Friday, July 5, 2013

75th Anniversary: Heroes at Hawaii's Ewa Field defended against Japan attack

75th Anniversary:

Heroes at Hawaii's Ewa Field defended against Japan attack

By John Windrow  Advertiser Staff Writer

'EWA — Sixty-eight years ago today, the United States entered one of the bloodiest struggles of its history, the war in the Pacific.

About 200 people gathered yesterday at a cracked, potholed, weedy strip of concrete at 'Ewa Field, where part of the opening salvo in that long, brutal fight was fired.

'Ewa Field has a history that time has obscured. When the carrier-launched warplanes of the Japanese Empire roared in to attack Pearl Harbor, they also hit the Marine Corps Air Station in 'Ewa, where several hundred Marines were stationed and nearly 50 aircraft were on the ground at 'Ewa Field. Four Marines and two civilians at nearby 'Ewa Plantation were killed, one of them a 6-year-old girl.

In two strafing waves and other sporadic attacks, Japanese planes destroyed or damaged most of the aircraft on the tarmac. None got into the air. Machine gun and 20mm strafing gouges and burn marks can still be seen on the concrete area where the planes were tied down.

'Ewa Beach historian John Bond, who is spearheading efforts to preserve the battle site, said the attack at 'Ewa Field may have preceded the Pearl Harbor bombing by a few minutes. So it is possible that the first U.S. shots fired at Japanese forces in World War II were at 'Ewa Field.

Those on hand yesterday, mostly veterans, military members and public officials, heard speeches about the sacrifice of American lives to preserve liberty. They paid tribute to the deserted place where they had gathered, the speakers said, sacred ground defined by the loss of American blood, where others had fallen so they could stand for liberty.

During the ceremony, wreaths were laid, a bugler played taps, a color guard marched onto the field, and Marines fired a 21-gun salute to honor the spot called a cornerstone of local and national history.

One of the men who squeezed off a few rounds that Sunday morning was on hand for yesterday's ceremony.


John Hughes, 90, a retired Marine major from Orange County, Calif., said he was sitting at 'Ewa Field waiting for the morning newspaper when: "I looked up and saw planes with a red ball on the side and a torpedo underneath flying low over the mountains. I knew what that meant, and I ran for the guard shack and told them to start breaking out ammo."

Hughes, who enlisted in the Corps in 1937 at the age of 18, was a sergeant when he was stationed on O'ahu in 1941.

He said he ran to the barracks, roused the troops and passed out belts of ammunition. The men were armed with 1903 Springfield rifles.

"I got off a few rounds, maybe three shots," Hughes said. "Then we would start moving the planes. Some planes were on fire and we moved the other ones away from them so they wouldn't explode. We'd fire a few shots and then move the planes. Then go back to firing shots."

He said the attack lasted for about two hours.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Hughes trained to be a pilot at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. At the time, enlisted men could serve as Marine pilots.

He said he flew 150 missions in the Philippines and the Solomon Islands as a dive-bomber pilot in World War II and was a helicopter pilot in the Korean War. The Distinguished Flying Cross is among his decorations. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1964.

Hughes was never wounded. "That wasn't my job," he said grinning. "My job was to do that to the other guys."

Daniel Martinez, chief historian of the USS Arizona Memorial, told the crowd that 'Ewa Field was the birth of Marine aviation in the Pacific "and that is why this place is important."

Some of the forces that helped turn the tide of the Pacific War at the Battle of Midway had been at 'Ewa Field, Martinez said, and it was "the last piece of American territory where they set foot on American soil, before they sailed off into history to give their lives for their nation and become part of our national memory."

Hughes, who stood on that field so long ago with his bolt-action Springfield taking on Zero fighters spewing machine gun fire, will be at today's much larger ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

"He appreciates the ceremony, the ritual," said his daughter Nancy, who made the trip to Hawai'i with her father, "because it keeps history alive."