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The Ongoing Battle of Ewa Plain, Hawaii: Resurrection of a Lost Battlefield


Ben: Okay, great. Thank you. I should be under
30 minutes. I don’t get yelled at. Okay. December 7th, 1941 that date is seared into the American
memory along with the words Pearl Harbor and Day of Infamy. Pearl Harbor is not the whole
story. Our presentation today involves an unknown battlefield, a lost battlefield. The
Battle of Ewa Plain took place just before 8:00 AM on December 7th, 1941 and was part
of the larger surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese navy on the US military base at Pearl
Harbor. And it was actually attacked two minutes before Pearl Harbor.
This shows the location of the site. You can see the arrow that says Pearl Harbor. That
points to Ford Island, the location of Battleship Road to great extent, the focus of the Japanese
attack. To the West You see MCAS Ewa. That’s the location of Ewa field MCAS Ewa stands
for Marine Corps Air Station Ewa. It’s Ewa, but it’s pronounced Eva. The air base is known
geographically as Ewa Plain and so essentially it’s a former coral reef. And there’s a number
of presently sugarcane fields at an elevation about 30 to 50 feet above sea level.
At the time of our project, it was the only major battle site not listed in the National
Register of Historic Places. And it came to light partly because of the closure of Barbers
Point Naval Air Station which encompasses the site as you saw on that previous slide.
And this BRAC action, BRAC being Base Realignment Enclosure Act opened a new battle. One involving
preservationists against those of developers who favored the installation of a solar rate
at the site. But let me start with this brief introduction about the project and you’ll
see what I’m going to be talking about today. A little bit about the history of Ewa, of
reconnaissance and archeological reconnaissance we conducted. A brief discussion over KOCOA,
which is a military terrain analysis. Something about the most recent nomination on a historic
revetment district a commemoration, I was involved in actually almost exactly a year
to this day, and I’ll wrap that up with the conclusions.
Ewa field had its beginnings in the 1920s when the US navy developed a mooring mast
for dirigibles, partly to counter the growing Japanese threat in the Pacific region. And
owing to its location close to Pearl Harbor, it was identified as an emergency landing
field. Just south of the mooring mast in about 1935. additional property was leased in September,
1940 from the surrounding plantations with the intention of developing Ewa into a marine
air base. It was in the fall of 1941, as part of several major construction projects throughout
the Pacific that Ewa was built. The Marines completed the landing mat at Ewa on January
24th, 1941 and it was used for carrier landing practice. Through the spring, the new air
field continued to expand. In August, 1941 the navy authorized the expansion
of the east west runway by 500 feet, the construction of a warm up pad, a new hangar, underground
gasoline storage, recreation building, and a 2000 foot spur line from the Oahu railway.
Ewa now comprised a new airfield consisting of a cluster of tents, quickly assembled wooden
buildings, and several rows. By December 6, 1941 although still partially under construction,
the site was a fully functioning temporary defensive airfield. Working in coordination
with forward echelon marine air units deployed for outlining defenses at Wake and Midway
islands. The attack on December 7th was part of a simultaneous
attack by the Japanese on US forces and the British in the Philippines as well as Singapore
and Hong Kong. And this represented a strategy of the Japanese to destroy the western powers
naval forces. And to expand a Japanese fear of influence in the Western Pacific. And this
map actually is from six months later, July of ’42 and in fact indicates exactly what
the Japanese were trying to do. You see that line? I can’t point to it here, but the line
is really just to the west of midway. Japanese war planners believed that the destruction
of US forces at Pearl Harbor and surrounding military facilities would allow them to consolidate
their defenses, including the seizure of Southeast Asia. Again, review the map. The general order
stated that the fighters or the first wave would acquire air superiority by destroying
any American aircraft in the sky. If no enemy aircraft were encountered in the air, the
units would immediately shift to the strafing of parked aircraft. On their first strike
at Ewa field Japanese fliers approach as low as 20 to 25 feet above the tarmac, attacking
single airplanes with short bursts of gunfire. And this is Admiral Yamamoto that Nancy mentioned
before. You see in the lower photo, a map board from the Akagi, which was one of the
carriers involved in the attack. And you see the unmistakable configuration of the airfield
being Ewa in the lower left hand corner. And it’s interesting, you could see a Japanese
pilot sitting there at the right extreme of the photograph. During an interview in 1950
Junichi Goto, who led a group of torpedo planes from the Akagi during the first attack wave
stated. “Just as they passed over Barbara’s point, the altitude of the plane was slightly
under 500 meters.” He could see the parked planes clearly in the sunlight. There were
no signs of activity on the ground. Goto thought that the Americans were perhaps still at Sunday
morning breakfast and he was right. Since the first wave was successful in destroying
the aircraft. The second wave later focused on bombing and strafing buildings and personnel.
