Resurrection of a Lost Battlefield: Ewa Plain

This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.

The Ongoing Battle of Ewa Plain, Hawaii: Resurrection of a Lost Battlefield

Presenter: Ben Resnick


The Battle of Ewa Plain began in the morning of December 7, 1941 and was part of the larger surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on United States military forces stationed at Pearl Harbor. Home to the former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Ewa and several plantation villages, this area was subjected to waves of strafing by Japanese aircraft. After the attacks across Oahu, the U.S. government expanded the base considerably including the construction of half-dome, concrete revetments. The intention of this defensive measure was to conceal the location of aircraft, making it more likely of protecting these critical wartime resources.

In 1942, Ewa Field became a major marine and navy aviation training facility for Carrier Aircraft Service Unit (CASU) flight crews and mechanics. Marine and Naval aviators trained at Ewa Field participated in most of the major engagements in the Pacific including Wake Island, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of Midway. It was at Midway in June 1942 that Navy flight crews crippled or sunk four aircraft carriers against a superior Japanese enemy in what would come to represent a turning point in the Pacific theater.

Working closely with local preservationists, a National Register nomination was prepared for the battlefield and for the south revetment historic district. Local community involvement was critical to the success of the project along with the completion of extensive archival research, informant interviews, a pedestrian reconnaissance, and a geophysical survey. Because of these studies, Ewa Plain Battlefield was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places at the national level of significance under Criteria A and D.

White man with short dark hair wearing a tan jacket, cream shirt, and black tie standing at a podium.
Ben Resnick, Asst. Vice President/Sr. Director, GAI Consultants


Ben Resnick: December 7th, 1941 that date is seared into the American memory along with the words Pearl Harbor and Day of Infamy. Pearl Harbor is not the whole story. Our presentation today involves an unknown battlefield, a lost battlefield. The Battle of Ewa Plain took place just before 8:00 AM on December 7th, 1941 and was part of the larger surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese navy on the US military base at Pearl Harbor. And it was actually attacked two minutes before Pearl Harbor.

This shows the location of the site. You can see the arrow that says Pearl Harbor. That points to Ford Island, the location of Battleship Road to great extent, the focus of the Japanese attack. To the West You see MCAS Ewa. That's the location of Ewa field MCAS Ewa stands for Marine Corps Air Station Ewa. It's Ewa, but it's pronounced Eva. The air base is known geographically as Ewa Plain and so essentially it's a former coral reef. And there's a number of presently sugarcane fields at an elevation about 30 to 50 feet above sea level.

Black and white distance aerial view of X shaped runway in large white square surrounded by gray land.
Ewa Field as seen from approaching Japanese aircraft, December 7, 1941

US Navy

Japanese war planners believed that the destruction of US forces at Pearl Harbor and surrounding military facilities would allow them to consolidate their defenses, including the seizure of Southeast Asia. Again, review the map. The general order stated that the fighters or the first wave would acquire air superiority by destroying any American aircraft in the sky. If no enemy aircraft were encountered in the air, the units would immediately shift to the strafing of parked aircraft. On their first strike at Ewa field Japanese fliers approach as low as 20 to 25 feet above the tarmac, attacking single airplanes with short bursts of gunfire.

And this is Admiral Yamamoto that Nancy mentioned before. You see in the lower photo, a map board from the Akagi, which was one of the carriers involved in the attack. And you see the unmistakable configuration of the airfield being Ewa in the lower left hand corner. And it's interesting, you could see a Japanese pilot sitting there at the right extreme of the photograph. During an interview in 1950 Junichi Goto, who led a group of torpedo planes from the Akagi during the first attack wave stated. “Just as they passed over Barbara's point, the altitude of the plane was slightly under 500 meters.” He could see the parked planes clearly in the sunlight. There were no signs of activity on the ground. Goto thought that the Americans were perhaps still at Sunday morning breakfast and he was right. Since the first wave was successful in destroying the aircraft. The second wave later focused on bombing and strafing buildings and personnel. Both at the airfield as well as the nearby sugar plantation villages. Damage to aircraft was extremely heavy owing to the use of explosive incendiary bullets fired from extremely low altitudes.

And just some statistics, nine out of 11 Wildcat Fighters were destroyed, 18 out of 32 Scout Bombers, a trainer, and two transports of eight utility planes were lost on the ground. Following the first wave, Marines quickly fortified their positions and attempted to conceal their locations with whatever materials they had on hand. While at the same time trying to salvage what they could of burning equipment and aircraft. Marines used Springfield rifles, 30 caliber machine guns, and even damage aircraft to set up new anti-aircraft positions.

