The old runway tarmac at historic Haleiwa Field is being reclaimed by trees and weeds.

Where heroes
took to the air

THE date might live in infamy, but the places are being overgrown.

On Dec. 7, 1941, combined forces of the Japanese Imperial Navy struck at Naval and Army installations on Oahu -- and the secondary target was the fleet of American aircraft scattered about the island, aircraft that could disrupt the aerial assault and then follow the fleeing Japanese back to their carriers.

The first targets hit were the airfields: Wheeler, Kaneohe, Ewa, Hickam, Ford Island, Bellows and the civilian airport serving Honolulu. In the strafing and bombing, scores of American aircraft were destroyed in a few minutes. The Imperial bombers could then concentrate on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

But several American aircraft escaped the initial wave and turned the tables on the Imperial warplanes, shooting down several. How this happened is an enduring legend of the attack.

During the buildup of fortifications on "Fortress Oahu" in the late '30s, dozens of tiny airfields, often less than a thousand feet long, were created. Stanley Field, for example, was situated where the parade ground is now at Schofield Barracks.

A P-39 fighter revs its engine at Haleiwa Field during the war.

Beachside at the North Shore town of Haleiwa, next to a military rest-and-recreation area, a dirt runway was hacked out of the hale koa. Called simply Haleiwa Field, it first opened for business in the early '30s, but was primarily considered an emergency strip. Personnel stationed there lived in tents. In December 1941, the field retained a number of P-40 and P-36 fighters of the 47th Pursuit Squadron.

When the attack started, Lt. George Welch and 2nd Lt. Kenneth Taylor hurriedly drove to Haleiwa from Wheeler, dodging strafing Zeros. The P-40s had been overlooked by the Japanese. Once in the air, they shot down several Japanese planes and were widely publicized as among the first heroes of the Pacific War, and were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

During the war, the runway was paved and it became a busy reliever base for fighter aircraft patrolling the islands.

Little remains today. The tarmac is severely compromised by weed growth, and the old bomb shelters and ammunition bunkers are home to homeless squatters. The land remains undeveloped and is owned by Kamehameha Schools, although there is talk of creating a housing development.

Hawaiian Historical Aviation Foundation members are interested in restoring part of Haleiwa Field to its original condition, given its national historical importance. The idea is also to create a large open space that can be used for North Shore events.

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