Medal of Honor recipients pay tribute to WWII aviators
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — Eight Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipients, in town for a convention of the war heroes, paid tribute Tuesday to four World War II aviators who were at one time based at Marine Corps Air Station Ewa and singled out for bravery "above and beyond the call of duty."
The four Marines were killed in action during the war, and streets were named after them at Ewa Field, according to the event's organizers.
The weedy and neglected state of Ewa Field, which was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, came as a surprise to some of the Medal of Honor recipients who traveled to pay respects to their fallen Marine brethren, who also were awarded the nation's highest military honor.
"We were surprised when we heard about this because the Marines, we're deep, deep in the history of our Corps, and we'd never heard of this air station," said Richard Pittman, 67, who in Vietnam in 1966 went to the aid of fellow Marines who were under heavy fire on a jungle trail.
Pittman grabbed a belt-fed M-60 machine gun and took out two enemy positions before continuing further and facing down as many as 40 enemy fighters, first with his M-60 and then with a pistol and an enemy rifle until the enemy withdrew.
For his bravery, Pittman was awarded the Medal of Honor.
The former Marine airfield he and the others visited Tuesday began as an airship mooring station in the mid-1920s. On Dec. 7, 1941, most of the nearly 50 aircraft on the ground were destroyed.
Among noteworthy units that had their origins at Ewa Field was Marine Fighter Squadron 214, commissioned on July 1, 1942, and later to come under the command of Maj. Gregory "Pappy" Boyington on Espiritu Santo island as the "Black Sheep" squadron, according to the Marines.
More than 50 of 81 living Medal of Honor recipients are in Honolulu for the weeklong 2012 Medal of Honor Convention, an annual get-together of the nation's greatest war heroes.
The commemoration at Ewa Field was one of the group's first public events. The Medal of Honor group took in the Blue Angels air show at Kaneohe Bay on Sunday and attended a reception at the governor's residence, Washington Place, Tuesday evening.
According to the Ewa Field commemoration's organizers, at least 11 Medals of Honor were awarded to service members who were at one time stationed at the airfield.
The four Marines who were based at Ewa Field and later awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during World War II were Capt. Henry Elrod, Capt. Richard Fleming, 1st Lt. Robert Hanson and Lt. Col. Harold Bauer.
Elrod was the first Marine airman to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II for his bravery.
His squadron, VMF-211, was moved to Ewa in January 1941. Part of the unit went to Wake Island, where Elrod shot down two Japanese aircraft, is credited with sinking a warship and led a ground unit before being killed in battle.
Jay Vargas, another Medal of Honor recipient who attended Tuesday's commemoration, said it was an honor for him to be at Ewa Field, but he also said that it's a forgotten site.
"This is history, and you are not going to find a site like this that is kind of isolated (like this)," he said. "I'm standing on history right now."
Vargas, 72, was recognized for leading his men in an attack on a village in Vietnam in 1968 while wounded and under intense mortar, rocket and artillery fire.
Vargas destroyed enemy bunkers and was wounded again, but pressed on and fought into the following day. He remained in the open, helping other Marines, and was hit for the third time before carrying his wounded battalion commander to cover.
Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Hank Stackpole told those present Tuesday that "it has been a fight to make sure that this field will be a historic (site) that can be seen by all of the people of Hawaii."
The future of Ewa Field, which had been slated for development, remains unclear.
The gathering was organized by Ewa Field historian John Bond and City Councilman Tom Berg. After the commemoration, which included a color guard, rifle salute and taps, Bond pointed out where Marine aircraft burned and Japanese aircraft machine gun rounds hit the concrete warm-up area where planes were parked on Dec. 7, 1941.
Yoshinobu Oshiro, now 84, who was at Tuesday's ceremony, lived across the street from the Marine air station and remembers the Japanese attack.
"We were 10, 11, 12, so we kind of thought it was some exciting maneuvers going on," Oshiro said.
"Then an adult came out and said, ‘Hey, that's a Japanese plane; that's "hinomaru," red ball. You better go home. Run, run!'" Oshiro said.