Technically the Japanese really only had two waves of attack. However, a third group attacked Ewa as part of a rear guard action as the withdrawal plan included the rendezvous of planes off of nearby Barbers Point. But because of lack of targets however, the third attack was relatively light and ineffectual. Seventeen year old Victor Pantohan heard planes from the first wave and climbed on the roof of his family home so we could wave to the pilots as they had done so many times before. But this time he saw that big red ball on the side of the aircraft and knew these were not American planes. So he'd got back on his bicycle, started going to the Ewa plantation offices to tell people what he had encountered and witnessed live fire. And he quickly turned around and went home. And obviously that's Victor there on the left. The other plantation company hospital treated more than 50 civilians as well as several military personnel. Patients were actually mostly villagers, although a US pilot was also treated. He was shot down off the Ewa beach area. Seven individuals suffered injuries severe enough to require hospitalization, three of which later died, including unfortunately a young girl.

Plantation records show that for the next eight months, workers uncovered unexploded munitions at the plantation, including a mix of us anti-aircraft fire and Japanese bombs. And the anti-aircraft fire was likely from Pearl Harbor, overshot firing at Japanese aircraft. Ewa Field served as the forward Marine Corp Air Field in the Hawaiian islands during World War II. And would become known as, "The hub of Marine Corps aviation in the Pacific War." In the early months of the war, marines from Ewa formed the very spearhead of America's air effort against Japan.

Immediately after the attack, the US military changed this tactic to include protecting aircraft on the ground. At Ewa field, Marines quickly constructed numerous defensive fortifications. In April, 1942 the Marines stated that it is necessary that planes be scattered and their individual parking pals be protected by revetments or splinter proof covers and camouflaged as much as possible. These measures included in part building sandbag aircraft revetments, one of which you see here, camouflaging planes with netting, placing anti-aircraft batteries along the runways, and constructing smaller machine gun positions in trenches. And you could see these early sandbag revetments were U-shaped. They're about 10 to 12 feet high. And this configuration protected the planes on three sides, but allowing them to quickly exit the revetment. And remains of several of these revetments were identified to the west of the airfield.

Development of the area, north and west of the airfield continued, and by summer of 1942 marines constructed five reinforced concrete W-shaped revetments to counter and anticipate a Japanese attack. And you have to realize after December 7th the island was in panic, they certainly believed there was going to be an invasion of the Hawaiian islands. These aircraft revetments were developed for quick alert aircraft to roll onto the runway and take off at a moment's notice. Plans also called for the construction of disperse facilities for aircraft including 75 permanent concrete half-dome revetments.

By mid-summer of 1942, the official history of the base stated, "That to the south of the airfield proper, trails into wooden areas led to new plane parking spaces and half-dome revetments were beginning to appear." And you can see in the area labeled South Revetment Dispersal Area. That's the area I'm talking about. You can see just a half a dozen pads were constructed at that time, which would be later 75 pads for the revetments. Completed by 1943, these revetments served as a model for other wartime dispersal of plane parking plans across the Pacific. The Japanese never again, as I mentioned before, attacked the bases in Hawaii. So these revetments continued to be used to store aircraft for carrier squadrons while they were in port at Pearl Harbor. Including many aircraft used in The Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal and other operations.

Since the 1960s there have been several efforts to preserve Ewa Field and its role in attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II. While the navy installed the first of several historic markers in the 60s, the site was not officially recognized as so many other bases were from the December 7th attack and in fact many of those were actually declared national historic landmarks.

Since 2013 our team has been searching MCAS Ewa as part of two National Register nominations. And these are funded by ABPP, the America's Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service which puts out grants for these types of projects. And we conducted historical research, did a reconnaissance, a geophysical survey and identified numerous features and foundations related to the attack and the operation of Ewa Field.

And this area ... Let me just go back real quick.This shows the National Register Boundary in black, and it's about 160 acres. You can see again, it's part of the larger Barbers Point Naval Air Station. The Ewa Plain battlefield was identified as far as the nomination boundary was concerned, where the air to ground assault was most intense, and where the landscape and defining features possess the highest level of integrity dating to 1941. You can see the actual layout of the runways still visible to this day.

