A cluster of historic buildings is being slated for demolition at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe, including an aircraft hangar — then known as Hangar 2, now as Hangar 103 — where one of the first great acts of World War II heroism took place on Dec. 7, 1941.

The Marine Corps wants to tear down the hangar, which is on the edge of the Kaneohe Naval Air Station national historic district, to create new facilities for an incoming fleet of drones and aerial refueling craft. More historic buildings would be torn down under another proposal.

Military historians were particularly dismayed to learn of the Marine Corps’ plans to demolish the legendary hangar.

Aerial view of Kaneohe Marine Corps Base, Kanoeohe Bay and Kailua
Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe and neighboring town of Kailua, viewed from the air. Hangars are visible on the southwest part of the peninsula. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat 2022

“I’m shocked they are trying to do that,” said Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the National Park Service’s Pearl Harbor National Memorial. “That’s historic property there. Men died there. Medal of Honor recipients stood there. Why would you take down our military history?”

“It hurts my heart,” said World War II historian J. Michael Wenger, of Raleigh, N.C. “I understand why they feel compelled to do this but as a historian, I think it is an absolute disaster.”

In an email, the Historic Hawaii Foundation said it “strongly opposes” the proposed demolition of the hangar and has asked the Marine Corps to consider alternate sites for the construction plans.

The State Historic Preservation Division has raised numerous questions about the Marine Corps’ plans as it reviews the environmental assessment that is required for the project. It has asked the military to consider “additional efforts” to mitigate the potential damage.

Making Room For New Aircraft

Marine Corps representatives said the changes are necessary to make room for new aircraft that meet modern military needs. They said removal of the buildings, including Hangar 103, would open up space, allow new construction and make it easier and safer for aircraft to maneuver on the ground.

“The reality is Marine Corps Base Hawaii is on a peninsula with limited space,” said 1st Lt. Mark McDonough, the base spokesman. “We have operational requirements to support.”

June Cleghorn, the base’s senior cultural resources manager, said base officers have preserved and managed to retain World War II-era buildings for many years, but the buildings are no longer viable for military operations.

“When you look at our hangars, we have been able to reuse them for several decades now,” she said. “I’m not surprised to hear military historians are distressed that a significant World War II resource is being proposed for demolition, but this is also an active military installation and that’s an active runway and airfield.”

The demolition of the hangar is part of a significant redevelopment of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, where officials are systematically eliminating many buildings that were there during World War II. Marine Corps officials said they are doing it for safety reasons, to modernize, to meet other government regulations or to redevelop the sites.

Kaneohe Naval Air Station, 1941
This map of Kaneohe Naval Air Station shows the configuration of the hangars in July 1941, with Hangar 2, the scene of great bravery, first renamed Hangar 3, and later, Hangar 103. Courtesy: J. Michael Wenger

Kaneohe is one of the least-known of the significant World War II sites, even though it was one of the most important. Located on the windward coast of the island, 12 miles from Honolulu over the steep and jagged Koolau mountain ridge, it may have been the first military base on American soil attacked by the Japanese, the first raid occurring nearly simultaneously with the assault on Wheeler Air Force Base, a few minutes before the coordinated strike on Pearl Harbor itself.

The Attack Begins

The Japanese were seeking to knock out possible American air defenses to clear their way as they attacked Pearl Harbor and to prevent their own aircraft carriers from being located and attacked. Kaneohe was an aerial patrol and reconnaissance base that monitored the waters around Hawaii. It housed some three dozen Catalina “flying boats,” aircraft that could take off from water, also known as PBYs.

“Kaneohe was probably the first place strafed by Japanese Zeroes of the entire attack,” said historian and author John Di Virgilio, a lifelong World War II buff who grew up in neighboring Kailua. “It was attacked very early, even before Wheeler.”

Japanese military aviators hit the Kaneohe base twice, once a few minutes before 8 a.m., heavily strafing the site, and then returned again about 45 minutes later, strafing and bombing the base, leaving huge pits in the cement of the runways and staging areas.

The 450 soldiers stationed at the Kaneohe base were caught by surprise and virtually defenseless from airborne attack. About 20 soldiers and civilians were killed and more than 50 were wounded.

One Japanese aviator was shot down at Kaneohe and buried on the base. His remains were later returned to Japan.

Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe after attack
Kaneohe Naval Air Station after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack: Hangar 1 was destroyed, Hangar 2 survived. Naval History and Heritage Command

The installation, then known as Kaneohe Naval Air Station, was less than two years old at the time, built on former farm fields and fish ponds, and established as global hostilities flared in both Europe and Asia. The base was still under construction.

The aircraft at Kaneohe were housed and maintained at two hangars. The first, known as Hangar 1, was bombed and burned to the ground, leaving only a steel skeleton. It was later rebuilt.

Acts Of Bravery

The second, Hangar 2, was the site where the war’s first Medal of Honor was earned.

Navy sailor John Finn, a chief aviation ordnanceman assigned to Hangar 2, was off duty that day. He was just waking up at his home with his wife, and they were joking about who should make the coffee, according to the 2015 book “No One Avoided Danger: NAS Kaneohe and the Japanese Attack of 7 December 1941.”

Suddenly he heard what sounded like machine-gun fire, and a neighbor came pounding on the door to raise an alarm. Finn jumped into his 1938 Chevrolet and sped to Hangar 2, flooring the pedal as Japanese aircraft buzzed overhead.

The base was in total disarray. Few of the men found ways to return fire. They had no heavy anti-aircraft defenses. The flying boats that were out in the open were in the process of being destroyed; the PBYs inside Hangar 1 were lost when the building collapsed in flames.

One remaining PBY was sheltered, parked inside Hangar 2. Finn took a position outside of the hangar, in defense of the base and the aircraft inside.

