old gym building still exists, now occupied by the Ke‘anae YMCA.

The only Hawai‘i CCC camp still relatively intact is on Kaua‘i. Tucked away at Koke‘e State Park, the cool, tree-shaded camp has three barracks and a handful of rustic buildings constructed in 1935. A stone fireplace stands sentry in the grassy quadrangle—the lone reminder of the recreation hall destroyed in 1982 by Hurricane Iwa. According to Manuel Castillo, a former Kaua‘i corpsmen, the cabins were built with lumber floated ashore at Port Allen and hauled up to Koke‘e on a dirt horse trail. The saltwater immersion provided the lumber natural termite protection, and the “temporary” structures still stand strong eighty years later. Today, groups can rent out the camp and sleep in bunkhouse cots just like the CCC boys did.

Like all of Hawai‘i’s Triple C recruits, the one hundred or so “Koke‘e Mountaineers” were a racially diverse lot: Hawaiian, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and northern European. Hawai‘i was unique in this regard—Mainland camps were racially segregated. A 1935 photo taken in front of the barracks shows sixty-five groomed young men in ties. Their mission was to restore the watershed that had been damaged by feral cattle, goats and an 1887 fire. Between 1935 and 1942, the Kaua‘i crew planted nearly one million silver oak, sandalwood, kukui, eucalyptus and pine trees in the mountains. With picks and shovels they built the cliff-hugging Kalalau Trail and Alaka‘i Swamp Trail. The plum, apple, pear, chestnut and persimmon trees they planted around the barracks still yield fruit.

Across the United States, the CCC boys fortified the infrastructure of state and national parks, bolstered local economies with the money they sent home and learned trades that served them throughout their lives. “The only skill I learned in the crater was to carry big rocks, make trails and shoe horses,” Ornellas says. “But I spent one year on the Big Island and learned a trade there. I became a lineman, a telephone man, an electrician, and later on I became a radioman for the telephone company and that was my life’s work.”

After leaving Haleakala, Ornellas and his best friend, Woodrow Wilson Chance, spent a few months carousing on O‘ahu. They got matching tattoos; a blurry black cat, the number thirteen and the word “Maui” can still be seen on Ornellas’ arm. When he and Chance ran out of money, they caught a ship to Hilo and signed on to work near the active volcano. The Kilauea CCC camp was the largest in Hawai‘i, with two hundred men. “We slept in barracks, maybe thirty to a building,” says Ornellas. “I was in bunkhouse number five.”

Retired Hilo Electric Light Company employee Levi Maka taught Ornellas how to wire houses and climb poles. Other men learned carpentry and masonry. The Triple C built the park rangers’ quarters: nice, three bedroom houses with fine fireplaces. The trail crew hammered out the Hilina Pali Trail that leads to the ocean.

Kilauea wasn’t as remote as Haleakala; corpsmen could easily travel to Hilo during their days off. One year Ornellas marched with the CCC in Hilo’s Kamehameha Day parade. “Two hundred of us! We were proud,” he says. “We had uniforms and everything.” Typically only a percentage of the corpsmen would go on leave. “Otherwise we would overrun the town,” laughs Ornellas. He and his bunkmates attended dances and flirted with local girls. He was the designated truck driver but lost the privilege after getting drunk too many times. He stoked trouble on the camp boxing team, too. “A few of us who were overweight would take our clothes off and put on our raincoats, naked,” he says. “We’d run all the way down to the sulfur banks. We’d squat over a lava tube—we figured we’d lose a few pounds in the steam.” Tourists reported the alarming sight to the boys’ superiors.

It’s probably for the best that Ornellas was still on Haleakala when the big boss paid a visit. On July 24, 1934, Roosevelt became the first sitting president to visit Hawai‘i. He toured Kilauea, heard a speech by volcanologist Thomas Jagger, and offered a bunch of ‘ohelo berries to the fire goddess, Pele.

When the United States joined the war, the military absorbed the CCC’s trained and more-or-less disciplined men, including Ornellas, who spent five years in the U.S. Army. Over the course of its eight-plus-year history, the CCC employed 7,195 men in the Territory of Hawaii. The celebrated program came to an end in 1942, though its legacy remains in parks and wilderness areas across the United States.