World War II fortifications still present on O'ahu
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
|Gary Weller, president of Iron Mountain Inc., shines a flashlight inside Battery 405, one of many World War II fortifications still present on O'ahu.
Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser
The buildup began shortly after the turn of the century and continued through World War II, with Army engineers busily tunneling through volcanic rises, building underground command posts, and transforming oceanfront flats into fortified ramparts.
The island bristled with coastal batteries guarding against battleship attacks on Pearl and Honolulu harbors that never came. The biggest guns could fire 16-inch, 2,340-pound shells over the horizon.
Their legacy is now tons of leftover reinforced concrete and steel, some on public and military property, some on private property, the whereabouts of some still classified, and much of it too massive to be moved.
"I suspect that if you were to use the term 'Gibraltar of the Pacific,' you could get away with that without much argument," historian William Gaines said. "At the end of World War II, O'ahu was probably the most heavily armored island in the world."
Now better known for surf and sand, O'ahu's hard edges aren't too far below the surface.
The Kunia Regional Signals Intelligence Operations Center, with three floors, each the size of a football field, lies hidden beneath pineapple fields near Wheeler Army Airfield. Built after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack for aircraft assembly and repair, it is now an intelligence receiving hub for the National Security Agency.
The old coastal defense batteries and fire control stations dotting island hilltops are easier to spot. Kama'aina have clambered in and around them for years. The Battery Randolph at Fort DeRussy, circa 1911, resolutely anchors one end of Waikiki while Diamond Head fortifications anchor the other. The U.S. Army Museum of Hawai'i occupies Randolph.
Before going bankrupt, a contractor in 1969 succeeded in demolishing the fort's Battery Dudley, but got no further than the parapets at Randolph, with its 15-foot-thick seaside walls.
"Legend has it that the wrecking ball collapsed first. I wouldn't be too surprised," said Dorian Travers, of the Army Museum.
There are far more batteries and bunkers out there than meet the eye. Many who have had access to them discover inside them more than an echo and moldy interior.
"We're surprised every day. We find more and more," said John Bennett, a retired city prosecutor's investigator and member of the Coast Defense Study Group.
The military controlled one-third of O'ahu during the war years, and one Army official said there are probably 300 tunnels.
Sandii Kamaunu, owner of Military HQ on Sand Island Access Road, several years ago bought up a Civil Defense field hospital stored and long forgotten since the early to mid-1950s in a World War II gun battery in Kailua. She was flabbergasted by what she found.
The cache included hundreds of sealed crates. There were 200 cots and 200 wool blankets, splints, blood transfusion kits, porcelain bed pans and urinals, and vials of dried-up potassium penicillin crystalline for shots that Kamaunu says were given with "horse needles that hurt like hell." Some of the items bore 1940s dates.
All were like new, in the box, directions included.
Wayne Jones, the acting director of the O'ahu Civil Defense Agency, remembers inspecting the supplies.
"There was an old dentist's chair up there if I remember correctly, an old operating table all stainless steel but of no use to us," Jones said.
For decades, Ron Deisseroth and his mushroom business co-existed with the field hospital in twin 155-foot-deep bunkers, a spot that suited both. Sheltered beneath at least 200 feet of earth at the deepest point, Battery 405 with kitchen, infirmary and bunks originally supported two MK VI 8-inch Navy guns. Five similar batteries were built around the island. A facade meant to look like a two-story home intended to throw off would-be invaders once camouflaged the tunnel's entrance.
Deisseroth, who grew mushrooms from 1950 to about 1992, remembers schoolchildren trooping up the hill for a disaster preparedness drill.
"I guess they wanted them to know where to go in case of an attack," said the O'ahu man, who leased the property from Kane'ohe Ranch.
When Deisseroth lost his lease, he had to clear out the bunker. That meant everything including the locked-up field hospital. He called the Army and O'ahu Civil Defense.
"I tried to contact everyone, and nobody had any claim on it," he said. So he hired a locksmith to open the steel door and sold the contents to Military HQ for about $6,000.
Kamaunu has sold about 150 cots, and a couple of porcelain urinals on eBay she jokingly listed as MASH "beer steins." General Electric offered her $300 for an operating lamp light bulb, she said. But the surplus store owner is really looking for a museum to buy it up in bulk.
"It's like opening a time capsule," she said. "It's nice to be part of it."
Gary Weller has plans to use Battery 405 for archival, digital and backup storage for his company, Iron Mountain Inc.
The field hospital was an unusual find, and most old unsecured bunkers were cleared out or rifled through years ago. Most guns, meanwhile, were cut up for scrap. But the bunkers remain full of historical value.
Not widely known is that both of the USS Arizona's big stern turrets with triple 14-inch guns were salvaged. One was placed at Kahe Point and called Battery Arizona. The other went to Mokapu Point.
Gaines, a retired archivist and librarian professor at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill. and an expert on O'ahu coastal defenses, said vandals got into Battery Arizona in the late 1960s and started a fire in a power generating room, which also was used to store Civil Defense supplies. After that the bunker was abandoned.
The Hawai'i Army National Guard, which still uses part of old Fort Ruger at Diamond Head, estimates that publicly accessible portions represents just 25 percent of the battery and tunnel complexes there.
Construction on Fort Ruger began in 1906, with Battery Harlow completed in 1910. Its plotting room, not often seen by the public, has a pre-World War I mechanical data transmission system for mortars that were capable of lobbing 12-inch shells high over Diamond Head and out to sea.
The defense boom had its impetus prior to the turn of the century with countries like Germany, Russia, France and England eyeing Hawai'i, the Army museum's Travers said.
Brig. Gen. Montgomery M. Macomb, commander of the Army's District of Hawaii, said in 1911 that "O'ahu is to be encircled with a ring of steel."
Fort Kamehameha, now part of Hickam Air Force Base, was part of that fortification. Fort Barrette, in Kapolei, followed in the 1930s. During World War II the military engaged in another big building wave, adding radar operations tunnels, ammo storage depots and underground command posts. The Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, completed in 1943, includes enormous fuel tanks and seven miles of tunnels.
"These guys were absolutely sure the Japanese invasion fleet was coming over the horizon for months after Dec. 7 (1941)," Gaines said.
An old battery remains at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, but Gaines said guns were never installed "because the war moved so fast, and by 1944, there was not much chance of the Japanese fleet showing up on the coast of O'ahu."
The twin tunnels, whose makai openings are obscured by vegetation, are used for storage.
One tunnel complex was put up for sale by the General Services Administration more than a decade ago, historians say. The bunker complex beneath Aliamanu crater, including 500- and 600-foot tunnels and at least 20 rooms, was used at the end of the war by the Hawaiian Sea Frontier command.
But the bunker never sold, and today the warren of rooms lie sealed and loaded with pesticide, another of O'ahu's catacombs from a bygone era.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com or 525-5459.