One overcast day last December I went to see Kalaeloa, as it’s called nowadays, or Barbers Point, as it used to be called — as in Barbers Point Naval Air Station, shut down in 1999.
The two former air strips and their surroundings, roughly 3,700 acres now mostly covered by a scrub forest of kiawe and haole koa, comprise a big chunk of the Ewa coastal plain. They are hemmed in by the jostle of west Oahu’s suburban sprawl — just mauka are the wide boulevards and tract homes of Kapolei and the agricultural fields of Hoopili, where 12,000 houses are planned; to the west, Campbell Industrial Park, separated by a drainage canal; to the east, past a chain link fence, the still a-building marina, suburbs and golf courses of Haseko Development Co.’s Hoakalei development.
Not knowing much about the area, which has been in and out of the news during almost 20 years of inscrutable planning efforts, I’m interested to see what there is to see in Kalaeloa— before it, too, gets consumed by Oahu’s seemingly unquenchable desire to pave itself over.
My guide is John Bond, the burly Ewa Beach resident and military history buff who, almost single-handedly, brought to light a lesser known battlefield here connected to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941: a small, former Marine Corps air operations facility called Ewa Field, which is, by far, the smaller of the two airfields in the neighborhood. All that’s left of it is a few outbuildings, a flagpole and a crumbling, weedy tarmac, festering in the hot, tangled dryland forest.
But the old concrete pavement bears witness: It’s pitted with the moldering nicks of Japanese machine-gun fire that strafed and destroyed the base’s arsenal of planes minutes before squadrons of Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor itself. Six were reportedly killed, including two civilians. The 150-acre site is now a candidate for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, after making Hawaii’s register late last year.
We start at the west end of Kalaeloa, on Boxer Road, where we pass Barbers Point Elementary School and the old air station’s officers’ residential area.
The officers’ houses are gone, but the bucolic plantings, the big trees and lawn areas remain. Bond says all the houses were photographed, recorded for the history books and demolished.
“It was an all-American neighborhood,” Bond says, “comfortable homes, swing sets, no fences, because that’s the way the Navy lived.”
In 2009, the Navy transferred the leasehold on 540 acres of the base’s compact grid of streets —including old neighborhoods and scores of tired-looking base structures — to a Texas-based developer, the Hunt Cos. The Hunt parcel includes most the land between the two air fields and Roosevelt Avenue, the main east-west arterial that separates Kalaeloa from Kapolei and Hoopili.
Hunt’s 2013 Strategic Implementation Plan indicates a dense patchwork of new construction and renovation for residential, mixed used, light industrial/R&D, and open space uses. Sleepy, two-lane Saratoga Road will become the new main street for the community, which is set to include 4,000 new and renovated housing units. Some of the former military housing already is being leased, after renovation, to actual tenants.
“Hunt Kalaeloa is a place that restores traditional patterns of neighborhood life in Oahu,” the plan says promisingly in its first sentence.
Another goal in the plan is for the new town to be “transit ready” for three stops when a proposed extension of the Honolulu rail project loops south through the parcel on its route between East Kapolei and the Ko Olina resort district … but don’t hold your breath.
In the center of town, near Midway and Enterprise, at the former Naval Air Station air field, today known as John Rogers Field, Kalaeloa Airport, stands a bustling branch of Tamura’s Market. It’s housed in the former base commissary, complete with a quonset-hut attachment.
Nearby are the post office, a Hope Chapel in the former base recreation center, the Naval Air Museum and Barbers Point Aviation school. There’s an old building used to house homeless vets, Bond says, and another that takes care of at-risk youth. He points out state Sen. Mike Gabbard’s home, and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign headquarters.
The Navy airfield itself, with its antique control tower, was taken over by the state and is now operated as a general aviation airport, though commuter airline Mokulele runs regularly flights to Maui from it.
Bond says the airport’s recent history has been one of fits and starts. He mentions the time Oprah Winfrey wanted to fly into Kalaeloa on her private jet.
“People were talking about it, and they said, ‘Oh great, we’ll be like Maui, we’ll start bringing in private jets.’”
“Now that seems to be the plan,” he says, pointing out the flood of wealth that’s expected at the nearby Ko Olina resort, with Disney’s Aulani, the new Four Seasons, and recently announced plans for an extravagant Atlantis hotel project next door to Aulani.
As we drive around on the confusing network of old roads on the flat plain, with only the distant mountains for orientation, Bond points out bits of land controlled by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, bits controlled by the Army Air National Guard, other bits controlled by the state.
Kalaeloa is a confounding checkerboard of interests, all under the aegis of the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which has overall responsibility for planning the place—and its own Master Plan that more or less synchs with Hunt’s plan, including allowance for a rail extension right-of-way.
Bond says he follows these overlapping jurisdictions like a hawk.
“I know what’s going on. It’s like a giant game board, or the wild west. I watch the moving pieces.” He talks about proposals for new arterial boulevards that don’t match up in any coherent way with existing roads, that will create illogical jogs and “messes.”
We take Coral Sea Road makai, around the seaward end of the airport runway, down to the complex of beach parks: Nimitz beach, Kalaeloa Beach Park, and White Plains beach. Bond says the coast is slated to be unified into the county-run Kalaeloa Regional Park, extending roughly from Oneula Beach Park in Ewa to Campbell Industrial Park. He predicts that someday the beach park will be as precious to west side urbanites as Ala Moana Beach Park is to city folk today.
Bond tells me that he and Hawaiian cultural expert Mike Lee believe that Nimitz beach may be one of the first Tahitian landing sites in the islands.
“There are lots of burials back in the brush,” he says.
Hawaiian oral tradition tells of a Tahiti chief, Kaha’i, who brought the first ulu tree to Oahu and planted it near today’s Nimitz Beach, previously a fishing village known as Kualakai.
We follow Tripoli Road eastward, close to the coast, past a sinkhole in the forest, Ordy Pond, glimmering through a gated fence. Two nature and cultural reserves, the 60-acre Kalaeloa Heritage Park off Coral Sea Road and run by Shad Kane, and Kepa Maly’s Hoakalei Foundation, east of White Plains beach, are hidden away in the underbrush.
Finally, we arrive at the site of Ewa Field, Bond’s baby. We park and walk a short distance into a clearing created by the old concrete ramp where the field’s fleet of planes were strafed and destroyed by Zeros during the Pearl Harbor attack. Butterflies flit among the yellow ilima flowers.
Bond tells the story of Ewa Field’s old hangar that was blown up for the 1970 film “Tora Tora Tora!” Its destruction was captured in the scene of a Zero flying right into the hangar for a fiery explosion. This was well before digital special effects, Bond notes.
There’s not much left to the field. Bond shows me the pits in the tarmac left by Japanese bullets during the attack.
“After they closed the place as a Marine airfield in the 50s, it became a top-secret facility for anti-submarine special operations,” Bond says. “They had patrol planes spying on the Chinese and Russian fleets. It was all run from Building 972 over there,” Bond says, gesturing toward more kiawe forest.
Ewa Field was officially placed on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places on Nov. 13. It is expected to be added to the National Register in time for the 75th Pearl Harbor Anniversary this December.