With bullets and bombs raining from the sky, Finn located a machine gun and mounted it on an instruction stand, firing up at enemy airplanes, suffering more than 20 wounds from gunfire or bomb shrapnel. Badly bloodied, Finn at last walked to the dispensary.

“Everybody thought I was dying,” he recalled later, as the 2015 book recorded.

The PBY inside Hangar 2 was the only aircraft on base at the time that survived undamaged.

Finn earned a medal of honor for his bravery. “It was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention,” the citation for the award read.

He became an officer and an inspiration to other soldiers, serving until 1956. The Navy used his image in recruitment advertising published nationwide, describing Finn’s actions as “in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.” In 2017, the Navy named a new guided-missile destroyer after him, christening it the USS John Finn, and created a graphic to explain what Finn had done.

graphic celebrating Lt. John William Finn
In 2017, the US Navy created a graphic to celebrate the life of Lt. John William Finn, the first member of the armed services to earn the Medal of Honor for heroism during World War II. Courtesy: Justin Pacheco, DVIDS

Finn’s role was long remembered in Hawaii and across the country. He was the keynote speaker at the 61st anniversary Pearl Harbor commemoration, the Honolulu Advertiser reported in 2002.

‘The Most Important Building Historically’

Finn joined then-President Barack Obama at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington in 2009 and later met with him at the White House. At Finn’s death at age 100, Obama, a frequent visitor to the Kaneohe base during his vacations in Hawaii, extolled him in a statement:

“Under a torrent of gunfire, Lt. Finn defended his fellow Sailors, holding his position for two hours until the skies went quiet, despite suffering serious wounds,” Obama said. “… As we mark Memorial Day, and pay tribute to all who have fallen in defense of this nation, the passing of Lt. Finn is a reminder of the sacrifices that generations have made to preserve the freedoms we hold dear.”

Wenger, co-author of the 2015 book with Di Virgilio, called Hangar 2 “an important place, a very important place,” and he said it was “critical” to save the building.

“They could tear down the whole rest of the base — I mean level everything to the sand — if they kept this one building,” he said. “It’s the most important building historically on that base.”

One reason the building is at risk today is that it was never named individually to the National Register of Historic Places, which very narrowly named Hangar 1 and its environs. The building numbers have changed over the years, complicating identification of the structures. A small maintenance building between Hangars 2 and 3 was sometimes known as Hangar 2 and was later enlarged. Then Hangar 2 — the Hangar 2 of World War II fame — became known as Hangar 3, and later, as Hangar 103.

There is some indication that excluding the original Hangar 2 may have been an oversight when the official national historic district was designated in 1986. According to a handwritten notation attached to the file at the National Archives, photographs of the base at the time of the attack had not been received when the paperwork was finalized, and questions about the district’s boundaries and what should be included for protection were left unanswered. The landmark designation mentioned Finn at length but not the building where the events occurred. Only Hangar 1 was cited in the nomination.

“The reality is Marine Corps Base Hawaii is on a peninsula with limited space.” — 1st Lt. Mark McDonough, base spokesman

Cleghorn said she and other base historians conducted a full inventory of historic sites on base, which was completed about 20 years ago, and identified Hangar 2 as part of a larger historic aviation district that was eligible for listing on the national historic register, but military officials decided against going forward and finalizing the more expansive historic designation.

“The Marine Corps has not moved forward with listing the aviation district on the national register,” Cleghorn said.

The Marine Corps has acknowledged that demolishing the building would have an “adverse effect on historic properties.”

The new demolition plans at Kaneohe are part of a continuing process. According to the environmental assessment that proposed tearing down Hangar 2, the Marines tore down 15 other historic buildings in the past 16 years, six proposed under the environmental assessment under review now, including Hangar 2, and are making plans to remove seven more.

The additional small outbuildings specified for destruction now are 159, 160, 161, 183 and 184, according to the current environmental assessment. The second proposal under consideration for the future would remove Hangar 4 and six buildings numbered 601, 602, 603, 605, 612 and 620.

The World War II barracks have also been destroyed and replaced. Marine Corps officials said the new buildings look similar but are more comfortable and have modern amenities.

Private James Evans fought attackers from roof of the barracks
Pfc. James Evans tried to fight off Japanese planes from the roof of the barracks at Kaneohe Naval Air Station. Courtesy: J. Michael Wenger

The previous barracks were also the site of events that drew great admiration during World War II. Pfc. James Evans, for example, climbed to the roof of the barracks and fired at Japanese aircraft with a Springfield rifle, according to the book on the events at Kaneohe.

The Marines are also planning to remove Hangar 5, another one built during World War II, Cleghorn said.

If military officials proceed, they will have removed four of the five hangars that served the U.S. military in World War II. There are no reported plans to remove Hangar 1, the historic landmark structure.

Cleghorn said the base is caring for the remaining buildings and is preserving some buildings of special architectural merit, known for large, light-filled windows, that are being used by military officials.

“Hickam has preserved their buildings that are bullet-riddled, Wheeler has done the same,” Martinez said. “Why can the Air Force do that and the Navy can’t?”

“Anywhere heroism was shown at that high of a level, with a lot of men killed and wounded there, and that the marks of December 7 are still on the ramps and tarmacs and hangars still have bullet damage, why would they want that history not preserved? Where is their heritage that they so cherish?”

Marine Corps Base Hawaii is closed to the public for security reasons, as are other military installations, and the historic areas are visited only rarely by military historians or World War II buffs. People who are interested in visiting the site can do so by request to Cleghorn, McDonough or directly to MCBH Commander Col. Speros C. Koumparakis.

The deadline to file comments on the draft environmental assessment, including the Hangar 2 demolition plan, has been extended to Sept. 21.

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