While all the buildings and structures at Ewa Field erected by December 7th, 1941 had been torn down, their reconnaissance determined that the runways and road network are still visible as well as many archeological features. Concrete slab foundations, for example, were observed at the hangar and the bachelor officer's quarter’s barracks. Although scrub growth and trees are becoming re-established across the base, these are entirely reversible and do not significantly detract from the integrity of the overall site.

The concrete warmup platform as you just saw and I mentioned earlier, still shows evidence, of the strafing. As you could see, those little holes in the pavement from the Japanese aircraft. Linear striking in the pavement likely represents low-flying Japanese planes firing their 20 millimeter cannons and 7.7 millimeter from the tail gunners. While the navy determined that these remnants of the 41 attack were National Register eligible under criteria A and D, our nomination takes in consideration the broader battlefield. Including the 1941 era military reservation or installation, the surrounding landscape as well as related archeological resources.

And I mentioned geophysical survey. This just shows an example of us conducting a ground penetrating radar on the left and a magnetometer survey on the right. As well as we did also metal detecting and it identified additional features from the technology. And these included for example, a railroad spur, the road network, fuel storage tanks, swimming pool, hangar, barracks, and more in mass. Many of these of which are depicted in the December 2nd, ‘41 aerial photograph. Together these resources contribute to a more comprehensive interpretation of the battlefield.

Black and white aerial view looking straight down on X shaped runway in large white square and nearby buildings.
Ewa Field, December 2, 1941.

Naval History Heritage Command

Design plans indicate the location of four underground fuel tanks at the west edge of the camp. And we were able to confirm the location of these through some of our geophysical survey, as you see here. At the time of the battle, the 200 foot long hangar was just south of the warmup platform. Ironically, while it survived the attack on December 7th, it was set on fire for the filming of an attack scene for the movie Torah! Torah! Torah! So much for preservation, huh? A couple other things about this movie, I don't know if you've all saw this. It actually shows, I think both sides of the Japanese and American perspective, which was great. And I thought it was a really good film, but a couple of things about artistic license that they took into their hands. For example, it shows a photo on the right, just a P-40 pulling out of a revetment. One there were never P-40s at Ewa, more importantly, the revetments were built after the attack. But it still made a good scene for the movie.

KOCOA is a Military Terrain Analysis we use to interpret a battlefield landscape. This is what the military uses to interpret battlefields. I'm not going to go through all of this, but key terrain, cover concealment, avenues, approach, and I'll talk a little bit how we apply that to the Ewa battlefield. By the way, this is the December 2nd, ‘41 photograph that I mentioned earlier. This is just a list of some of the contributing resources we identified. You can see the list, I don't need to mention them all here. But importantly, these resources help convey the conditions at the time of the battle. The terrain analysis approach for The Battle of Ewa Plain was different in that we included aircraft and anti-aircraft suggesting an expanded definition of the battlefield. I've used KOCOA before, for example, on civil war sites. We did a lot of work at Gettysburg in the past, so we adapted it a little bit differently in this case.

Objectives, which is another element or component that we added for Ewa could include aircraft, barracks, fuel supplies, roads and railroads, and even civilians. Through our research, it became clear that Japanese pilots primary objective was to destroy American ships and aircraft. Secondarily and included the strafing of buildings and personnel objects of convenience. For Ewa Marines, their objective were to protect, conceal or salvage aircraft and to respond to the Japanese attack with anti-aircraft fire.

Dog fights occurred as a further objective to destroy enemy aircraft extending the battlefield in the air above Ewa Plain. Lieutenant Yoshio Shiga, leader of the first wave of fighters noted, "At Ewa Field anti-aircraft fire was not so fierce. I strafed those parking planes with 7.7 millimeter guns with pretty ease. I noticed a gallant soldier on the ground attempting to fire us with his pistol, to whom I paid a good respect." And you could see the center photograph there, that is a commemoration of that event during The Battle at Ewa Plain that was painted by a Hawaii artist. And Lieutenant Shiga died in 2005 at the age of 91.

Many of the defining features you could see here in our KOCOA analysis for example for Japanese pilots were runways, warm up platform, the control power tower. All operating as key terrain as well as also serving as avenues of approach. Due to their open setting, the runways and warm up platform also served as obstacles for Marines attempting to move about the base during the attack. The road network, railroad grade, and parking lots served as both key terrain and objectives for Japanese aviators, while serving as avenues of approach for Marines.

