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Sandii Kamaunu, president of the Kapalama Military Reservation Viet Nam Memorial Museum, said she specifically chose this Memorial Day weekend to open a section of the warehouse that was once used as a morgue for Vietnam War casualties. She believes that the morgue processed more than 80 percent of the combat casualties from the Vietnam War.
"This building was the first American soil touched by over 80 percent of the Vietnam veterans whose names are etched forever on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.," Kamaunu said.
A display of a 1950s-era Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) operating room and bed area are part of the exhibit that opened yesterday. It will be available for viewing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily at the old Kapalama Military Reservation at Auwiki Street and Sand Island Access Road. There is no admission fee, but donations will be accepted.
Kamaunu said the only reason the exhibit will be closed on Memorial Day is that many of her association's members are veterans and will be involved in the various observance held on Oahu.
She said that her Vietnam Memorial Society registered with the state last fall and is in the process of applying for non-profit status. It also will ask the Historic Hawaii Foundation for help in getting four of the Kapalama Military Reservation's warehouses declared as historic sites because of their place in island military history.
Besides serving as a morgue for the dead from the Vietnam War, Kapalama also was used, Kamaunu believes, to first intern Japanese Americans taken into custody after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and later used to house World War II Japanese and Italian prisoners of war.
She said that the state Department of Transportation, which acquired the 63-acre parcel in 1990 after it was deemed surplus by a Base Realignment and Closure commission two years earlier, has turned down her request to donate the four buildings to the museum.
The area has since become a fallback relocation site used by the state when it wants to move any business on property it wants to take. Several years ago, the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which oversees the redevelopment of Kakaako, unsuccessfully proposed relocating some produce operations to Kapalama.
Scott Ishikawa, state transportation department spokesman, said that under federal law the state's top priority is to consider the island's need for maritime use.
He said that within the next 10 years the state is "running out of cargo space."
"Over the long time, it's hard to justify nonmaritime use since we are running out of harbor cargo space," Ishikawa said.
All of the tenants, like Kamaunu, exist on a month-to-month lease. She moved her Military HQ surplus sales operation to Kapalama in 1994.
She wants to have 110,000 square feet of three warehouses and one chapel set aside as the Kapalama Military Reservation Viet Nam Memorial Museum. She and other organizers are hoping that an artist who has been making a two-thirds scale replica of the black granite Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., would be willing to donate one of his traveling exhibits.
Specifically, the association wants:
>> Building 913, which served as a chapel and was sectioned off so four private services could be held simultaneously.
>> Building 914, which contained the morgue.
>> Building 919, which was used for vehicle maintenance.
>> Building 920, which was installations headquarters and general accounting office.
Kamaunu said local chapters of any military unit that served in Vietnam would be given portions of the buildings to maintain where they could display photos and memorabilia from the time they served.
Wahiawa resident Robert Kent, who served two combat tours in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division, said the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans American fully endorses Kamaunu's proposal. He currently serves on its board of directors.
"We're all for it," said Kent who first heard about the idea last October when Kamaunu visited his group. "We want to help her any way we can."
Kent, who served for 21 years in the Army before retiring as a sergeant first class, said he has even approached the Army and the Navy to see if they would send volunteers to help renovate the buildings.
"They are willing to help, but want assurances that their efforts won't be for naught," Kent said.
Kamaunu said that her efforts have been hampered by the short-lived Korean War Museum that closed after five months last September because its founder, Kyle Kopitke, became embroiled in a tangle of accusations and a financial dispute with his sister-in-law over the Quonset hut that housed the museum in Wahiawa.
However, unlike Kopitke, who was seeking donations of military artifacts, Kamaunu said she is starting off with a site that has historical significance in Hawaii's military history. "I am also willing to donate valuable artifacts," she added, referring to medical supplies now housed in 89 crates that would support a 200-bed Army mobile hospital unit that her husband bought for nearly $7,000 in 1999 just before he died.
"I think it's now valued at more than $2 million, and places like the Smithsonian would like to have it," Kamaunu said.
Also, to deflect criticism that she started the museum to benefit her military surplus store, which would be housed in one of the buildings, Kamaunu said she is willing to donate all her sales to the museum.
"This is something I have to do," said Kamaunu. "I can't let the state just tear down the buildings because of the need for money. You need to take into consideration that this is part of the island's military heritage and history.
"We figure it's time. It may be 30 years too late, but it's the right thing to do."