Veterans, service members and community members commemorated the 79th anniversary of the Battle of Midway on Sunday with a ceremony that doubled as the official unveiling of a reconstructed memorial at Barbers Point in West Oahu.
The ceremony was held at Kalaeloa Airport, formerly part of Naval Air Station Barbers Point.
“Barbers Point Naval Air Station, commissioned on April 15, 1942, was the staging area for the Battle of Midway,” state Sen. Mike Gabbard told the audience. “For this reason, this place is the perfect place to commemorate that victory.”
When the base closed, the Navy built a memorial to commemorate sailors who served there between 1942 and 1999. The original memorial consisted of a model of a Navy P3 Orion reconnaissance plane, which for years flew missions in the Pacific tracking Soviet submarines during the Cold War, and several plaques commemorating the base’s history.
But the land the memorial was built on was bought by Texas-based Hunt Companies, which leased it to American Renaissance Academy, a K-12 prep school in Kapolei that later sought to develop the area and had the memorial removed. When a forklift came to take it away, some residents were furious.
The effort to track down the pieces and rebuild the memorial took years and was complicated by disagreements between different groups of veterans on how best to move forward and where to put it. When the coronavirus pandemic began, the effort seemed all but doomed.
The Oahu AmVets approached Jason Seal, a retired Marine officer who taught JROTC students in Kapolei, to oversee efforts to finish the memorial. “During the past four years, our community never forgot this memorial,” Seal said at the ceremony. “But after much effort and many starts and stops the monument has now been reconstructed.”
It had been important to Seal to try to finish it before the anniversary of the Battle of Midway. The battle took place just six months after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Japanese planes also struck other bases across Oahu, killing both troops and civilians.
“I hope everybody studies the history books,” Louis Conter, a Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor, said in remarks delivered remotely. “There should be no monuments torn down or anything else, they should be studied as history and they should be referred to as history.”
The surprise attack on Oahu gave the Japanese Navy a critical advantage, and for the following six months it continued to hand more defeats to the Americans. But when the two forces met at Midway, the Americans managed to turn the tide of the conflict.
During the battle Japanese forces sank an American aircraft carrier along with a destroyer and destroyed 150 American warplanes. But American forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers and destroyed 248 Japanese aircraft. The battle took the lives of 307 American and 3,057 Japanese service members.
“One way to honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans is to reflect on the true cost of war,” said Gabbard. “In our mission for peace, war should be the last resort, not the first. For our service members who returned home, we need to make sure they receive the support services and benefits promised and deserved.”
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Kevin Knodell covers the military and veterans in Hawaii and the greater Pacific for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms.