Wednesday, August 29, 2018

A Journey To Remnants of the Second World War: The Pu'u'ohulu Kai Hike


Hiking in Hawaii to abandoned military bunkers that would've been the first line of defense in a Japanese attack, or worse, an invasion.


- One of Battery Hulu's pillboxes overlooking the Pacific Ocean.


I like The Man in the High Castle. It’s an entertaining show, one with the drama set in an alternate history: a “what could’ve been” if the Allies had lost the Second World War. The characters are spread about a 1960s America that, after a series of historical events with different outcomes and unlikely military defeats, is now occupied by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The two Axis Powers are locked in a cold war not totally unlike the tension felt between the victorious United States and Soviet Union from our reality. It's an imaginative and terrifying premise that is a reversal of what really happened. The show’s scenes can be striking: the swastika casually flying above New York City, Japanese troops occupying San Francisco. However, it’s often what’s left to the imagination that conjures up the more frightening thoughts as characters describe the earlier days of the show’s timeline: when enemy troops landed on our shores, marched across our soil, and then demanded the surrender of our government and the systematic deaths of those they targeted.

- Japanese troops raising the Imperial flag on the Alaskan island of Kiska. Image via Wikipedia.


The real world, thankfully, didn’t turn out like the show or the pages of the book it’s based on. The Allies crushed the Axis powers on a scale never before seen in history (before any alt-right, Nazi sympathizers email me: no, the Reich never stood a chance). Historically, what Japan and Nazi Germany would’ve counted, or been able to actually achieve, as “victory” didn’t include any full-scale occupation and destruction of the United States. Nevertheless, the idea of invasions, bombing runs, or attacks on American soil scared the hell out of people, and they prepared for those situations throughout the course of the war.

The Nazis had a Russian problem and were also busy tangling with the Allies in Northern Africa. They had shelved their half-baked plan to cross the English Channel and invade the United Kingdom with hardly a dream of causing significant damage to the United States’ Eastern Seaboard. Japan, however, had achieved complete and total surprise with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although it had failed to truly and decisively cripple the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet, the Imperial war machine still went on the offensive, their surprise attack having shocked the American military and civilian communities alike.

While cities such as Los Angeles were unlikely to be bombed (the U.S. Mainland sitting well outside of Japan’s strategic naval positions), Hawaii had already proven to be vulnerable. A second, much smaller, relatively ineffective, and little-known attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in 1942, and Japanese troops occupied a remote part of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands for a time. Anti-aircraft and defensive infrastructure were installed up and down America’s West Coast, while citizens practiced black out policies and air raid drills. Plans to boost the defense infrastructure of Hawaii were rolled out quickly. All over Oahu, fortified military posts known as “pillboxes” were built as lookout points for another Japanese attack, or in a more dire scenario, an invasion fleet.

- One of Hawaii's many pillboxes.


There was to be no surprise, no being caught off guard again. If the enemy was sending out amphibious landing ships and preparing battleships for coastal bombardment, these pillboxes would see them coming from miles away and could then coordinate the reporting of enemy positions and movements, rallying fellow forces to their defensive positions.

Very quickly, that scenario was reversed, though. It was the Americans who dispatched the invasion fleets, sent forth men on the landing ships, and shelled the enemy with massive guns from the seas. Island after island, month after month, year after year, the Allies, lead primarily by the U.S. Marines, beat back a determined, fanatic enemy. After grueling combat in horrid conditions, Japan surrendered with two of its cities decimated by atomic weaponry, half a world away from the defensive pillboxes of Hawaii that never even caught a glimpse of combat, let alone the enemy (and in reality, were often equipped with outdated, ineffective weaponry).

With Japan’s defeat, the U.S. was well on its way to projecting its strength throughout the Pacific and establishing itself as a superpower. Combined with a peacetime stance and advances in technology, much of Hawaii’s World War Two era defense infrastructure (some of which predated the conflict) was left to disrepair and abandonment. These days, those pillboxes are often unofficial tourist attractions with beautiful views, sitting atop hiking trails that range from moderate jaunts to challenging climbs. They’re also key pieces of history, remnants of lessons learned after what was then the deadliest attack on American soil, one that awoke “the sleeping giant.” They’re reminders of darker days that stood in stark contrast to the sun-washed Hawaii beaches of the present.

Some of these military remnants are more accommodating to visitors than others. I chose the location I was visiting based solely on what was close by, in an affordable Uber range. It wouldn’t be the abandoned railway of Koko Head or the guarded, closed-to-the-public “stairway to heaven.” But hopefully it’d be worth the trip, a break from synthetic atmosphere of the resort, and a chance to step back into history and, like The Man In The High Castle, think “what if?”

