Inside Fortress O'ahu
story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Dana Edmunds
By the late 1930s, O‘ahu, the capital island of the Territory of Hawai‘i, had become a heavily fortified US military outpost with state-of-the-art shore batteries, airfields, troop formations, fuel depots, even underground command centers, all of it installed and operated by the US Army and its Air Corps to guard the strategic US naval presence at Pearl Harbor, designated a “first-class base” for Pacific Fleet operations in 1919.
But in the wake of Japan’s devastating surprise air attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and with real fear of a full-scale Japanese invasion, defense construction on the island reached new, almost feverish levels. As the war effort peaked in 1943-44, O‘ahu’s military population maxed out at 300,000 personnel. By the time Japan surrendered in 1945, it is said that O‘ahu was the most heavily armed place in the world.
"Fortress O'ahu," they called it.
O'ahu's major military bases cluster in the south-central part of the island and include Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Hickam Air Force Base, Fort Shafter Army Post and Schofield Barracks (including Wheeler Field). Farther afield is Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base Hawaii on the eastern coast of the island. The bases, which control 20 percent of O'ahu's land area, contain nine different sites designated National Historic Landmarks, making the island home to the most concentrated collection of active - and historic - military bases in the nation. Furthermore, federal historic-preservation law now ensures that the treasure trove of 20th-century architectural styles represented on the bases will survive.
Yet because of access issues (especially now, in wartime), few civilians know what goes on behind the gates or have any idea how storied many of the sites and buildings are. It's as though several separate walled principalities occupied a big chunk of the island, with 100,000 strangers living in them, with traditional cultures and stories all their own.
Palm Circle, Fort Shafter
Palm Circle at Fort Shafter is the oldest permanent US Army post in Hawai‘i and a designated National Historic Landmark. Serene on Kahauiki ridge, just above the Moanalua Freeway in West Honolulu, the circle isand has been, through six wars the nerve center for Army activities in the Pacific. Tucked into a corner of the circle is Richardson Hall, a.k.a. the “Pineapple Pentagon,” headquarters for the Army’s Pacific command and built in a hurry (forty-nine days) in 1944. The circle’s other perimeter buildings are nearly all original to the first phases of construction begun in 1905. The 200 iconic royal palms encircling the parade ground were planted in 1908; today Palm Circle is perhaps the most beautiful military campus on O‘ahu.
Among the row of boxy, lanai-wrapped, look-alike officers’ mansions that dominate the circle’s northwest side, Quarters 5 was designated for the post commander. Eventually it became the official residence of the Army’s commanding general for Hawai‘i and the Pacific. As Pacific affairs became more central to US affairs, the house and its lanai expanded, and tenants, schooled in warfare, found themselves becoming diplomats.
West Point graduate Thomas Wells, son of Commanding Maj. Gen. Briant H. Wells, lived with his parents in Quarters 5 from 1931 to 1934 while serving as his father’s aide. Interviewed by Army historians in 2007, the 101-year-old retired colonel remembered visits by President Franklin Roosevelt, Will Rogers and Shirley Temple and described a lively lunch attended by French and German naval officers: “[The Germans] were in port for three or four days,” Wells said. “My dad made a luncheon. They were all very pro-Hitler at the time. The wine flowed rather heavily.”
He vividly recalled a salty, foul-mouthed, polo-playing major, one George S. Patton, who lived next door in Quarters 6, and admitted to dating Patton’s daughter Ruth. “She had her father’s vocabulary,” he recalled.
Patsy Bagnal, wife of Commanding Lt. Gen. Charles W. Bagnal, took her hostess duties seriously during four years in Quarters 5 in the 1980s. Her guests were “many heads of state of the Pacific and Indian Ocean nations, defense chiefs, ambassadors, governors and our own ambassadors and chiefs of services, of course, along with their wives.” In her 2007 letter to Army historians, Bagnal counted ninety-nine formal dinner parties given at Quarters 5 during her husband’s tenure, a number documented by the menus she saved. Serious about her responsibilities, Bagnal admitted that she “turned back the clock” and consulted a 1950 Officers’ Guide to Protocol and Entertaining to help her, with its rules about calligraphic place cards stipulating the guest’s name and title, a listing of the meal’s courses and, on the cover, an ink sketch of the quarters. Her pantry contained 1,600 pieces of china, silver and crystal.