Both at the airfield as well as the nearby sugar plantation villages. Damage to aircraft
was extremely heavy owing to the use of explosive incendiary bullets fired from extremely low
altitudes. And just some statistics, nine out of 11 Wildcat
Fighters were destroyed, 18 out of 32 Scout Bombers, a trainer, and two transports of
eight utility planes were lost on the ground. Following the first wave, Marines quickly
fortified their positions and attempted to conceal their locations with whatever materials
they had on hand. While at the same time trying to salvage what they could of burning equipment
and aircraft. Marines used Springfield rifles, 30 caliber machine guns, and even damage aircraft
to set up new anti-aircraft positions. Technically the Japanese really only had two
waves of attack. However, a third group attacked Ewa as part of a rear guard action as the
withdrawal plan included the rendezvous of planes off of nearby Barbers Point. But because
of lack of targets however, the third attack was relatively light and ineffectual. Seventeen
year old Victor Pantohan heard planes from the first wave and climbed on the roof of
his family home so we could wave to the pilots as they had done so many times before. But
this time he saw that big red ball on the side of the aircraft and knew these were not
American planes. So He’d got back on his bicycle, started going to the Ewa plantation offices
to tell people what he had encountered and witnessed live fire. And he quickly turned
around and went home. And obviously that’s Victor there on the left. The other plantation
company hospital treated more than 50 civilians as well as several military personnel. Patients
were actually mostly villagers, although a US pilot was also treated. He was shot down
off the Ewa beach area. Seven individuals suffered injuries severe enough to require
hospitalization, three of which later died, including unfortunately a young girl.
Plantation records show that for the next eight months, workers uncovered unexploded
munitions at the plantation, including a mix of us anti-aircraft fire and Japanese bombs.
And the anti-aircraft fire was likely from Pearl Harbor, overshot firing at Japanese
aircraft. Ewa Field served as the forward Marine Corp Air Field in the Hawaiian islands
during World War II. And would become known as, “The hub of Marine Corps aviation in the
Pacific War.” In the early months of the war, marines from Ewa formed the very spearhead
of America’s air effort against Japan. Immediately after the attack, the US military
changed this tactic to include protecting aircraft on the ground. At Ewa field, Marines
quickly constructed numerous defensive fortifications. In April, 1942 the Marines stated that it
is necessary that planes be scattered and their individual parking pals be protected
by revetments or splinter proof covers and camouflaged as much as possible. These measures
included in part building sandbag aircraft revetments, one of which you see here, camouflaging
planes with netting, placing anti-aircraft batteries along the runways, and constructing
smaller machine gun positions in trenches. And you could see these early sandbag revetments
were U-shaped. They’re about 10 to 12 feet high. And this configuration protected the
planes on three sides, but allowing them to quickly exit the revetment. And remains of
several of these revetments were identified to the west of the airfield.
Development of the area, north and west of the airfield continued, and by summer of 1942
marines constructed five reinforced concrete W-shaped revetments to counter and anticipate
a Japanese attack. And you have to realize after December 7th the island was in panic,
they certainly believed there was going to be an invasion of the Hawaiian islands. These
aircraft revetments were developed for quick alert aircraft to roll onto the runway and
take off at a moment’s notice. Plans also called for the construction of disperse facilities
for aircraft including 75 permanent concrete half-dome revetments.
By mid-summer of 1942, the official history of the base stated, “That to the south of
the airfield proper, trails into wooden areas led to new plane parking spaces and half-dome
revetments were beginning to appear.” And you can see in the area labeled South Revetment
Dispersal Area. That’s the area I’m talking about. You can see just a half a dozen pads
were constructed at that time, which would be later 75 pads for the revetments. Completed
by 1943, these revetments served as a model for other wartime dispersal of plane parking
plans across the Pacific. The Japanese never again, as I mentioned before, attacked the
bases in Hawaii. So these revetments continued to be used to store aircraft for carrier squadrons
while they were in port at Pearl Harbor. Including many aircraft used in The Battle of Midway,
Guadalcanal and other operations. Since the 1960s there have been several efforts
to preserve Ewa Field and its role in attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II. While the
navy installed the first of several historic markers in the 60s, the site was not officially
recognized as so many other bases were from the December 7th attack and in fact many of
those were actually declared national historic landmarks.
Since 2013 our team has been searching MCAS Ewa as part of two National Register nominations.
