Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare became the first US Navy flying ace in World War II and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the South Pacific, February 20, 1942. (National WWII Museum)
James Henry “Jimmy” Flatley Jr was awarded the Navy Cross for “fearlessly engag(ing) enemy fighters, destroying one and assisting in the destruction of another with no loss to his escort group. That evening, he led a division on combat air patrol in a fierce attack and resultant dispersal of a formation of enemy scouting planes, assisting in the destruction of two of them.” (Navy Cross Commendation)
John Smith “Jimmy” Thach, while commanding Fighting Squadron Three, developed the fighter combat technique that came to be known as the ‘Thach Weave’, a tactic that enabled the generally mediocre performing US fighters of the day to hold their own against the Japanese ‘Zero’.
In 1943, Naval Air Station Pu‘unēnē was established as a “Top Gun” school for fighter-aircraft tactics, based on the Navy’s use of highly-decorated veteran fighter pilots, including O’Hare, Flatley and Thach.
They and other instructors relayed the latest intelligence from the front lines to new pilots rotating into combat. (Cultural Surveys)
“Maui Group Local Naval Defense Forces”, based at NAS Pu’unēnē, controlled the training airspace over the Kaho‘olawe aerial bombing ranges, and administered the training schedule.
Aircraft carriers were modified for combat in the Pacific Ocean at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, while their air groups were flown to one of nine Navy airfields in Hawaii for advanced training – NAS Pu‘unēnē being the premiere airfield. (Cultural Surveys)
Before the war (and before Kahului Airport), Governor’s Executive Order No. 804 set aside about 300-acres of land at Pulehunui for the new Maui Airport to be under the control and management of the Superintendent of Public Works.
The Department of Public Works started construction on the new airport shortly after July 1, 1938. ‘Maui Airport’ was opened on June 30, 1939 (the new Maui Airport replaced a smaller airfield at Māʻalaea.)
Inter-Island Airways, Ltd (to be later known as Hawaiian Air) constructed a depot; a taxiway and turn-around were completed and graveled to serve the depot and in 1940 Inter-Island Airways funded airport station improvements.
During the time between June 30, 1939 and December 7, 1941, the civil air field was gradually enlarged and improved with some areas being paved. A small Naval Air Facility was established at the airport by the US Navy. Maui Airport became one of the three most important airports to the Territorial Airport System.
Immediately after December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, the military took control of all air fields in the Territory and began the expansion of Maui Airport at Puʻunēnē.
“On December 11, 1941 Commander John L. Murphy, USN, Commander Utility Wing Base Force came to Maui under verbal orders of the Commander Task Force Nine to prepare for the basing on Maui of personnel and equipment of one Naval Aircraft Carrier Group and one Army Air Corps Heavy Bombardment Group.” (Pu‘unēnē Unit History)
Army forces eventually concentrated on Oʻahu, leaving the Navy as the primary user of the field. An expansion lengthened and widened the runways. Under Navy control, the facility was renamed Naval Air Station Puʻunēnē, the airport served as a principal carrier plane training base.
By the end of the war, Puʻunēnē had a total complement of over 3,300-personnel and 271-aircraft. The total number of structures built numbered over 300. A total of 106-squadrons and carrier air groups passed through during WW II.
The demands of the war were such that the Navy found Puʻunēnē inadequate for the aircraft carrier training requirement and it was necessary to establish another large air station on Maui.
Accordingly, a site was chosen near the town of Kahului and, after the purchase of 1,341-acres of cane land, construction was started in 1942 on what was to become Naval Air Station, Kahului (NASKA.)
NASKA became operational in late 1943. Air crews were trained at both Puʻunēnē and NASKA. The NASKA facility later became known as Kahului Airport, under the jurisdiction of the Hawaii Aeronautics Commission.
By 1949, the land of NAS Pu‘unēnē was transferred back to the Territory of Hawaii and the structures that once stood to serve the 565 officers and 2798 enlisted men were demolished. The Kahului airport now serves as the major hub for commercial aircraft. (Cultural Surveys)