“After dinner, demitasse was served on the lanai,” she wrote.
Marine Barracks, Pearl Harbor
The US Navy dredged the first deep-draft channel into its coaling station at Pearl Harbor in 1903, and suddenly the US had a strategically important naval station in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To guard it, the Navy, as usual, called in the US Marines. The fifty-man contingent was given an acre on the naval station’s southern edge, along with a floorless coal shed, circa 1842, that would serve as headquarters and barracks. Thus did the Marines spend their first years in paradise bivouacked in a coal shed.
A century later the “Marine Barracks” at Pearl Harbor Naval Station is a 5-acre campus built around a parade ground and shaded by mature monkeypod, banyan and coconut trees with no Marines in sight. USMC-Hawai‘i headquarters moved to Camp Smith in 1956, and the last guard company left the barracks in the 1990s. But it’s still there and protected by law.
The first permanent buildings were completed in 1914: a row of four three-storey masonry officers’ quarters, painted a crisp white, which look like modernist Italian villas peeking out from behind towering hedges of mock orange, panax and hibiscus. Across the parade ground stands Puller Hall, a dignified three-storey concrete barracks converted to administrative uses and now slated for renovation. Both were designed by Washington, D.C., architect Jules Henri de Sibour, who did many large houses, hotels and embassies in the capital.
Just prior to World War II, the perimeter of the parade ground was filled in by quick construction of simple wooden barracks, mess and galley buildings and warehouses. Today this relatively intact complex is considered an important example of WWII-era military design and construction, and several of the buildings have been restoredat considerable costto their original condition. Except for the sylvan effects of the landscaping, the Marine Barracks campus remains almost completely unchanged since WWII, a fact that guaranteed its inclusion in the Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark district, designated in 1964.
One more thing: As any Marine will guess, Puller Hall’s namesake was Lt. Gen. Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated US Marine in history. Known for his heroics at Guadalcanal in 1942 and during the Korean War, Puller served twice as commander of the Marine Barracks at Pearl Harbor and lived in one of the villas. His terse report from a battlefield in Korea: “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.” For that battle, he was awarded his fifth Navy Cross.
"Hotel Hickam,” Hickam Air Force Base
At 7:30 Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, Pvt. Russ Tener, a 23-year-old administrative clerk with the 18th Bomber Wing of the Army Air Corps at Hickam Field, was shaken awake by a buddy. The mess hall closed at 8 a.m.; did he want breakfast? No, so they “shot the bull” for awhile, until a loud explosion and the sound of low-flying planes startled them. Must be field artillery or pilots practicing, they thought.
Airman Tener’s bunk was in the huge, brand-new and ultramodern Consolidated Barracks Building, nicknamed “Hotel Hickam” by its inhabitants. Located directly behind the airfield’s Hangar Row, the three-storey, nine-wing complex housed 3,200 enlisted men. The concrete building was painted white and of streamlined construction with no glass in the windows, only screens.
“But quickly,” Tener wrote in a 1982 memoir he submitted to Air Force historians, “the disturbing sounds of gunfire and repeated concussion-like sounds dispelled that thought. I quickly dashed to the window to get a view. My first sight was a low-flying plane with a distinctive Rising Sun emblem on the side. I shouted ‘Dog-fighting, hell! They’re Jap planes!’ The panic that ensued was uncontrollable. Lots of shouting. ‘Get out and away from the barracks! It’s a target!’
“As I made my way across the parade ground, pandemonium erupted as lowflying.aircraft came streaking toward the mob of fleeing men with their machine-guns strafing, while dive bombers were unloading their bombs. I was literally dodging bombs. Then I saw an enemy plane falling in flames. I still recall my thoughts at that time: ‘Christ, this is real. They are going to kill all of us.’ At this time, I heard someone shout, ‘Where the hell is Superman?!’”
