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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Island Voices
The ghost of Helm lingers

By Kevin Plumberg

In 1976, nine members of the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana attempted to occupy Kaho'olawe. Paddling their surfboards into a restricted naval area, two members of the group, including famous local singer and Hawaiian nationalist George Helm, were tragically lost at sea.

I was reminded of George Helm and the struggle of Kaho'olawe when the White House recently announced that by 2003 it would halt bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The two highly controversial specks on a map are uncannily similar. Both islands belong to nations that were swept over by American expansionism shortly following the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1941, Congress, with one eye on the war, expropriated both Kaho'olawe and Vieques for use as military staging areas.

The result, in both cases, was absolutely devastating. On the now-uninhabited island of Kaho'olawe, where an atomic blast was simulated in 1965, years of live-fire training have destroyed the delicate tropical eco-system. In addition, military occupation has ruined countless ancient Hawaiian cultural sites.

Since the environmental protests on Kaho'olawe began in the 1970s, 600 cultural sites with over 2,000 archaeological features were recovered. Likewise in Vieques, during the 1970s, studies began to indicate the ecological damage of the military's presence.

In 1990, after almost 30 years of protest over the military's presence on Kaho'olawe, President George Bush finally directed the secretary of Navy to discontinue use of Kaho'olawe as a weapons range. A military commission estimated, however, that it would take $110 million (a conservative estimate) and many years to clear the island of unexploded bombs. Indeed, cleanup of unexploded ordnance continues today.

If Kaho'olawe is at all an appropriate lesson from which to learn, the sooner the Navy ends its bombardment of Vieques, the better. As shown by Kaho'olawe, this process could possibly take more than 10 years to complete before the people of Vieques could re-inhabit the rest of their island.

A nonbinding referendum in July would be an expression of a self-governed people who have struggled for their identity amid American political and military influence. The result of that vote should be heeded, and you can be sure that George Helm's ghost will be watching.

Kevin Plumberg is a Brooklyn writer who was born and raised on O'ahu.