WWII on Maui: Mokulele 'O Maui

(We must never forget the changes of history and the many lessons taught)

The military history of Oʻahu during WW2 is well known. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the turn point for America’s entrance into the war on December 7th, 1941.

What may not be well known is Maui’s military contributions to WW2. The island had the largest Naval Air Station in the world at the time in Puʻunēnē (central Maui) and throughout the war Maui was the training ground for tens of thousands of troops and pilots. It changed the entire society of that time by introducing a generation of new people to the island.

Pearl Harbor & World War 2 Influences:

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a massive shock to the people of Maui. They fully expected an invasion and began to prepare by barricading beaches and building gun emplacements, the ruins of which can still be seen today. Several incidents only heightened the tension. A Japanese submarine lobbed shells into Kahului Harbor but luckily none of them exploded. Then on January 25th 1942 another submarine torpedoed and sank the transport ship General Royal T Frank in the channel between Maui and the Big Island. Twenty Nine persons were lost while 33 survived.

Maui quickly became a training ground for the war in the Pacific. There were two airfields built in Maui; Kahului which became today’s Maui Airport and Puʻunēnē in central Maui being home to the largest U.S. Naval Air Station of the war. Aircraft carriers would pause on their way to Oahu and all the planes would launch and fly to Maui’s air station for training while the carriers traveled on to Pearl Harbor empty of planes. Well over 20,000 pilots trained in the skies over Maui.

As you drive along Mokulele Highway between Kahului and Kihei you may notice out in the sugarcane fields some strange looking buildings. These are the remnants of the sprawling air station that included bomb and ammunition magazines, aircraft hangers, and staging areas for fighter, torpedo bomber and dive bombers and capacity for an entire aircraft carrier group. Today Maui Speedway, located between Kahului and Kihei, is one of the many runways in use at the naval air station during WWII.

Training for the War in the Pacific

By 1943 close to 50 different military training areas were in use as Maui became fully engaged in the war effort. The facilities included live grenade courses, pistol, rifle and machine gun ranges, a bazooka area, a mortar and artillery impact area, a seacoast artillery range, an anti-aircraft firing area, combat firing ranges for tanks and halftracks in coordination with infantry and a two story pier jutting into the ocean from the Kihei coastline. Amphibious training activities stretched from Ma’alaea Bay to Makena Landing.