And these are funded by ABPP, the America’s Battlefield Protection Program of the National
Park Service which puts out grants for these types of projects. And we conducted historical
research, did a reconnaissance, a geophysical survey and identified numerous features and
foundations related to the attack and the operation of Ewa Field.
And this area … Let me just go back real quick.This shows the National Register Boundary
in black, and it’s about 160 acres. You can see again, it’s part of the larger Barbers
Point Naval Air Station. The Ewa Plain battlefield was identified as far as the nomination boundary
was concerned, where the air to ground assault was most intense, and where the landscape
and defining features possess the highest level of integrity dating to 1941. You can
see the actual layout of the runways still visible to this day.
While all the buildings and structures at Ewa Field erected by December 7th, 1941 had
been torn down, their reconnaissance determined that the runways and road network are still
visible as well as many archeological features. Concrete slab foundations, for example, were
observed at the hangar and the bachelor officer’s quarter’s barracks. Although scrub growth
and trees are becoming re-established across the base, these are entirely reversible and
do not significantly detract from the integrity of the overall site.
The concrete warmup platform as you just saw and I mentioned earlier, still shows evidence,
of the strafing. As you could see, those little holes in the pavement from the Japanese aircraft.
Linear striking in the pavement likely represents low-flying Japanese planes firing their 20
millimeter cannons and 7.7 millimeter from the tail gunners. While the navy determined
that these remnants of the 41 attack were National Register eligible under criteria
A and D, our nomination takes in consideration the broader battlefield. Including the 1941
era military reservation or installation, the surrounding landscape as well as related
archeological resources. And I mentioned geophysical survey. This just
shows an example of us conducting a ground penetrating radar on the left and a magnetometer
survey on the right. As well as we did also metal detecting and it identified additional
features from the technology. And these included for example, a railroad spur, the road network,
fuel storage tanks, swimming pool, hangar, barracks, and more in mass. Many of these
of which are depicted in the December 2nd, ’41 aerial photograph. Together these resources
contribute to a more comprehensive interpretation of the battlefield.
Design plans indicate the location of four underground fuel tanks at the west edge of
the camp. And we were able to confirm the location of these through some of our geophysical
survey, as you see here. At the time of the battle, the 200 foot long hangar was just
south of the warmup platform. Ironically, while it survived the attack on December 7th,
it was set on fire for the filming of an attack scene for the movie Torah! Torah! Torah! So
much for preservation, huh? A couple other things about this movie, I don’t know if you’ve
all saw this. It actually shows, I think both sides of the Japanese and American perspective,
which was great. And I thought it was a really good film, but a couple of things about artistic
license that they took into their hands. For example, it shows a photo on the right, just
a P-40 pulling out of a revetment. One there were never P-40s at Ewa, more importantly,
the revetments were built after the attack. But it still made a good scene for the movie.
KOCOA is a Military Terrain Analysis we use to interpret a battlefield landscape. This
is what the military uses to interpret battlefields. I’m not going to go through all of this, but
key terrain, cover concealment, avenues, approach, and I’ll talk a little bit how we apply that
to the Ewa battlefield. By the way, this is the December 2nd, ’41 photograph that I mentioned
earlier. This is just a list of some of the contributing resources we identified. You
can see the list, I don’t need to mention them all here. But importantly, these resources
help convey the conditions at the time of the battle. The terrain analysis approach
for The Battle of Ewa Plain was different in that we included aircraft and anti-aircraft
suggesting an expanded definition of the battlefield. I’ve used KOCOA before, for example, on civil
war sites. We did a lot of work at Gettysburg in the past, so we adapted it a little bit
differently in this case. Objectives, which is another element or component
that we added for Ewa could include aircraft, barracks, fuel supplies, roads and railroads,
and even civilians. Through our research, it became clear that Japanese pilots primary
objective was to destroy American ships and aircraft. Secondarily and included the strafing
of buildings and personnel objects of convenience. For Ewa Marines, their objective were to protect,
conceal or salvage aircraft and to respond to the Japanese attack with anti-aircraft
fire. Dog fights occurred as a further objective
to destroy enemy aircraft extending the battlefield in the air above Ewa Plain. Lieutenant Yoshio
Shiga, leader of the first wave of fighters noted, “At Ewa Field anti-aircraft fire was
not so fierce. I strafed those parking planes with 7.7 millimeter guns with pretty ease.
I noticed a gallant soldier on the ground attempting to fire us with his pistol, to
whom I paid a good respect.” And you could see the center photograph there, that is a
commemoration of that event during The Battle at Ewa Plain that was painted by a Hawaii
artist. And Lieutenant Shiga died in 2005 at the age of 91.
