Originally an Army camp named Camp Waimea, when the population in town was about 400, it became the largest Marine training facility in the Pacific following the battle of Tarawa. Camp Tarawa trained over 50,000 servicemen between 1942 and 1945 in the community of Waimea, South Kohala, Hawaiʻi.
There were three ways to get to Camp Tarawa – by narrow-gage sugarcane freight train; by hard-axle truck or on foot. The 3rd Marine Corps built a small airstrip near town, consisting of a graded and oiled airstrip 3,000-feet long on land belonging to Parker Ranch. This facility was known as Bordelon Field.
The field was named for William James Bordelon (December 25, 1920 – November 20, 1943), a US Marine who was killed in action while he led the assault on the enemy and rescued fellow Marines during the Battle of Tarawa. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Following the war, the field was renamed Kamuela Airport. In 1947, funds were appropriated for the development of this field to meet scheduled airline operations using DC-3 aircraft. The strip was successfully used by non-scheduled operators flying small planes and also, on several occasions, by DC-3s, but the strip was hazardous for DC-3 operations.
The community wanted a satisfactory airport in this area, not only for the convenience of the travelling public, but for the transportation of produce from this area to the Honolulu market.
Extensive studies were conducted with regard to the further development of lands for increased production of farm commodities and if the community were assured of prompt delivery of its goods to the local markets, the air freight carriers alone would be the major users of this field.
However, in 1950 Kamuela Airport was deemed unsuitable for development as a modern airport. Studies of terrain and weather were conducted to find a suitable site for a new Kamuela Airport.
In the meantime, the airport was served by daily (except Sunday) scheduled freight flights and non-scheduled passenger planes. (It did not meet the requirements for scheduled passenger service. )
On January 28, 1952, the construction of the new Kamuela Airport was awarded to Hawaiian Dredging Company; the new airport was just across the highway from the old one. The landing strip was to be 5,200 feet by 100 feet.
It was foreseen that the new airport would aid the development of the agricultural industry in Hawaii. Air freight traffic at the old Kamuela was sizeable. The field would be served by scheduled airlines, non-scheduled passenger airlines and freight air carriers.
The new Kamuela Airport runway was completed in April 1953; the old Kamuela Airport (Bordelon Field) was inactivated in August 1953.
In May 1953, Hawaiian Airlines began DC-3 cargo operations at the new airport and on July 1, 1953 it started scheduled passenger service, three times a week. The terminal featured a ranch house design and was the first of a combination passenger-freight structure in the island. This airport was completed entirely with Territorial funds without Federal Aid.
The Island of Hawaiʻi’s County Council adopted Waimea as the official name for the area in which the airport was located. A 1969 legislative resolution requested that the airport be designated as Waimea-Kohala Airport to prevent confusion with Waimea, Kauaʻi.
Shunichi Kimura, Mayor of Hawaiʻi County, hearing the desires of the County Council and residents around Kamuela, asked that the name of the airport be changed from Kamuela Airport to Waimea-Kohala Airport. This was approved by Governor John Burns.
On October 1, 1970 Waimea-Kohala Airport was placed under the control of a new position in the State Airports Division, the North Hawaii District Superintendent.
An innovative project in 1975 installed a wind-driven generator to power obstruction lights; previously, power had been provided by acetylene and later by storage batteries, all of which required continual maintenance. The wind-driven generator that powered the obstruction lights resulted in a substantial savings in operating costs.
By 1976 there was a 24 percent drop in passengers at the airport. This was due to the completion of the new highway connecting the airport to the visitor destinations in the vicinity of Waimea-Kohala Airport and the more frequent scheduling of flights into Keāhole Airport.
In 1978 the airport was designated as an eligible point to receive Essential Air Service (EAS) under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. On October 1, 1979 the Civil Aeronautics Board Order 79-10-3, the Bureau of Domestic Aviation, defined essential air service for Kamuela as a minimum of two daily round trip flights to Honolulu or Hilo and Kahului providing a total of at least 62 seats in each direction per day.