While buildings and structures acted as cover and concealment and key terrain for Marine and civilians, these were also considered objectives for Japanese pilots. And open fields also provided a tactical advantage for Japanese aviators yet operated as an obstacle of movement for Marines and civilians. Wood lots and coral features, and there are a bunch of coral features in this area. Remember I mentioned it's a former coral reef area and a lot of sinkholes. Those provided a strategic advantage to the Marines. As forested areas presented opportunity for observation of incoming planes while also including areas for cover and concealment.

The swimming pool area still visible to this day on the right, provided Japanese pilots within objective along with a nearby parking area. For Marines however, as you can see here on the left, it was a point of observation for incoming aircraft and field of fire and served as a defensive position during the battle. Based on the presence and integrity of the core area of extant resources, defining features related to the attack on December 7th, 1941, the significance of the battle, and the potential for uncovering additional intact subsurface features.

The Ewa Plain battlefield was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, under criteria A and D at the national level of significance. And I just want to briefly talk about this nomination that's currently in process going through the system. Hopefully it's at the keepers right now, and that's for the 23 acre south revetment historic district. And you could see the revetment district is in black, the much smaller area. Those little dots were actually revetments and you could see it's location just south of the National Register Boundary of the battlefield.

This is an aerial view. You can see here, three revetments, as well as a Quonset hut in the foreground. There were a total of 97 total resources in this particular district, 40 of which we recommend contribute to its national level of significance, under National Register criteria A, C, and D. And these again are 32 half-dome revetments, concrete half-dome revetments. You saw the Quonset hut and actually parts of roads that served as taxiways as well as archeological resources. The half-dome revetments were built specifically for the protection of carrier based aircraft in direct response to their destruction on December 7th.

Now it should be noted during World War II, the US military invested in the improvement and expansion of permanent installations like Ewa Field, for stationing carrier based fleets to meet the expanding needs of Naval and Marine aviation in the region. The South Revetment Historic District contains a significant concentration of distinctive, well-preserved, half-dome revetments. And by far these are the largest grouping of similarly defined defensive structures in the Pacific, and the only noted surviving examples of this architectural type in the region.

The importance of the south revetment historic district lies in its association with the development and defense of Ewa Field following the December 7th 41 attack, and its role as a model for other aircraft dispersal plans in the Pacific. The period of significance is actually 1941 to 1948, with significant dates being 1942 and 1943. Marking the construction of the half-dome revetments, but also the battles of the Midway and Guadalcanal, from which many Ewa marine and naval aviators participated, some heroically.

Aviators from Ewa Field had a connection to nearly every single pivotal battle in the Pacific during World War II, and had the largest collection of navy and marine pilots in the region leading up to The Battle of Midway. Despite being inexperienced as compared Japanese pilots, and flying inferior aircraft, with the support of Navy pilots from the USS Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown, Marine aviators assisted the crippling or sinking of four aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, and hundreds of Japanese aircraft. Captain Richard Fleming who served at Ewa fourth from the right in the rear there was the sole medal of honor recipient in Midway, which was awarded posthumously for his role in attacking Japanese carriers and the heavy cruiser Macuma.

The victory at Midway was a turning point in the Pacific war, just six months after Ewa Field and Pearl Harbor were attacked. For their actions at Midway, the aviators and support personnel of the Marine Aircraft Group 22, Mag-22 received this presidential unit citation. The significance of the Ewa Plain battlefield and South Revetment Historic District is reflected to this day in the recognition and support by local governments, veteran and community groups, avocational and military historians, and the Hawaiian legislature, which have emerged to champion the preservation of Ewa Field as a national battlefield.

The project could not have been completed without community involvement, which included many informing interviews, and the sharing of invaluable research. And I would be remiss not to point out John Bond in the upper right hand corner. John lives breathes, eats, Ewa 24/7. if not for John Bond, I wouldn't be here today. The site wouldn't be on the National Register. If you go ahead and Google Ewa Field Hawaii, you'll probably hit one of John's websites. John was a tremendous resource. Gave us historic period photographs, maps, contextual data. He was really, really helpful.

Witnesses. The witnesses in this case also were veterans, some of which obviously were Hawaiians. Talking to them was a joy and also they were just really great to work with. To this day they commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Ewa Plain in December. I had an opportunity this past June on the 76th Midway Commemoration, which was held at Ewa to speak. And it was quite an event. It was attended by several hundred members of the public and ... I'm almost done. Several hundred members of the public and involved presentations by school groups, veterans, the National Park Service, a Marine band, politicians, and World War II reenactors. It really was amazing. Walking tours were organized along with flyers describing the significance of The Historic Revetment District. And getting Ewa Plain battlefield on the national register is incredibly important. Giving the currently intense development pressure on the site, which could impact the historic battlefield. Community support is critical as residents, preservationists, and their supporters currently are waging a new battle against developers that have plans to create a racetrack on a portion of the national register site.

