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Tuesday, February 22, 2000

1941 radar
finally honored

Experts hail the unit that gave
first warning in the Pearl Harbor
attack as an engineering milestone

By Gregg K. Kakesako


It's taken nearly a decade, but the historic Opana Point radar site -- which first detected the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 59 years ago -- will finally be recognized as an engineering milestone.

Members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers of Hawaii will unveil a plaque at the Turtle Bay Hotel tomorrow designating the Opana radar site an "electrical engineering milestone."

The radar site, 532 feet above sea level in the Kahuku mountain range, is already listed in the State Register of Historical Places, the National Register of Historical Places and among the National Historic Landmarks.

Paul Kostek, past president of the 350,000-member institute, said the "dedication brings closure to a significant engineering achievement," whose nomination as an electrical engineering and computing milestone has been pending since 1990.

Other engineering milestones recognized by Kostek's organization include the first wearable cardiac pacemaker, developed between 1957-58; Volta's electrical battery, invented in 1799; Hidetsugu Yagi's short antenna, invented in 1924; and the transcontinental telegraph, invented in 1861.

"Many of these achievements have brought everyday conveniences, such as the computer, television, cell phones, the electric light and Internet," Kostek said.

The plaque has to be placed at Turtle Bay, because the World War II Opana Point radar site is now a top-secret military communications installation, said Fred Kobashikawa, the organization's spokesman.

Only an old Army concrete bunker, overgrown with hale koa bushes, marks the location.

Just after 7 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, an Army signal corps team manning the infant SCR-270B mobile radar unit on the remote North Shore bluff spotted a wave of airplanes on its screen -- about an hour before the attack began on the Pacific Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor.

The information was relayed to Fort Shafter, where officials brushed the sighting off as a ferry flight of six B-17s from Hamilton Field in California. The wave turned out to be 175 Japanese attack planes, 132 miles north of Oahu, preparing to swoop down on Pearl Harbor and other Oahu military installations.

The U.S. signal team, which had designed and developed the SCR-270B at Fort Monmouth in Jersey, was "devastated" when they heard of the attack, said Mark Slattery, a Maui Community College building trades professor.

"They thought their equipment had failed," said Slattery, whose father, John "Jack" Slattery, helped design the SCR-270B's 40-by-20-foot antennae and transmitters.

Slattery's father told him that "everyone was down in the dumps wondering how they could have been caught unaware," he said. "As it turned out, they (Oahu military officials) had gotten good information, but they just didn't know what to do with it."

Kermit Tyler, the Fort Shafter Army pilot who told Opana Point operators on Dec. 7, "It's OK, don't worry about it," recently said that the Army then didn't have enough experience to tell the difference between a B-17 flight and anything else.

The two radar operators at Opana Point continued to track the Japanese fighters until 7:40 a.m., when the aircraft were obscured by island ground cover. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:55 a.m. They caught seven battleships unguarded at their moorings.

Besides Opana Point, mobile radar units were established at five other locations in 1941: Kawailoa, Kaaawa, Koko Crater, Fort Shafter and Waianae.

Around 6:30 a.m. Dec. 7, Slattery said, another radar location had sighted a lone plane south of Lahaina. It was an advance scout from one of the Japanese carriers.

Slattery said his father, now 91, has been a frequent island visitor and even is a registered professional engineer in Hawaii. "But he has never been to the Opana site."

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