Hickam Field, now a National Historic Landmark, was activated in 1938 as the largest and most modern Air Corps post in the country. With its ten big hangars on Hangar Row servicing B-17, B-18 and A-20 bombers, Hickam was also a primary target for the Japanese surprise attack: Both Hangar Row and Hotel Hickam suffered serious damage from strafing and direct bomb hits. Thirty-five airmen were killed when a bomb found Hotel Hickam’s mess hall. In all, Hickam Field suffered 492 dead and wounded, and the destruction of sixty-four aircraft.
In 1957, Hotel Hickam was converted to offices and became the headquarters for the Pacific Air Forces Command. Strafing scars still mar the sleek concrete.
Building 1, Pearl Harbor
The impressive 440-foot south front of Building 1 underscores the importance of the Naval Shipyard (or “the Yard”) to the history of Pearl Harbor Naval Base. Just behind the orderly façade and shady front lawn is Hawai‘i’s largest industrial enterprise, whose harbor-front machine shops, dry docks, foundries and forges played a key role in establishing and sustaining American naval dominance in the Pacific.
The original two-storey, ten-bay Building 1 was erected in 1913 as the Yard’s first administrative center. It was a status maintained throughout most of the 20th century, during which the building quintupled in size as various commands and support staff moved in and out, including the former 14th Naval District Command. During WWII the District’s Combat Intelligence Unit cracked Japanese naval codes from cramped quarters in the basement known as the “dungeon.” A little the worse for wear, Building 1 now serves as a catchall office building for various basewide administrative functions.
The Dec. 7 attack, which severely damaged four ships in the Yard’s dry docks, provoked shipyard workers into high-gear heroics, first tearing into the hulls of overturned ships in agonizing efforts to rescue trapped sailors, then getting eighteen of the twenty-one crippled warships back into shape to fight the new world war. That salvage effort is considered unmatched in history. At its busiest, the Yard employed 25,000 civilians and 7,000 assigned sailors and Marines; its ledgers count 7,000 ship repairs made between 1941 and 1945.
Perhaps the Yard’s most amazing single feat was the 72 hours it took 1,400 workers to repair the USS Yorktown carrier, severely damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. She limped into Pearl on May 27, 1942. Despite estimates of a six-month overhaul, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz ordered a three-day turnaround, and she sailed out again on May 30, fit to fight valiantly in the Battle of Midway until she was sunk slowly and with many survivorsby multiple bomb and torpedo hits.
Walking along Building 1’s wide open-air corridors today, the place seems to thrum with the ghostly static of urgencies past, even as exhausted paint peels off windowsills, wires wander aimlessly, air conditioners wheeze and an old porcelain water fountain runs dry.
Conroy Bowl, Schofield Barracks
It may not look like mucha low-slung, barn-like, octagonal shed set on a coconut- and plumeria-dotted lawn in the heart of Schofield Barracks, but Conroy Bowl is burned indelibly into the memories of thousands of GIs.
The originally roofless amphitheater with seating for 10,00 0 on concrete bencheswas dug out in 1923 as an entertainment venue for off-duty soldiers (movies, concerts, roller skating, boxing and basketball) and a briefing locale for about-to-be-deployed battalions, brigades and whole divisions. The “boxing bowl,” as it was called then, drew regular weekend crowds to its popular intra-Army boxing matches, famously dramatized by Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine in 1953’s Oscar-winning movie From Here to Eternity, much of which, including the boxing match, was filmed on the post.
Four years later, on Nov. 11, 1957, before a sell-out crowd of teenage girls, soldiers, and anyone else who could pay a buck, Hawai‘i-lover Elvis Presley gave his last concert of the 1950s at the bowl, just a month before he got his draft notice. As the post newspaper gushed at the time, “Elvis Presley, the one-man hurricane who took the rhythm and blues and turned it into a rock ’n’ roll rampage, literally wiggled his way into the bowl Monday night and shook up the some 10,000 squealing, screaming fans.” Bob Hope played the bowl, as did Sammy Davis Jr. and Dick Clark with his 1964 Caravan of Stars, featuring the Dixie Cups, the Coasters, Gene Pitney.