Many of the defining features you could see here in our KOCOA analysis for example for
Japanese pilots were runways, warm up platform, the control power tower. All operating as
key terrain as well as also serving as avenues of approach. Due to their open setting, the
runways and warm up platform also served as obstacles for Marines attempting to move about
the base during the attack. The road network, railroad grade, and parking lots served as
both key terrain and objectives for Japanese aviators, while serving as avenues of approach
for Marines. While buildings and structures acted as cover
and concealment and key terrain for Marine and civilians, these were also considered
objectives for Japanese pilots. And open fields also provided a tactical advantage for Japanese
aviators yet operated as an obstacle of movement for Marines and civilians. Wood lots and coral
features, and there are a bunch of coral features in this area. Remember I mentioned it’s a
former coral reef area and a lot of sinkholes. Those provided a strategic advantage to the
Marines. As forested areas presented opportunity for observation of incoming planes while also
including areas for cover and concealment. The swimming pool area still visible to this
day on the right, provided Japanese pilots within objective along with a nearby parking
area. For Marines however, as you can see here on the left, it was a point of observation
for incoming aircraft and field of fire and served as a defensive position during the
battle. Based on the presence and integrity of the core area of extant resources, defining
features related to the attack on December 7th, 1941, the significance of the battle,
and the potential for uncovering additional intact subsurface features.
The Ewa Plain battlefield was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2016,
under criteria A and D at the national level of significance. And I just want to briefly
talk about this nomination that’s currently in process going through the system. Hopefully
it’s at the keepers right now, and that’s for the 23 acre south revetment historic district.
And you could see the revetment district is in black, the much smaller area. Those little
dots were actually revetments and you could see it’s location just south of the National
Register Boundary of the battlefield. This is an aerial view. You can see here,
three revetments, as well as a Quonset hut in the foreground. There were a total of 97
total resources in this particular district, 40 of which we recommend contribute to its
national level of significance, under National Register criteria A, C, and D. And these again
are 32 half-dome revetments, concrete half-dome revetments. You saw the Quonset hut and actually
parts of roads that served as taxiways as well as archeological resources. The half-dome
revetments were built specifically for the protection of carrier based aircraft in direct
response to their destruction on December 7th.
Now it should be noted during World War II, the US military invested in the improvement
and expansion of permanent installations like Ewa Field, for stationing carrier based fleets
to meet the expanding needs of Naval and Marine aviation in the region. The South Revetment
Historic District contains a significant concentration of distinctive, well-preserved, half-dome
revetments. And by far these are the largest grouping of similarly defined defensive structures
in the Pacific, and the only noted surviving examples of this architectural type in the
region. The importance of the south revetment historic
district lies in its association with the development and defense of Ewa Field following
the December 7th 41 attack, and its role as a model for other aircraft dispersal plans
in the Pacific. The period of significance is actually 1941 to 1948, with significant
dates being 1942 and 1943. Marking the construction of the half-dome revetments, but also the
battles of the Midway and Guadalcanal, from which many Ewa marine and naval aviators participated,
some heroically. Aviators from Ewa Field had a connection to
nearly every single pivotal battle in the Pacific during World War II, and had the largest
collection of navy and marine pilots in the region leading up to The Battle of Midway.
Despite being inexperienced as compared Japanese pilots, and flying inferior aircraft, with
the support of Navy pilots from the USS Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown, Marine aviators assisted
the crippling or sinking of four aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, and hundreds
of Japanese aircraft. Captain Richard Fleming who served at Ewa fourth from the right in
the rear there was the sole medal of honor recipient in Midway, which was awarded posthumously
for his role in attacking Japanese carriers and the heavy cruiser Macuma.
The victory at Midway was a turning point in the Pacific war, just six months after
Ewa Field and Pearl Harbor were attacked. For their actions at Midway, the aviators
and support personnel of the Marine Aircraft Group 22, Mag-22 received this presidential
unit citation. The significance of the Ewa Plain battlefield and South Revetment Historic
District is reflected to this day in the recognition and support by local governments, veteran
and community groups, avocational and military historians, and the Hawaiian legislature,
which have emerged to champion the preservation of Ewa Field as a national battlefield.
The project could not have been completed without community involvement, which included
many informing interviews, and the sharing of invaluable research. And I would be remiss
not to point out John Bond in the upper right hand corner. John lives breathes, eats, Ewa
24/7. if not for John Bond, I wouldn’t be here today. The site wouldn’t be on the National
Register. If you go ahead and Google Ewa Field Hawaii, you’ll probably hit one of John’s
websites. John was a tremendous resource. Gave us historic period photographs, maps,
contextual data. He was really, really helpful. Witnesses. The witnesses in this case also
were veterans, some of which obviously were Hawaiians. Talking to them was a joy and also
they were just really great to work with. To this day they commemorate the anniversary
of the Battle of Ewa Plain in December. I had an opportunity this past June on the 76th
Midway Commemoration, which was held at Ewa to speak. And it was quite an event. It was
attended by several hundred members of the public and … I’m almost done. Several hundred
members of the public and involved presentations by school groups, veterans, the National Park
Service, a Marine band, politicians, and World War II reenactors. It really was amazing.