- Looking out from inside one of the pillboxes.


My driver was kind, making small talk about his time living on Oahu over the years, asking what brought me here this week and what I’d be doing while visiting. We spoke about Pearl Harbor and the common tourist spots before he pulled up to a random road bordered by a subdivision and large hill (I’m not sure if “mountain” is the proper term here, even if my legs are currently killing me as I write this atop the summit.)

“Uh, are you sure this is where you want to go?” Abdolhossein said.

“Yep,” I replied. “I’m just going up that path over there in the grass.”

“Be careful,” he said, confused, as we parted ways.

- The trail to some of Battery Hulu's abandoned pillboxes.


I don’t hike regularly. In its usual sense, the internet was rife with a lot of difference advice. Some said this walk was good for kids; others said it was “moderate” for adults. No matter what it would end up being, I just hoped that my old running shoes and single water bottle would be enough. It was recommended to do this trek in the morning, when the weather’s cooler. I wasn’t getting around to it until an hour or so before noon.

I found what I assumed to be the trail entrance, a path of rocks subtly cutting through the grass. Making my way forward, glaring at the ridgeline above, I was realizing that this wasn’t going to be a totally simple walk. I have no problems cycling or running for extended periods of time, but the distance and height of what lay ahead seemed a bit intimidating, no matter how many online reviews credited this hike as “easy.” I also began to worry if I had enough water. Nevertheless, my ride was gone and I had come this far, knowing deep down that the payoff of this little adventure would be more rewarding than another afternoon of beer at the resort’s poolside bar.

Quickly, I could feel sweat pooling all over my body, a mixture of perspiration and sunscreen rolling off my forehead and into the vision behind my sunglasses. Occasionally, I’d find some shade beneath a tree, catching a break and a few sips of water while roosters and cars lacking mufflers rang up from the subdivision below.

My breathing became heavy; I’d been fighting a summer cold ever since I left the airport in Cincinnati. Still struggling to breathe through my nose, the hike was seeming far more challenging than I thought it’d be, my sinuses struggling along with my legs and feet.

- Remnants of military infrastructure on the hillside.


I stopped to photograph the first remains of military infrastructure I came across—random collections of concrete on the hillside—as other hikers walked by.

“You still have about thirty minutes up,” one said, simply waving without a glance as I chirped back a thanks.

Finally, the path lead to where I could see some of the pillboxes, my destination, on the ridgeline above, seemingly shaking in the sun far ahead as heat rose off the ground, still quite a bit of a way’s off.

I came across some more people, stepping aside so they could pass. “Almost there?” I asked.

“About 120 yards,” the woman replied in a British accent.

“Worth the hike?” I inquired.

“Well, whether it is or not, you’ve come this far up the hill.”

True.

- Infrastructure remnants and a first glimpse of the pillboxes.


I finally reached the first pillbox. Although I’ve loved photographing abandoned places and writing about history for years, having been on far more risky and daring adventures than this one, the unique, abandoned military installations weren’t what was catching my eyes or visual interest here. It was the view: a sweeping panorama of the Pacific Ocean and Western Oahu shore.





I stepped into the pillbox itself, slugging back gulps of water and making small talk with the lady inside who was waving to her family further up the ridge.

“This was far enough for me,” she said, looking up to more pillboxes in the distance.

- Pillbox interior.


The end of a major enemy in the Pacific and the advent of modern radar systems had ended the pillboxes’ utility as lookout spots. Yet I was finding them to still be functional even if left to their own eroding fate. They provide respite, shade, and a nice cool place to take a break after making the “climb” (a dramatic way to describe a moderate hike in the heat). They’re pretty bare structures, long stripped of any soldiers and surplus material - graffitied overlooks for tourists straying from the regular offerings of shaved ice and luaus. I rested for a bit while snapping photographs, gazing down at the highway below with the ocean behind it and patches of various shades of blue in the water as far as the eyes could see.

- Pillbox entrance.

- Looking down on the Pacific Ocean and Farrington Highway.

After cooling down, I gathered up my bag and walked up the ever-narrowing path to the next pillbox. Just as barren as the first, just as graffiti-laden, just as nice a place to escape the sun.

- One pillbox overlooking another.


