When you think of military facilities out on the ʻEwa Plain, your attention is most often brought only to the Naval Air Station Barber’s Point. Yet, that was not the first military installation, there. An often-overlooked airfield and battlefield are there, too.
Let’s look back.
On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane 20-feet above a wind-swept beach in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina; the flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Over the following years the fledgling flight industry evolved and grew. Within a decade, tactical use was evident in the US military.
Prior to powered, winged flight, military used blimps, airships and dirigible balloons (lighter than air craft using gas to lift the craft.) The US military looked to bring them to the Islands.
On March 28, 1917, folks looked for a location for a lighter-than-air base in Hawaiʻi; “the most suitable site for the location of a rigid airship station in Hawaiʻi is, on the south side of Oʻahu, between Pearl Harbor and Barber’s Point.”
Back then, runways weren’t needed/used for the airship; they were tied to mooring masts (a line from the mast was tied to the bow of the airship to hold it there, while not in use.)
On May 4, 1925, the Navy contracted with Louis R Smith of Honolulu “to erect the mooring mast, clear the site, erect buildings, and install incidental machinery and piping.” A circular railroad for tethering the airship was later added. (Frye & Resnick)
The ʻEwa Mooring Mast was meant to be used by the helium-inflated airships USS Akron and USS Macon. They were designed for long-range scouting in support of naval operations. Each carried Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes which could be launched and recovered in flight, extending the range over the open ocean, looking for enemy vessels.
Sometime later, the Navy also constructed an oil-surfaced, 150-foot by 1,500-foot emergency landing field at ʻEwa.
Although intended to provide an air station for lighter-than-air craft, none ever visited the station. The crashes of the Akron (1933 off New Jersey) and the Macon (1935 off California) resulted in the Navy cancelling the program. But that didn’t end aviation activities in the ʻEwa Plain.
On February 15, 1935, the Honolulu Advertiser reported on the closure of the Mooring Mast and also noted “The field will be put in condition to make it suitable for emergency airplane landings.”
That year, the Army broke ground for a more than 2,000-acre airbase to be known as Hickam Field. Additional work continued at the ʻEwa Field.
The construction of what would become Marine Corps Base ʻEwa (ʻEwa Field) was part of the US military and economic expansion into the Pacific region starting in the 1930s and early-1940s to counter the Japanese Empire.
The US Navy’s plan for expansion of its bases was part of a larger mobilization of the American economy for war, which began in 1939, picked up sharply in mid-1940 after the Germans overran Western Europe.
Because of the growing needs of Naval and Marine Aviation in the Pacific as part of the expansion to a 10,000-aircraft Navy, the Navy decided to make ʻEwa its own base for the Marines, rather than a part of the larger Naval Air Station.
ʻEwa was made available for Marine Corps aircraft use in 1939. In September 1940, after the original lease expired, an additional 3,500-acres were acquired from the Campbell Estate for the enlargement of the emergency landing field.
Ewa Field’s war-time configuration was begun in January 1941 when Marines arrived to begin expanding the station from the short landing mat and airship mooring mast into an installation that could house a Marine aircraft group. By January 29 of that year, it was pronounced “available for use … for carrier landing practice”.
Additional construction on the station commenced that month; men were quartered in tents for several months until housing was finished in late-1941. In the interim, runways and permanent operations and support facilities were built. A control tower (‘crow’s nest’) for the emerging runways was built in the mooring mast. (AECOM & Mason)
By December 1941, the station had paved runways in the form of a large X, a concrete aircraft warm-up platform, and many support and operational buildings.
The Marine Corps’ ʻEwa Field and the surrounding vicinity was one of several areas on Oʻahu that Japanese forces targeted during their surprise attack on December 7, 1941; it appears that ʻEwa Field was attacked approximately two minutes before Pearl Harbor.
While the ultimate Japanese military objective was the temporary destruction of the American Pacific fleet, a secondary objective included the targeting of aircraft (on the ground and in the air,) including ʻEwa Field, to guarantee air superiority and ensure success of the mission. (Frye & Resnick)
The Marines had 48-aircraft stationed at Ewa Field; in the attack the action was perceived as coming in three “separate and distinct attacks” and was undertaken by a large number of aircraft.
Strafing with their machine guns and cannon, the Zeros concentrated their fire on the “dispersed tactical aircraft” firing short bursts, the reversed course for repeated passes at their targets. (The first wave had destroyed all of the aircraft at ʻEwa.)
“(W)e noticed 20 or 30-airplanes in a traffic pattern at ʻEwa, the Marine landing field. We found they were Japanese dive bombers strafing the field.” (Welch; Bond)
With the expansion of naval bases in the Pacific, including the continued expansion of ʻEwa, the US created a new air base at Barbers Point, designed to provide the necessary landing field facilities for the plane complements of two aircraft carriers.” (The new airfield at Barbers Point started in November 1941.)
So, there were two nearby air stations built at the ʻEwa Plain: ʻEwa Field, the first (and smaller) and the Naval Air Station Barber’s Point, the larger. (After 1942, ʻEwa Field was known as Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) ʻEwa.)
ʻEwa was officially closed on June 18, 1952 and its property assumed by Naval Air Station Barbers Point. (The thirty-two revetments on the property, originally designed to shield aircraft from bomb blasts, have served as stables since the 1950s and provide a home for approximately 50 horses.)
Barber’s Point was decommissioned by the Navy in 1998 and turned over to the State of Hawaiʻi for use as Kalaeloa Airport and is used by the US Coast Guard, Hawaii Community College Flight Program, Hawaiʻi National Guard and general aviation, as well as an alternate landing site for Honolulu International Airport.
Several installations on Oahu associated with the December 7 attack are listed on the National Register as National Historic Landmarks: Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, Kaneohe, and Wheeler Field.
ʻEwa Plain Battlefield, which is composed of former ʻEwa Field, was the only major battle site from the Japanese attack not currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places (on February 9, 2015, the Keeper of the National Register noted the Ewa Mooring Mast Field is eligible for listing on the National Register.)
Efforts continue to get it appropriated listed with the other battlefields. (Lots of the information here is from John Bond, Frye & Resnick and AECOM & Mason.)