Importantly, the Honolulu City Council and several neighborhood boards have passed unanimous resolutions supporting the preservation of Marine Corps air station Ewa. Including the adaptive use of concrete half-dome revetments as community horse stables. And you'd see these are going to be the safest horses on the island should a hurricane hit because nothing was going to impact these concrete stables as compared to what you see elsewhere on the island. By the way, our client on both of these projects was the operator or manager of the horse stables. And you could see the Quonset hut in the background.

And I will finish up; considering the newest battle, it seems appropriate to reflect on the words of Daniel Martinez. Daniel is the chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which is Pearl Harbor. And regarding the importance of MCAS EWA, Daniel said this, and I quote, "This place is sacred ground to the United States Marines that died there, to the Japanese aviators that perished, and the civilian residents of Ewa plantation. Remembering our solemn commitment to their memory is the promise that it's fulfilled at battle grounds that are preserved and enshrined by our nation. Thank you.


Mary Striegel: Thank you. We have time for one or two questions. Who has the first question? Oh deal.

Speaker 1: Hi. Thanks very much for your talk. I didn't know about Ewa fields, so this is fantastic for the next visit to Hawaii. My question is about safety and environmental assessment. I saw that there were two ammunition sites, 16 and 17 on your aerial map. Did you address those and how in your survey? And is the site fenced? Can people just cruise in and climb on things? Is it safe?

Ben Resnick: Yeah. Well, first of all, it's not available to the wider public because it's used as horse stables. People from the military that are in Hawaii right now, whether they be Marines, navy would have, you can board their horses there for less money than it costs elsewhere. So they have their own horses there. It's private, it's fenced in and you have to be a member essentially to get in. As far as the danger from ammunition or munitions and things of that nature, we didn't deal with those. We didn't do any excavations. We just did a reconnaissance.

Hopefully in the future, there'll be a future American battlefield protection program grants that will fund an archeological survey. But I believe there has been or will be a phase one environmental site assessment, and that will take into consideration explosives and things of that nature.

Mary Striegel: Another question?

Speaker 2: I have a question pertaining to the National Register District and you talking about the battle of Midway and the planes that were parked under the revetments. Have you gotten any kickbacks from the National Park Service on the fact that the planes that were parked there aren't significant technically because they were parked there, but because of the battle of Midway? On a couple of mine, it's always, "Well they're not significant because they're there, they're significant back at the Midway itself." So I just wondering if you've got any discussion with them.

Ben Resnick: No, but it's an interesting question because as I mentioned in my talk, the aircraft that were related to the Battle of Midway were not the concrete half-dome revetments. Those were either under construction or were built later '42, '43, and of course Midway was June '42. The revetments that we're affiliated with aircraft in Midway, and you saw that Buffalo Fighter and the aircraft, those were located in the West Dispersal Area, so those are a part of the boundary. The unfortunate thing, some of it is part of the boundary, not all of it. And the reason why I say that is we weren't aware of the location of those sandbag revetments when we were there during the first reconnaissance. We found them out during the second reconnaissance.

The other problem is sometimes there's various property owners. The military does not own, or the government doesn't own all the land. So for example, we were able to get 32 of the 75 half-dome revetments for the revetment district on the register. That's because those other 40 plus revetments are another landowner, and to get something on the National Register of Historic Places, you have to have sign off from the land owner.

So we hope to incorporate those later as well as the location of the sandbag revetments. But for now, some of those are outside the boundaries.

Mary Striegel: Thank you Ben.

Speaker Bio

Ben Resnick is an Assistant Vice President/Senior Director with GAI Consultants, Inc. Based in Pittsburgh (PA), GAI is a full-service engineering and environmental consulting firm with offices throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and South including Houston. Currently, Ben is the Group Manager of GAI’s Cultural Resources Group while serving as Project Manager and Principal Investigator on numerous projects for a variety of private and public-sector clients.

Ben attended the University of Maryland and the University of South Carolina where he received his B.A. and M.A. in Anthropology and Anthropology/Public Service Archaeology, respectively. He also holds an M.B.A. from Point Park University.

Last updated: June 12, 2024