Nowadays, the bowl has turned into a nearly full-time SRP (Soldier Readiness Program) processing center. Before soldiers ship out and right after they return, they face tedious red tape, most of which is handled at the bowl. “Every Army soldier in the Pacific comes through here,” says Sgt. Rich Lott, attached to Tripler Army Medical Center. “Soldiers going to Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, they come down here, and in two or three hours they do their little round-robin, and by the time they go back up the ramp and out the door, they’re ready to get on a transport and go.” Conroy Bowl processed about 17,000 soldiers in 2007, Lott estimates.
Schofield Barracks is named after the Army general who first advocated Hawai‘i’s strategic value in Washington, D.C. in 1872.
Fort Kamehameha, Hickam Air Force Base
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt asked Secretary of War William Howard Taft to review US defenses in the Pacific.
To protect the new US Territory of Hawai‘i and the Navy’s coaling station at Pearl Harbor, Taft recommended a system of fixed gun emplacements, a so-called “ring of steel.” Between 1907 and 1920, coastal artillery batteries armed with 3- to 14-inch guns were dug in at Fort Ruger at Diamond Head, Fort DeRussy at Waikïkï, Fort Armstrong on Honolulu Harbor and at Fort Kamehameha.
Fort Kamehameha’s arc of coralline beach frontage at ahua Point marks the east shore of the mouth of Pearl Harbor’s narrow entrance channel. The idyllic spot, once owned by Queen Emma, was also a strategic spot, and by 1920 a well-ordered US Army post spread out along the shore among four big gun batteries. Between the concrete hulks, the Army Coast Artillery Corps laid out thirty-three officers’ quarters, as well as barracks, stores, warehouses, garages and a chapel.
Within a decade the batteries became obsolete, as the Army switched over to mobile artillery. Four of the batteries were deactivated, and pleasant Fort Kamehameha became something of a backwater, a “military reservation” where beachfront housing was still much in demand. Eventually the Army gave the fort over to the US Air Force, whose giant Hickam Air Force Base completely surrounds the old post.
Gary O’Donnell, the chief environmental planner for PACAF, the Air Force Pacific Command, drives past Hickam’s flight line, down Mamala Bay Drive and into old Fort Kamehameha, where he points out the triangular green, a little chapel, a bandstand and a flagpole that mark the remains of the post’s center. A black-andwhite MIA flag flutters above a nondescript newer building nearby. That’s JPAC, O’Donnell says, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, whose somber mission is to complete the fullest possible accounting of every American missing as a result of the nation’s conflicts.
O’Donnell turns onto Nelson Avenue, where a black-painted cement hulk, Battery Hawkins, glowers gun-less among big kiawe (mesquite) trees at the edge of the sandy beach. Beyond it, the beach and the Pearl Harbor channel serve as front yard for a row of slightly tired-looking, one-storey, Arts and Crafts-style bungalows, circa 1916, all tucked into a glorious, tree-shaded common lawn. No hedges or fencesa child’s dream. O’Donnell drives slowly, pointing out the quarters’ original leaded glass windows, the board-and-batten siding, the lavarock foundations, the screened lanai and the screened exterior hallways. To him, every detail is precious. He winces when he sees any kind of recent alterations an enclosed lanai, say, or louvered windows. He notes that a few years after they were built, these houses were copied at Schofield Barracks and on Ford Island. The homes are now all empty; the neighborhood has been completely vacant since August 2008.
According to O’Donnell, the problem is that Fort Kamehameha lies in an APZ, or Accident Potential Zonein other words, too close to the big runways shared by the Air Force base and Honolulu International Airport. But, of course, the families of Fort Kamehameha lived with the “accident potential” for the last seventy years without incident.
Earlier this year, the Air Force announced it was moving ahead with plans to “dispose” of Fort Kamehameha by the end of 2009. The options for disposal include adaptive use by some private or public agency, relocation of the homes or demolition. Another option laid out in Air Force plans is to find a “longterm caretaker” to preserve the unused buildingsand future possibilities.
