S. Kohala arms fields rich in artifacts
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
HILO, Hawai'i — History is being unearthed in South Kohala where it has been hidden for generations beneath wandering cattle and unexploded bombs.
The Army Corps of Engineers has been using high-tech equipment to find and dispose of artillery shells and other ordnance littered over about 10,000 acres of former military training grounds on the Big Island, and in the process has helped make some intriguing archaeological finds.
Crews collected shrapnel and scrap metal by the ton, but also unearthed canteens that belonged to decorated war heroes in the Pacific campaign, spurs that belonged to some of the earliest Hawai'i cowboys, and a gold-plated button saved from the fatal voyage of King Kamehameha II and his queen to England in 1824.
Archaeologists working on the project have gathered thousands of artifacts, and catalogued more than 3,000 previously unrecorded archaeological features, ranging from ancient to modern historic sites.
The land being cleared in the military's old Waikoloa Maneuver Area mostly belongs to the state or to Parker Ranch.
"Unlike most of the sugar lands, which were grubbed and destroyed, the cattle have knocked down a few walls but they really haven't done any major damage, so these are incredibly well-preserved sites," said Rowland Reeve, senior supervisory archaeologist on the project.
"It's like layers of history over the landscape."
TARO FIELDS OF OLD
Archaeologists with Pacific Legacy Inc. go into the field with experts trained in disposal of unexploded ordnance, mapping and flagging sites to prevent accidental damage by the bomb clearing crews working on cleanup duty.
One of the revelations was the scope of the Waimea Field System, which Reeve believes is the only known area in the islands where Hawaiians used an irrigation system for dryland farming.
The field system outside of Waimea was known to archaeologists, but research had been limited to areas on its fringes where developments were planned.
The cleanup of unexploded ordnance took archaeologists to the heart of the system, a vast patchwork of terraced planting areas used for dryland taro and sweet potato, and a very large network of irrigation ditches fed by Waikoloa Stream.
Settlement by pre-contact Hawaiians seems focused on the dry side of Waimea and the survey work outside of town found old house foundations, temporary shelters for field workers, stone burial platforms and other features.
Another discovery — or rediscovery — was the remnants of a more modern, modest settlement near Lalamilo outside of Waimea in an area identified on old maps as "Uhu."
The community featured a church built from mortar and stone that likely also functioned as a schoolhouse, and was surrounded by homes. Fragments of spurs and riding bits found in the ruins of the houses suggest the settlement may have been home to cowboys who worked for Parker Ranch.
Reeve believes most of the residents likely left the area around 1900.
The clearing and surveying of the Waikoloa Maneuver Area also yielded a gold-plated brass button embossed with "Tamehameha II," the English spelling of "Kamehameha." On the back of the button was the maker's name, "G. Boggett," which Reeve was able to trace through the British Button Society to a business that opened on St. Martin's Lane in London in 1824.
Kamehameha II was on a state visit in London that year with his wife, Queen Kamamalu, and attendants to meet with King George, but both he and his wife contracted measles and died. Reeve believes the button was made for some type of uniform for the Hawaiian king's party before his death, and may have come to Hawai'i with the escorts who brought the bodies of the king and queen home for burial.
The button was discovered at the remnants of a house site outside of Waimea that was probably in use from the 1820s to the 1860s, he said.
The cleanup project under the federal Formerly Used Defense Sites program has so far cleared about 10,000 acres of land used mostly by Marines for training and target practice, and experts estimate a total of about 50,000 acres may need some degree of clearing.
Crews have found more than 2,000 mortar rounds, rockets, bazooka rounds, grenades and artillery shells. The crews have removed more than 100 tons of shrapnel and other munitions debris, and 40 tons of other scrap metal, said Chuck Streck, the Formerly Used Defense Sites project manager.
Recently, the crews found the remnants of an airplane crash tentatively identified as a Navy single-engine fighter. The small pieces of wreckage were in grassland mauka of the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway.
The cleanup area also includes Camp Tarawa, the base used by the Marine Fifth Division to prepare for the invasion of Iwo Jima. The camp closed in late 1944, and Reeve said the clearing crews working there recovered more than 1,000 artifacts ranging from canteens and tent pegs to harmonicas and pocket knives.
About 1,000 more artifacts were recovered from pits where the military buried scrap and other unwanted items. Ten of the canteens found at that site still had Marines' names written, scratched or stamped on them, and Reeve used Fifth Division records to trace their stories.
Some died on Iwo Jima, including Pfc. Jasper Willis. He was awarded the Navy Cross after his death for extraordinary heroism on Feb. 24, 1945, when the wounded Willis attacked two Japanese pillboxes to aid a Marine patrol pinned down by machine gun fire. He survived that engagement, but was killed in action a week later.
Another canteen bore the name of Marine Pfc. James Michels, who participated in the first flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.
"It has been neat to put faces and people and personal histories into what ... were just scraps and lumps of metal that would normally have been discarded," Reeve said.
The five-year, $50 million military cleanup contract is primarily to protect public safety, but it also revealed what Reeve described as a kind of "open-air museum and an incredible resource for the island in terms of history."
Reeve said he also hopes the archaeological work will influence public discussion as Waimea grows.
Some areas he has surveyed are "relatively pristine" from an archaeological perspective, but Reeve said the dramatic growth expected in the Waimea area could change that. He hopes to remind residents of the sites that are all around them.
"Because they are Waimea people, it's their kuleana, they are the kahu, they are the keepers for this area, and if they don't take care of it, no one else will," Reeve said.
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.