By Jug Varner
As I was writing this, Don Ho's romantic Hawaiian songs played softly in the background, bringing back many thoughts of times past. His CD is a memento of my most recent visit to Oahu — a continuation of Hawaiian experiences begun six decades ago. For those who remember Don from yesteryear, he still headlines his show at a youthful 68.
Hawaii was a U.S. Territory in the 1940s, when I first saw Honolulu. I was one of untold thousands of military people passing through this Pacific crossroad on the way to an uncertain rendezvous with destiny. The recent Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor still burned in our hearts and minds, and our first sight of the damage added an eerie twinge of awe that enhanced our serious dedication to the tasks that lay ahead. Most were green kids from all walks of life who would grow up in a hurry in the months ahead. Some would not return.
It was still the small island paradise we knew vicariously from movies and newsreels at our hometown theaters. The only exception was the ever-expanding military facilities and machines to accommodate the war effort, and a sea of uniformed soldiers, sailors and marines inundating Honolulu for rest and rehabilitation. Wartime blackouts were in effect at night, and not until Japan's fate was a foregone conclusion later in the war did the locals overcome their fear of a possible invasion by enemy forces.
John Rogers Field (now Honolulu's commercial airport) was home for the Naval Air Transport Service, which for several months was my base of operation for flying personnel and supplies throughout the Pacific theater. It was a great place to return to for occasional brief respites before heading out again.
The most prominent of the few hotels at Waikiki Beach were the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana. There wasn't need for many resort hotels before the war. Only the wealthy could afford to travel to Hawaii and stay in them. Overseas commercial air service was in its infancy at that time, but the PanAm “flying boat” stopped here on an infrequent schedule. Most people arrived and departed on the steamships Luraline, Matson and Monterey.
The Navy took over the Royal Hawaiian and the Army used nearby Fort DeRussy as staging areas for troops, hastily erecting an assortment of Quonset huts and other temporary structures for billeting, service clubs and recreation facilities. The land beyond Waikiki toward Diamond Head was sparsely settled.
Being here during WWII was an unforgettable experience, not just being a part of the massive war effort, but seeing the old Hawaii as it never would be again.
From the war's end through the 1950s, developers such as Henry J. Kaiser and others altered the skyline, as well as the lives of the people, with endless commercial and residential projects. Hawaii bases were beehives of activity during the Korean War and continuing Cold War with the Communist nations. When our aircraft carrier dropped anchor at Pearl Harbor enroute to and from the Korean war zone, the Moana Hotel and its famous Banyan tree was still a favorite military watering hole, but a different metropolis was emerging. Before this decade ended Hawaii would be our forty-ninth state.
I returned again in the 1960s, as an escort officer for a group visiting Hawaiian area military installations. The Vietnam War was escalating and military activity remained high. In the city, population growth and real estate development continued apace but had not reached the height it would skyrocket to when I returned for a vacation in 1977. The Vietnam conflict was over, but military activity continued in because of the Cold War.
Now twenty-two years later, the Cold War is no more, but winds of change continue to blow in Hawaii. Local tourism is down somewhat, primarily due to Asia's economic problems. Perhaps you have noticed an increase in newspaper and TV ads promoting Hawaiian tourism in your own home areas.
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, all but hidden from view by modern skyscrapers, is a well-preserved old queen in her eighth decade. Veterans of past wars who haven't returned to paradise in recent years would hardly recognize Waikiki, Fort DeRussy, or any of the military bases they once knew.
Hawaii remains a romantic (and, for me, nostalgic) place to visit, despite Honolulu's million-plus population. Upon reflection, however, I liked it better when Oahu was a small uncluttered island in a slower-paced world.
The U.S. military played a dominant role in Hawaii's twentieth century history, but its presence today has been affected by base closings and other military priorities. Public perception may be more focused on its past achievements than its current missions, but Hawaiian bases remain strategically important. Given the ongoing changes in Asia, they may be even more important in the future.
We can only hope that the President, DOD, and Congress have the wisdom to maintain the necessary forces here. The watery graves of the Battleships Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma and their entombed heroes are stark reminders of the consequence of military unpreparedness.
By contrast, the newly opened USS Missouri Memorial is not only a symbol of victory and peace, but a product of America's industrial might and ingenuity that emerged after the disaster at Pearl Harbor to become the greatest war machine the world has ever known.
Ironically, the two largest categories of visitors at these memorials are older Americans, many of whom fought in WWII — and Japanese tourists, most of whom were not born until after the war and were shielded from the truth in the omission of that history by the Japanese educational process.
Have the lessons learned been lost on all but a few of us who were a part of it, or those with family members who passed along their stories and experiences to the heirs?
Unfortunately, most American youth today know little about Pearl Harbor, WWII, Korea, or even Vietnam. They will be our elected government officials in a few short years.
It's a different world today, and certainly a different Hawaii.