Lanakai Pillboxes

Lanakai Pillboxes-7The Ka’iwa Ridge Trail, also known as the Lanikai Pillbox Trail provides one of the most beautiful and panoramic views I’ve had the opportunity to witness. The climb to the ridge and the reward are in the same class as my trek to the granite summit of the Yosemite icon of Half Dome. Once on the ridge the views of windward Oahu are stunning.

Lanakai PillboxesConstructed on the narrow ridge in 1943, overlooking what is now Lanakai, this pair of outposts tell a story about America’s decisive entrance into World War II. America was fearful of more attacks, more unknowns. Until the surprise of December 7, the people of the US were ambivalent as Hitler marched across and terrorized the European continent. This invasion was the first attack on American soil since the Attack of Orleans in 1918 when a German U-boat fired several rounds toward the town of Orleans, MA.

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In military terms, a pillbox actually refers to a defensive site such as a machine gun pillbox, which is not the case here. This pair of concrete structures perched on the top of the ridge, and often referred to as the “Lanakai Pillboxes”, functioned as coastal artillery observation stations. They were not equipped with defensive armament. The raised platforms found within the stations did not mount machine guns, rather, they were equipped with high-powered observing instruments used to fix a maritime vessel’s position from the station.

The uneasiness experienced by Americans in the days and years after December 7, 1941 has been obscured over the ensuing years. Life went on after the armistice. Many, like my parents, joined into military service and contributed to the successful outcome for America and the allies. My mother and father both joined the Marines, her from Illinois and him from Ohio. They were anxious to be a part of something larger than themselves. They met in Honolulu, and, after the fighting was finally over, like so many of that era, life went on. But few remember, or realize, the apprehension, the concern that the jewel of the Pacific, one of the most strategic ports in the world, might be attacked again.

History reminds us that the words “Pearl Harbor” refers to the Japanese surprise attack on the home of the US Pacific Fleet on the morning of December 7, 1941. Early that Sunday morning the aircraft carrier, Enterprise, left the islands to deliver F4F Wildcat fighters to Wake Island, and hours later 2,400 died and 1,200 were wounded, and that most of the battleships berthed at the naval station were either sunk or badly damaged. This was the onset of American participation in World War II and given the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, maintaining a naval force was paramount in this location.

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Lanakai Pillboxes-15To protect the strategic port, a monumental re-building task was undertaken. The islands were hastily fortified with armaments. A prodigious influx of military personnel descended upon the islands. Buildings were built and roads were constructed and such a force would require supplies and repairs on a constant basis. The island of Oahu offered the best natural port in the Hawaiian Islands.

Once the US Navy committed to establishing a major base in the islands, the Army was assigned the mission to defend the port against all known threats.

The Army’s mission was to ensure the safety of the military assets in Hawaii. With little time to lose, America’s Army built an island fortress with sophisticated artillery defenses, multiple airfields, underground command centers, beach defenses, mobile troop formations and large supply center. The facility was designed to provide the Navy with a protected naval station to support the US Pacific Fleet.
For seven years after the initial attack, beyond even the end of the war, the hard lessons learned manifested itself in the increased pace of construction of Oahu’s defenses. By the time the Japanese surrendered in September of 1945, this small island was arguably the most heavily defended place in the world.

By the end of December 1941 the American military began to dismiss the likelihood of another Japanese attack on the islands. Additional raids were still possible, but it was obvious that the majority of the Japanese resources were being deployed to the southwestern Pacific. For the balance of the war though, the Hawaiian Islands and particularly Oahu, were still seen as an exposed base that could receive enemy attention with little or no warning. Allied successes drove the Japanese further away, but the active defense of the island community and the major operating base never ceased. Until the end of the war, and for some time afterward, the coast defense batteries, the coast defense batteries and the Army’s infantry regiments stayed alert.

Lanakai Pillboxes-17The significant impact of the Japanese attack on the American military at Pearl Harbor, and the tactical thinking of the day, brought rise to some thinking outside the box. The coastal artillery batteries for Oahu are among the most interesting and technically sophisticated fortification projects ever launched by the US government. Fortifications to guard the shores and interests of America.
While the Army was was actively looking for ways to quickly augment the artillery defenses of Oahu following the attack, the Navy offered a prize that seemed to solve the problem. Excess heavy artillery in the form of naval turret mounts were soon to become available. The Navy offered heavy weaponry for use as the coastal defense of Oahu.
Eight dual 8 inch gun turrets were to be removed from the aircraft carriers USS Lexington and the USS Saratoga in February of 1942.

Lanakai Pillboxes-20It was also deemed possible that one or more of the turrets from the sunken battleship Arizona could be salvaged and turned over to the Army.

Both offers were quickly accepted.

The Washington Naval Treaty, enacted in 1922, allocated tonnage for aircraft carriers and at the same time restricted new battleship and battlecruiser construction. Warfare aviation was making huge strides in aircraft speed, maneuverability and armaments. Prevailing naval doctrine foresaw that carriers might have to defend themselves against marauding cruisers.

Prior to December 7, 1941, aircraft carriers were fitted with four dual 8 inch gun mounts. By mid-1941 a decision had been made to remove these mounts and to use the space to provide a like number of 5 inch / 38 caliber, dual-purpose guns to significantly enhance the ships anti-aircraft capabilities. The Saratoga had new 5 inch guns installed in Bremerton, but the Lexington was lost at the battle of the Coral Sea before her new guns could be mounted.
The Hawaiian Department accepted the two pairs of 8 inch guns in January of 1942. The decision included the mounting of these guns as four two-turret batteries (four guns per site). With an 18 mile range, all were placed well back from the shoreline. One pair at Brodie Camp, 775 feet above sea level, and one at Salt Lake, 190 feet above sea level, covering the north and south shores. Another pair of guns was at Opaeula, roughly five miles ESE from the village of Haleiwa at 1,120 feet above sea level. The last pair was installed at 1,200 feet above sea level at Wiliwilinui Ridge, about 3.3 miles NE of Diamond Head Crater.

Sometime after WWII, the military sold the ridge to a private individual, and then it was subsequently resold one or perhaps two more times to private individuals until the late 1980’s.  The last private owner submitted plans to build a house on the site and drill a hole through the rocks to provide ventilation for the house.  Around this time the State was promoting it’s Na Ala Hele trail system, and the Lanikai Association proposed the State buy the property, since it was an historic site and was already a well-publicized trail. The State then incorporated the trail into their trail system with two public easements to the top.
Today the pair of structures adhere to the narrow Ka’iwa Ridge, incorrect moniker still intact. Part of another era, another set of circumstances. Painted with colorful graffiti inside and out, these isolated and somber outposts represent a part of the trodden pathway we have traveled as a nation.
Although never tested, the armaments provided a sense of security for the residents of this isolated island community.Lanakai Pillboxes-19
Today this pair of historic sentinels keep watch over the windward communities of the island of Oahu. Keeping watch over the tranquil beauty these islands are known for. And all of those who come are rewarded to enjoy two little concrete bunkers who found another life.

Lanakai Pillboxes-14Today the sharp angular forms of their exteriors and spartan interiors are coated with bright-colored murals. Splashed one over the other in a colorful array of street art. Each carries a message of its own, and collectively, they speak a language of a free people.

Not military issue, not meant for the local art museum. Rather, a favorite art form of mine. Something I like to call urban art – all the way out here in the middle of the Pacific.

View the print version- click on the link below.

Lanakai Pillboxes




PA Davis-photo card



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