The Quads, Schofield Barracks
Schofield Barracks’ most venerated housing stock is its surviving row of five big old “quads”: B, C, D, E and F Quads, each with an expansive, grassy courtyard enclosed by a four-square plan of three concrete barracks buildings and one administration building. Constructed between 1914 and 1931, when Schofield quartered a cavalry regiment, and lined up between Wai‘anae and Foote avenues, the quads serve as the central spine for Schofield’s designated National Historic District. When the quads were newly built, they loomed over the red dirt and pineapple fields of the Leilehua plain in Central O‘ahu, where Hawaiian warriors once trained in the martial arts.
These utilitarian, proto-modern barracks have one saving grace: three levels of open-air, arcaded hallways that run the length of the courtyard-facing sides of the buildings, catching the trade winds and cooling the soldiers who might be watching a platoon drill or a late-afternoon pickup basketball game down in the courtyard.
The 141 men and women of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, call freshly painted “C” Quad home. The company’s single soldiers live in one- and two-bedroom suites lined up along a single corridor on the ground floor of Building 356. Where “C” Quad once sheltered open-floor-plan barracks with latrines in the basement, “one-plus-one” living is the new Army’s norm; that is, a two-bedroom suite with full kitchen and bath for two soldiers. “C” Quad’s gym is housed in a big, sunlit room on the third floor that was once a movie theater.
“Soldiers developed deep attachments to their quads,” says Ken Hays, Army Garrison Hawai‘i’s architectural historian. “They come back and want to see them. Some soldiers have fathers or grandfathers who lived in the same quad. It’s sort of a legacy thing.”
To meet new mission needs, as well as the federal mandate for historic preservation, the quads are now in the middle of a massive restoration (on the outside) and renovation (on the inside) project. This year, the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation cited the project for its historic preservation efforts.
37 Makalapa Drive, Pearl Harbor
In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered Navy Secretary Frank Knox to “tell Nimitz to get the hell out to Pearl and stay there till the war is won.”
Days later, Adm. Nimitz arrived on O‘ahu, unfurled his new four-star flag and assumed command of what was left of the Pacific Fleet. He set up temporary offices at Pearl Harbor’s Submarine Basethe facility he created and commanded twenty years earlierand set his luggage down in just-finished quarters atop Makalapa Crater, at 37 Makalapa Dr., that he would share with his chief of staff, Adm. Raymond Spruance, for two years.
The 4,600-square-foot, two-storey, prefab house was the largest model in the brand-new Makalapa subdivision of ninety-seven officers’ quarters, designed by noted Honolulu architect C.W. Dickey. The airy, casually modern house also had the best views of the busy, bruised harbor, where salvage and repair operations were well under way.
Makalapa would be Nimitz’ home for the duration of the war while his family stayed in California. It was at 37 Makalapa that the admiral set up a horseshoe court; it was here that he hosted a luncheon for President Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1944; and it was here where, after a good meal, he liked to turn off all the lights, open the blackout curtains and play classical records.
Meanwhile, he approved the Halsey/Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo in April 1942; the attack on the Japanese homeland boosted morale among the troops. After the inconclusive Battle of the Coral Sea, he steered his patched-together fleet to decisive victory over the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Midway, six months to the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
For the rest of it, Nimitz directed combined Allied forces relentlessly westward (his popular nickname was “Island Hopper”) while Gen. MacArthur, headquartered in Australia, pushed north, both men grimly believing that the endgame would be a bloody invasion of the Japanese homeland. In late 1944, Nimitz was awarded his fifth star and named fleet admiral for his achievements. And on Sept. 2, 1945, a month after two American nuclear bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he stood alongside MacArthur on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay as the Japanese delegation signed the “Instrument of Formal Surrender” to the Allies, ending WWII.
Today, Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, occupies the much-expanded house at 37 Makalapa, but it’s still called the Nimitz House. The biggest change to the neighborhood since Nimitz’ time is the grown-up landscaping, which now shades most views down to the harbor. HH
Home of the Brave Tours offers a half-day tour with stops at the USS Arizona Memorial and historic sites within Wheeler Field, Schofield Barracks and Fort Shafter. www.pearlharborhq.com