Walking tours were organized along with flyers describing the significance of The Historic
Revetment District. And getting Ewa Plain battlefield on the national register is incredibly
important. Giving the currently intense development pressure on the site, which could impact the
historic battlefield. Community support is critical as residents, preservationists, and
their supporters currently are waging a new battle against developers that have plans
to create a racetrack on a portion of the national register site.
Importantly, the Honolulu City Council and several neighborhood boards have passed unanimous
resolutions supporting the preservation of Marine Corps air station Ewa. Including the
adaptive use of concrete half-dome revetments as community horse stables. And you’d see
these are going to be the safest horses on the island should a hurricane hit because
nothing was going to impact these concrete stables as compared to what you see elsewhere
on the island. By the way, our client on both of these projects was the operator or manager
of the horse stables. And you could see the Quonset hut in the background.
And I will finish up; considering the newest battle, it seems appropriate to reflect on
the words of Daniel Martinez. Daniel is the chief historian at the World War II Valor
in the Pacific National Monument, which is Pearl Harbor. And regarding the importance
of MCAS EWA, Daniel said this, and I quote, “This place is sacred ground to the United
States Marines that died there, to the Japanese aviators that perished, and the civilian residents
of Ewa plantation. Remembering our solemn commitment to their memory is the promise
that it’s fulfilled at battle grounds that are preserved and enshrined by our nation.
Thank you. Mary Striegel: Thank you. We have time for
one or two questions. Who has the first question? Oh deal.
Speaker 3: Hi. Thanks very much for your talk. I didn’t know about Ewa fields, so this is
fantastic for the next visit to Hawaii. My question is about safety and environmental
assessment. I saw that there were two ammunition sites, 16 and 17 on your aerial map. Did you
address those and how in your survey? And is the site fenced? Can people just cruise
in and climb on things? Is it safe? Ben: Yeah. Well, first of all, it’s not available
to the wider public because it’s used as horse stables. People from the military that are
in Hawaii right now, whether they be Marines, navy would have, you can board their horses
there for less money than it costs elsewhere. So they have their own horses there. It’s
private, it’s fenced in and you have to be a member essentially to get in. As far as
the danger from ammunition or munitions and things of that nature, we didn’t deal with
those. We didn’t do any excavations. We just did a reconnaissance.
Hopefully in the future, there’ll be a future American battlefield protection program grants
that will fund an archeological survey. But I believe there has been or will be a phase
one environmental site assessment, and that will take into consideration explosives and
things of that nature. Mary Striegel: Another question?
Speaker 4: I have a question pertaining to the National Register District and you talking
about the battle of Midway and the planes that were parked under the revetments. Have
you gotten any kickbacks from the National Park Service on the fact that the planes that
were parked there aren’t significant technically because they were parked there, but because
of the battle of Midway? On a couple of mine, it’s always, “Well they’re not significant
because they’re there, they’re significant back at the Midway itself.” So I just wondering
if you’ve got any discussion with them. Ben: No, but it’s an interesting question
because as I mentioned in my talk, the aircraft that were related to the Battle of Midway
were not the concrete half-dome revetments. Those were either under construction or were
built later ’42, ’43, and of course Midway was June ’42. The revetments that we’re affiliated
with aircraft in Midway, and you saw that Buffalo Fighter and the aircraft, those were
located in the West Dispersal Area, so those are a part of the boundary. The unfortunate
thing, some of it is part of the boundary, not all of it. And the reason why I say that
is we weren’t aware of the location of those sandbag revetments when we were there during
the first reconnaissance. We found them out during the second reconnaissance.
The other problem is sometimes there’s various property owners. The military does not own,
or the government doesn’t own all the land. So for example, we were able to get 32 of
the 75 half-dome revetments for the revetment district on the register. That’s because those
other 40 plus revetments are another landowner, and to get something on the National Register
of Historic Places, you have to have sign off from the land owner.
So we hope to incorporate those later as well as the location of the sandbag revetments.
But for now, some of those are outside the boundaries.
Mary Striegel: Thank you Ben. We have about a 10 minute break. There’s refreshments in
the back and we will start at 10:45 AM. Back at 10:45 AM.

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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