When a forklift unexpectedly removed a memorial for a World War II-era military base in West Oahu in 2018, including a mockup of a P-3 Orion, many residents and veterans were outraged.
Three years later, the Naval Air Station Barbers Point memorial is finally being returned to a new site at the Kalaeloa Airport in Kapolei, which used to be part of the base.
AMVETS Hawaii, a department of one of the nation’s biggest veterans groups and the main organizer of the restoration, plans to have it finished in time for the anniversary of the June 1942 Battle of Midway.
The unveiling will mark the culmination of years of bureaucratic wrangling and bitter interpersonal disputes over the handling of the effort.
The Barbers Point airfield was still under construction on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and other U.S. military installations, including the nearby Ewa Field, killing several civilian agricultural workers and Marines.
“When (Barbers Point) was finally built in 1942, it became the staging area for the buildup in the Pacific, thereby helping with the oncoming cataclysmic battles whether it be Midway or the island hopping campaigns,” said Jason Seal, a retired Marine officer recently appointed by AMVETS to finish the memorial’s restoration.
Barbers Point squadrons fought in Korea and Vietnam. NASA teams with the space program also used the base.
The base closed in 1999 when the Clinton administration shuttered installations worldwide in a massive post-Cold War restructuring of the military.
The memorial consisted of the plane mockup and several plaques explaining the base’s history. Sometimes it was called “the P-3 memorial.”
Seal hopes to make it clear that the memorial is meant to commemorate everyone who served at the base over its 57-year history.
Dean Kalani Capelouto, a Navy veteran who has been involved in the restoration, recalled that the base played a prominent part in his childhood. His neighbors had family in the Navy and he would sometimes go with them to visit Barbers Point and surf as planes flew overhead.
When he joined the Navy, Capelouto’s first assignment overseas was doing anti-submarine warfare operations from bases in the Philippines working with P-3’s. “Every six months, they would send a new squadron out from Barbers Point,” said Capelouto.
Since the base’s closure, community members, historians and entrepreneurs have debated for decades over what should be preserved and what should be developed. The base had been built over Native Hawaiian cultural sites.
Capelouto said that as both a veteran and a Native Hawaiian he understands the need to balance Native Hawaiian and military history, with some locals resentful about the large military footprint in the islands.
Capelouto worked with sailors who died during Cold War reconnaissance missions. “I think that it’s important that we commemorate that and at least leave that marker there for their families,” he said.
When the memorial was unexpectedly removed in broad daylight, the Kapolei Neighborhood Board appointed Rob Moore, a retired Air Force officer, to look into what happened.
Moore’s committee found that the former Navy land that housed the memorial belonged to Texas-based Hunt Companies, which had leased it to American Renaissance Academy, a K-12 prep school in Kapolei that hoped to develop the land the memorial had occupied.
Navy spokeswoman Lydia Roberston told Civil Beat that the memorial “had been vandalized and almost stolen a number of times over the years since base closure.”
In an e-mailed statement, the school told Civil Beat that “AMVETS, in collaboration with the command of the P-3 unit, were able to coordinate the placing of the monument in the hands of the U.S. military, who are best suited to care for it.”
But Donovan Lazarus, commander of AMVETs Hawaii, said the organization was not involved in the memorial’s initial removal.
Moore’s committee got to work trying to bring the memorial back to Kapolei, albeit in a safer place.
“We started the process to try to get the memorial moved to a piece of state lands that we would not have any problems in the future of having someone else saying ‘Oh, I don’t want it on my land’ and tearing it down again,” Moore explained.
After consulting with veterans, the committee settled on the land near the control tower at Kalaeloa Airport. They negotiated with various agencies to navigate federal and local regulations.
They suggested four potential locations — three in front of the building near the parking lot. The last choice was a plot of grass behind the building near the taxiway and blocked off by a fence.
Other groups and individuals in the area pursued their own efforts, sometimes leading to feuds and drama. Meanwhile, Moore moved to Florida.
“It was politics and there’s nothing I could do about it. But as long as it was going to be done, I was happy,” said Moore.
Then COVID-19 hit last year and the effort seemed doomed.
Seal is uninterested in dwelling on the drama preceding his involvement, instead focusing on readying it for the Midway anniversary. He hopes some of the battle’s last surviving veterans will be able to attend.
“I think it’d be very special if we had that monument for those folks. If nothing else to tell them, thank you,” said Seal.
AMVETS officially broke ground for the memorial in February and the P-3 model has been returned. Seal said they hope to add a model of a helicopter and make the plaques more prominent to stress its commemoration of everyone who served there.
However, its final location is the grass plot near the taxiway behind the airport’s fence. AMVETS representatives say they are continuing to work with the state to find a way to ensure it’s as accessible to the public as possible.
Moore noted that if the airport ever opens up to commercial planes, all bets are off. “You might be able to see it through the fence, but you can never visit it again because TSA would not let you onto the ramp,” he said.
“Bottom line is, yeah, that is probably the most undesirable location of the four that we had been offered and that veterans had asked for,” Moore said. “But at least it’s getting up again.”
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Kevin Knodell reported on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.