Some seek to preserve former morgue
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By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
KAPALAMA MILITARY RESERVATION — Walk past the camouflage clothing, military patches, mosquito netting and old rain ponchos on sale at the Military HQ surplus store in a Kapalama warehouse and you'll find some grim reminders of war.
A white-tiled room in the back corner of the creaking-wood warehouse, out of public view, was once the site of a military mortuary. Big fans and ductwork that provided ventilation in an earlier time sit rusting in place. A large sign reads, "All gave some, some gave all."
Records indicate the Kapalama warehouse, otherwise known as "Building 914," may have been used as a receiving and shipping facility for bodies as far back as the Korean War.
More than a decade later in the 1960s and '70s, war dead from Vietnam came through here.
A ramp topped by a portico made it possible to roll caskets on gurneys from the warehouse to a chapel next door for services.
Just exactly what type of mortuary services went on here, though, remains a bit of a mystery. Soon, the physical history of Kapalama may be gone for good.
Sandii Kamau'nu, the president of Military HQ, has been told by aging vets that the long warehouse was a morgue and short-term holding zone for tens of thousands of GIs who had been killed during the Vietnam War, and whose bodies were being shipped to the Mainland for burial.
A former Hawai'i National Guard soldier who was stationed at the old mortuary in 1968 tells a somewhat different story, and says that most bodies were shipped first to the Mainland, and then some were routed back to Kapalama for burial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl or elsewhere.
The feisty 62-year-old Kamau'nu, who loves to tell bawdy tales of bartending in Waikiki in the '70s and the service members who were her patrons, wants to preserve the warehouse and the chapel — along with her business.
The state plans to level dozens of the World War II military warehouses at Kapalama for a much-needed harbor expansion and container yard.
Kamau'nu believes there are about 85 businesses operating at Kapalama. She and other tenants are on month-to-month leases.
For years now, Kamau'nu has waged a largely one-woman battle to establish a Vietnam War museum at Building 914, and for years the state — which owns the land — has rejected her efforts.
At the heart of that effort is the mortuary and morgue, where Kamau'nu said GI caskets were at times stacked four high and four deep along the length of the warehouse.
"The morgue is where these souls came through," she said. "They didn't come home the way they wanted, but they deserve to be remembered."
The state bought the 70-acre Kapalama Military Reservation for harbor expansion shortly after the Army stopped most military activities there in the late 1980s.
According to a "Historic Architectural Survey" on Kapalama put together by Fung Associates for the state, the Army Quartermaster Corps contracted in 1941 with Hawaiian Dredging and Pacific Bridge for piers, a terminal and warehouses as defense shipping increased through Honolulu Harbor.
"We're trying to get this put on the National Register of Historic Places so they can't tear it down," Kamau'nu said of the warehouse she rents, and the former chapel.
The State Historic Preservation Division said the two buildings are "significant historic resources" eligible for nomination to the register, but the state is still proceeding with plans to demolish them.
The state Department of Transportation, which administers the area, did not respond to a request for comment.
Accounts of the mortuary activity that took place at Kapalama vary.
Richard Huston, who was interviewed as part of the state Historic Architectural Survey, said he had been stationed at Kapalama from 1976, when the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawai'i, was located there, until it moved to Hickam Air Force Base in 1992.
The military unit's mission was to search for, recover and identify U.S. service members missing in war.
Huston said the mortuary in Building 914 served as an overflow facility during the Vietnam War for the Army mortuaries at Tan Son Nhut and Da Nang during periods of heavy fighting and when there were more bodies than they could handle.
"The mortuary in Hawai'i ran almost 24/7 during the high casualty periods with two civilians working as morticians and a civilian clerk; two or three military personnel worked as I.D. specialists," Huston said.
The mortuary also helped by shipping remains in transfer cases to the main ports of entry in Oakland, Calif., and Dover, Del., he said.
According to the state report, the Army in 1962 rejected a recommendation to move the U.S. Army Mortuary to Tripler Army Medical Center "because of the adverse psychological effect on the patients."
Edwin Aton, an embalmer at Nu'uanu Memorial Park and Mortuary, said he used to help out at the Army mortuary from about 1960 to 1965, and he remembered military dead passing through on the way to the Mainland. Embalming already had been done in Vietnam.
Aton said the mortuary would "check the remains again, make sure everything is perfectly sanitized and preserved, and then ship them back home."
But Les Stewart, chief of casualty and mortuary affairs operations in the Pacific for the Army, remembered a different version of events.
Stewart, 63, was a Hawai'i National Guard soldier who was called up to active duty in 1968 and was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Army mortuary at Kapalama.
For most of the service members killed in Vietnam, if a home town was east of the Mississippi River, the first port of call for entry into the U.S. was Dover, Del., and if the home town was west of the Mississippi, the port of call was Oakland, Calif., Stewart said.
"The only time the remains came to Hawai'i is if the remains were going to be interred here in Hawai'i," he said.
There were war dead, and Stewart estimates anywhere from 40 to 80 bodies a month came through. That total also included local military deaths.
"Traffic accidents, suicides, anything happening here in the state of Hawai'i, the remains were brought into our mortuary," Stewart said.
A PLEA FOR HELP
Inside the warehouse, World War II-era wood beams creak in the heat, and outside, potato chip-size pieces of light green paint peel off the exterior.
Kamau'nu said she'd like more people to see what's in the warehouse, but to have a museum, she would need a city zoning change.
"I don't have time. Damn, I work seven days a week as it is," she said.
Then there is the state plan to demolish the Kapalama warehouses.
"They (the state) are not going to be doing anything for at least another five or six years. There's just no money," she said.
In the meantime, Kamau'nu continues to push for preservation of the mortuary and chapel buildings and two others across from them, but she says she would be happy if the warehouse she's in and the former chapel were saved.
Both are at a back corner of Kapalama and would be out of the way of harbor operations, she maintains.
She has gathered a few hundred signatures on a petition asking the state to keep the buildings for a Vietnam War museum.
Kamau'nu said she needs "people to ask the state to please preserve it. We need the legislators to care enough to preserve this."
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.
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