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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 7, 2001

Ford Island's aging historic sites face new assault

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Amelia Earhart once crashed a plane here and walked away unharmed. John Wayne was filmed here in a cozy 1920s bungalow during the making of "In Harm's Way." President Franklin Roosevelt paid a visit in 1934, seven years before he uttered the most famous words of his life.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell describes how seaplanes used ramps on Ford Island. The ramps are covered with strafing marks from Japanese warplanes.

Kyle Sackowski • The Honolulu Advertiser

And, on Dec. 7, 1941 — Roosevelt's "date that will live in infamy" — the Japanese unleashed a surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet ships moored here that ushered America into World War II and altered the country's course forever.

It would be difficult to imagine a more historic piece of real estate than Ford Island, which, in 1964, was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Now, according to a History Channel documentary scheduled to air tonight, the historic area is threatened.

In "Save Our History: America's Most Endangered 2001," host Josh Binswanger tells his audience:

"Sixty years after the airstrike, Ford Island is once again under attack, only this time the threat is not from a foreign power. The U.S. Navy proposes to lease 75 acres of Ford Island to private developers. Plans call for a major housing development, a marina and a festival marketplace."

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named Ford Island one of 11 "Most Endangered Historic Places," adds in the show: "We need to remember Pearl Harbor by seeing physically what happened there, and the structures and sights that represent that tragic day."

But Navy Capt. Jennifer Mustain, commanding officer of the Public Works Center at Pearl Harbor and the special assistant in charge of the Ford Island development project for Adm. Robert Conway Jr., says a larger problem is at work here:

Ford Island's aging historic structures are suffering from decades of neglect and are in severe disrepair. The situation is critical, and to solve it will cost millions, she says.

Mustain pointed out the island's deterioration to National Trust executives when they visited Ford Island last month. Since that time the trust has issued a "Take Action" bulletin on its Web site advising citizens concerned about Ford Island to contact Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in support of increased federal money to maintain historic military properties.

Meanwhile, Mustain says she welcomes input and expertise from the National Trust to help sort out how best to maintain Ford Island's history.

What are the physical remnants of the Japanese attack on Ford Island?

"Hangars, barracks and officers' bungalows that survived the attack still stand," says Binswanger in the History Channel documentary. "Old runways, chipped and scored in places by Japanese bullets, crisscross the island."

Arizona Memorial historian Dan Martinez, who appears on the segment, believes that "one of the things (that are) truly significant is that Ford Island still looks very much like it did in 1941."

Folks who first encounter Ford Island are struck by the fact that it seems a place where time has stood still since World War II. The main reason is that for most of the 20th century Ford Island was quietly inaccessible except by ferry boat. In 1998 an $80 million bridge finally connected the island to O'ahu, and opened the island to development.

South of the runway stretching across the center of the island, the most imposing landmark is the famous red-and-white candy-striped Aircraft Operations Tower prominently featured in the movies "Pearl Harbor" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

Not far from the tower, in the courtyard of the 1940 dispensary, a plaque commemorates the spot where a Dec. 7 bomb plowed into the pavement after striking the building. Incredibly, it didn't explode, but the impact temporarily knocked out water and electricity to the building.

At a dozen different island locations, mostly along the southern and western edges, Japanese machine-gun strafing holes and bomb splatter marking are visible.

The Luke Field Housing at the north side of the island features romantic board and batten-style Hawaiian homes with high ceilings and large kitchens that were built in the 1920s. These have always been popular with resident officers and their families.

A similar residential area known as Nob Hill lies at the southeastern portion of Ford Island. It is here that Quarters 30, a small bungalow otherwise known as the "John Wayne House," is beneath a canopy of trees.

About 20 yards from that spot, the original Arizona Memorial stands directly across from where the battleship sank. The large rock monument, erected on Dec. 7, 1955, is one of several historical markers stationed around the island.

In 1997 the Navy released an ambitious Ford Island concept plan that included hundreds of additional family housing units. But no master plan was ever developed.

Instead, the Navy scrapped the original concept plans and decided to open the process, beginning this month, to a competition among private developers.

Those developers, Mustain says, will be expected to be sensitive to the historic significance of the island and, wherever possible, suggest "adaptive reuses of existing structures."

David Scott, executive director of the Historic Hawai'i Foundation, has worked with the National Trust to "bring the glare of public attention" to Ford Island. He says preservationists realize development of Ford Island is a necessary reality.

"I don't think the whole island should be a museum," said Scott. "If you put it in mothballs and think everyone is going to come and look at it, the island will die of its own weight."

Added Peter Brink, vice president of programs for the National Trust, "Our goal is to help the Navy to ensure that the development that will occur on Ford Island is historically appropriate."

But what constitutes appropriate is the dilemma.

Back in 1979 the Navy signed an agreement with the Hawai'i State Historic Preservation Office that placed elements from yesteryear at Pearl Harbor into one of three "historic resource management" categories. The USS Arizona Memorial, for instance, is listed as a Category 1 structure.

Elements on Ford Island that played a major role in World War II were listed in Categories 1 and 2, meaning they could not be altered, demolished or removed without first consulting with the state historic preservation officer and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

These elements include such things as the Island Post Office, built in 1936, bachelor officer quarters, built in 1940, and the island's two reinforced concrete air raid shelters built shortly after the attack.

However, Category 3 structures, such as the old Administration Building, several warehouses and storage buildings and numerous seaplane ramps — all of which were present during the Japanese attack — could be demolished. The only requirement is that they be photographically documented beforehand.

This agreement seemingly affords an amount of protection for the island's more vital historic aspects. But bullet holes as well as bomb and strafing marks — the actual physical manifestations left over from Dec. 7, 1941 — are not included in any category listings.

Nor are such wonderments as the swimming pool from the opening scene of "In Harm's Way," or the "John Wayne House."

Scott says there's a catch to the 1979 agreement:

Once the Navy has duly consulted with the preservation officer and the advisory council, it is free to downgrade those elements to Category 3 if it so chooses. When they're downgraded, the Navy could eliminate them at its discretion.

However, Mustain says the pool and "John Wayne House" will stay. Furthermore, she says the Navy is working on a new agreement to insure that none of Ford Island's historic elements — bullet holes and strafing marks included — will be removed without extensive consultations with public and private preservationist groups.

Betsy Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust, says she received assurances to that effect when she visited Ford Island in June. But until a new agreement is completed, the one signed in 1979 remains in effect.

Which is why Scott insists that the public must remain informed about what's happening at Ford Island.

The goal of the National Trust's awareness campaign, which includes The History Channel's documentary, is to keep the Navy accountable, he says.

"If nobody is looking, then the Navy just goes along its merry way," said Scott.

You can reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.