Puunene is a place name on Maui. Pu'u (poo-oo) means hill and nene (nay nay) is the native Hawaiian goose, so "Puunene" means "goose hill" in English. It is the site of an early sugar mill built in 1901 (still in operation) and associated labor camp, as well as one of Hawaii's early airports.
Puunene airport was built in 1938 by the Territory of Hawaii and was a Hawaiian Airlines destination. In 1940, the US Navy started using the airport as a base for a utility squadron VJ-3. The base was commissioned as "Naval Air Station Maui" in 1942. When the Navy built a larger airport at Kahului, it was renamed Puunene NAS. After the war, in 1947, it was handed back to the Territory.
Closed down in the late 1950s, one of the airport's runways is now used as an automobile "drag strip" and park for such activities as go-kart racing and model airplane flying. Bunkers and revetments are still visible today.
In 1994, there was a reunion of personnel who had served at Puunene NAS. At the time, I was president of the EAA Chapter 882 (Experimental Aircraft Association). Some of the members had collected letters, photographs and information about the base and created a display which was set up in honor of the reunion.
During that event, I had the pleasure of meeting two of the pilots who had served at Puunene NAS: Walter "Fritz" Moline, the first pilot to be posted to that station, and Tom Healey, the last pilot posted there. They were assigned to fly the Piper L-4 "Grasshopper", a small observation plane used for patrol duty, air ambulance service, towing targets, and other duties.
During World War II, Maui became a forward training center for the war in the Pacific. Many of the beaches which I would later enjoy as a swimmer, snorkeler and kayaker, were used to rehearse the invasion of Guadalcanal. To this day, one can find concrete bunkers at some of the beaches of south Maui. Native Hawaiians and cattle ranchers who lived on the island of Kaho'olawe, a part of Maui County, were forced to move and the island was made into a target range for the US Navy.
During WWII, Lahaina Rhodes, which in the 19th century had seen large numbers of whaling ships at anchor, saw warships in those sheltered waters. A neighbor of mine in college days was a cook serving on the battleship USS Pennsylvania when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The "Pennsy" was in dry dock when the attack occurred, so it was not as seriously damaged as other ships in the harbor. He described traveling around Maui by Model T Ford to look for supplies while the ship was at anchor off Lahaina, and told me that their provisions order for potatoes completely cleaned out the entire the island's supply.
Puunene NAS (Naval Air Station) saw use for fighter plane training as well as a base for small planes which towed targets for practice and retrieved the parachutes of target flares. (Parachutes were made of silk in those days and were very valuable). Puunene NAS was used by both the Navy and the Army. Fritz and Tom both flew the small Piper L-4 reconnaissance planes used in connection with target practice.
I don't remember who arranged our flight. It was probably my friend and EAA mentor Art Chenoweth. In any case, I had the honor of taking Fritz and Tom on a commemorative flight around Maui.
When the Navy had target practice on the island of Kahoolawe at night, they would fire flares to light the area. The flares floated down on silk parachutes which were valuable in wartime. So, brave souls like Fritz and Tom, were sent out later to retrieve the parachutes. They would fly over the target area, spot the parachutes, and land their plane as close as they could to them - on an island littered with unexploded ordinance! They'd grab the parachutes and take off back to Maui - hopefully without getting blown up in the process.
On October 30, 1994, we took off from Kahului Airport and flew along the coast of West Maui. They remembered it as if it were last week. They pointed out a place in a pineapple field where there used to be a straight length of road that they could land on. About half a mile away was a house. Well, as their story unfolded, it turned out that during the war the people in the house were eager to show their support and would host them for lunch or dinner. Perhaps needless to say, they made a fair number of unscheduled landings in that pineapple field.
We then went past Lahaina and on down to south Maui and out to the little island of Molokini, which lies between Maui and Kaho'olawe. The top of a volcanic cinder cone, Molokini is a favorite spot for snorkeling and scuba diving today. I wanted to take them over Kaho'olawe where they had picked up parachutes, but it was still "off limits" even for overflying aircraft due to the large amount of unexploded bombs. It has since been cleared of them (sort of) and the island returned to the state. Read more about Kaho'olawe here: Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana.
We then flew back toward Kahului, flying over what remains of NAS Puunene before touching down back at Kahului Airport. Our flight had taken just over an hour.
Back on the ground, I asked them to sign my log book and made sure to get pictures. This flight is one of those I will always treasure. Looking back I only wish we had more time to talk and that I had taken notes of their stories.
Like many pilots of WWII, Fritz Moline decided to seek another career after the war, while Tom Healey became a pilot for Eastern Airlines.
Thank you gentlemen for your service to our country, and for allowing me to carry you through some familiar skies once again.
Trivia - the military stopped bombing Kaho'olawe in 1990 and after spending several hundred millions of dollars to clear the island of ordinance (though not entirely), the island was finally returned to the State of Hawaii in 2003.