The path to pillbox three got slightly more treacherous, at least to me. I did my best to keep my balance in old shoes on a narrow trail of rocks. The girl in hiking gear who confidently strode past me, blaring Cardi B. from a wireless speaker, seemed to handle it with ease. I was now at the most iconic pillbox on this hike: “the pink one.” A few years back, someone had encased this former watch post in pink paint and a roughly drawn ribbon to signify support for breast cancer awareness, a few years' worth of more casual graffiti now slowly re-encroaching on this well-intended, pink gesture.

- Graffitied for Breast Cancer Awareness: the "pink pillbox."


Finally, I made my way up the hill to the final and largest fortification on the ridge. The graffiti here is nowhere near as fresh and the space is a little darker, signs that most who make the initial climb probably don’t bother to come this far. Yet the few who do leave their trash for the mice. A few scurried away when I walked in. This pillbox is the most camouflaged; it is larger and it was constructed into the hillside. Perhaps it was once some sort of command point?

- The "command point" built into the hillside.

- Entrance to the "command point."

- Looking out from the "command point."

- Graffiti in the "command point."


I made my way back down to the pink pillbox, now totally alone atop the summit; everyone else seemed to have retreated back down and away from the ever-warming sun. I made a few more photographs, took in the view, and sat down to write. What better place to write and reflect on a subject than within it, moments after you’ve explored it?


As I started putting these words down, my solitary state was eventually broken. More and more people began streaming up the hillside. They snapped selfies, shared snacks, passed around water bottles and easily climbed atop the pillboxes for better views. Several came by into this particular bunker and said hello, others just nodded as they passed.

- A fellow hiker climbs the pink pillbox.


I had been grateful to be alone earlier, but now didn’t mind the crowd. I liked that people were coming up to see this sight, to take in a truly unique experience. So many other abandoned places I’ve explored over the years required climbing a fence or some elaborate plan; they were trips to places that were often off limits and rarely seen by others. Even if they were “easy” locations, they weren’t typically subjects people knew about or were really interested in seeing for themselves. I’d been alone or with only a few friends on so many urban exploration trips over the years. Having some company on this day was a nice change of pace.

- Some fellow visitors standing atop one of the pillboxes.


I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like to man these positions at the height of the war. Was this a good duty to be assigned? An unlucky detail? What would you do if the enemy appeared on the horizon—guns, artillery, and invading soldiers headed for your hastily built concrete bunker? As the war wore on, did you realize that these pillboxes weren’t really doing much, that the battle and action were now far beyond Hawaii? Maybe that was ok? Maybe you didn’t envy the boys on Guadalcanal or the ones who were never coming home? These fortifications had stood the test of time, but would they have withstood the test of Japanese military engineering? Better to be in a pillbox than a coffin, right?


An ever-growing crowd of people started to distract from trying to contemplate the surroundings of where I stood. Now, “company” was becoming a mass of selfie-stick-wielding, drone-flying, yoga-posing tourists. In an impersonality that I’d later find at Pearl Harbor, I was surprised to find so many people treating a historical sight so casually. Then again, was this really a “historic sight”? The war began in the nearby harbor and played out in the world beyond. This was simply a concrete box, a relic, a neat story, a unique place to visit on vacation. Nothing terribly special, aside from the view, which was what probably brought most people in. The throngs of passing sightseers spoke different languages, and it was hard for me to imagine this nation in a state of massive conflict such as World War Two. It was surreal to think of the problems of today caused by flawed politicians and ineffective leaders who could never hold a candle to the those that fought in the battles of a war that these pillboxes were constructed for.

- Interior of the pink pillbox.


I think that’s enough for now. The breeze feels nice and the ocean looks beautiful. I want to go swimming. I’m glad I came here and wish I had time to go find more of these kinds of sites across the islands. Perhaps the ones that are a bit more challenging to reach, a bit more unknown, a bit quieter.

- Standing atop one pillbox's graffitied roof.

- The pillboxes (left) are far from the most impressive sight to see.


As more and more people arrive, bringing their music and flying more drones, and they break out their beers, I start to feel an urge to leave (as well as a regret for not bringing an ice cold lager). I pack up my things and make a few quick photographs, stopping to watch a man fly his drone, a technology vastly different from the Japanese aircraft these pillboxes would’ve once been used for spotting. More and more people are coming up the worn path, to a place that’s metaphorically “off the beaten path,” as I make my exit. A couple stops me and asks me to take their photograph.

"Arigato" they say, smiling, after I hand back their camera.

- The pink pillbox atop Pu'u'ohulu kai.

Thanks to Jake and Craig for the recommendation of checking out some pillboxes while on vacation.

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