The Military and Hawai’i in World War II

Hawai’i, The Military, and the National Park: World War II and Its Impacts on Culture and the Environment
William Chapman
The American Society for Environmental History
The National Park Service, Department of the Interior
2014, 501pp

Watching Tora! Tora! Tora! for about the thirtieth time recently, I was struck by the scene where the Army radar operators trying to set up their radar on a hill on the grounds of Hawai’i National Park were stuck on the beach, thwarted by the people from the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS). That scene strikes a chord in anyone who has ever been frustrated by petty bureaucrats.

But there are two sides to every story, and it is worth noting that in the history of the American armed forces, there have been occasions when junior officers, impressed with their own authority, have added fuel to the fire by being a tad more high-handed than their more experienced superiors might have been. So whom to believe?

My older sister and Hawaiian resident Marcia Jaconi (who is, by the way, the widow of a decorated Army officer) sent me the link to a book compiled by William Chapman and the folks at the NPS. Chapman and his team went back through the records in an effort to frame the relationship between the NPS and the military during the war years.

This is not a narrative, but a methodical yet readable cultural and environmental history of the war era in Hawaii from well before the Pearl Harbor attack until after V-J Day, focused on Hawaii’s national parklands. Chapman makes clear that the NPS – and specifically the park’s superintendent, Edward Wingate – walked a fine line between protecting the park and obstructing genuine military needs.

Chapman, unsurprisingly, delivers an account that is highly sympathetic to Wingate, who comes across as a valiant guardian of the Island’s cultural and natural legacy while still doing his part to win the war. Reading between the lines, Wingate was a clearly a skillful player of the bureaucratic game, and proved a worthy foil to the territory’s military leadership. If nothing else, he compelled the defenders of Hawaii to consider the genuine military necessity of each incursion on park lands, and when it was proven, he usually (but not always) relented.

The fascinating subtext is that Washington allowed this to happen at all. Even in the face of possible invasion, no blanket authority came down to Pearl Harbor that would have allowed the military to run roughshod over the Park. In the darkest days of the war, someone very high up in Washington – likely either Harry Hopkins or FDR himself – had decided that accession to the necessities of war did not mean handing the keys to Hawaii to the military.

Which leads me to the other reason to recommend this book. Well illustrated and documented, some two-thirds of the book focuses on the park’s context, and thus paints a picture of life in Hawaii before the war, and of the islands as battleground and home front during the war that are often missing in popular histories. Of all aspects of the war, the Home Front has received short shrift from scholars, so Chapman’s work is a welcome addition to the literature on how the war was fought from behind the lines.

As an institutional history coming from the Department of the Interior, Hawai’i, the Military, and the National Park is no more the final word on the story of Hawaii during World War II than would be the official histories published by the Army, the Navy, and the Army Air Forces. It is, nonetheless, a valuable addition to those works, and opens the door to fuller, more comprehensive accounts of Hawaii’s role in the Pacific War.

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