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Associated Press Newswires

After Decades Of Bombings, An Island Begins To Heal


April 11, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

KAHOOLAWE ISLAND, Hawaii (AP) - When Emmett Aluli first set foot here nearly three decades ago, the barren land was so littered with the remnants of years of military test bombings that he shed tears for an island he considers sacred.

Today, the Navy has finally left and the island is back in the hands of the state's people. And though significant amounts of ordnance and the hurt of Hawaiians remain, Aluli and others now see Kahoolawe as a place of hope.

"Environmentally and visually, it was the worst thing we could ever see on an island, on our land," said Aluli, a Molokai physician and member of the state-run Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission and the grass-roots Protect Kahoolawe Ohana. "We've tried our best to get the complete cleanup. We understand the shortfalls. We're just looking at the future."

On Friday, the Navy hauled off its last barge full of equipment and bombing debris. Its contractors left Kahoolawe, the latest in a long series of passages for this island that lies just six miles southwest of Maui, yet a world away.

Hawaii's wet winter is evident today on Kahoolawe, whose plains and hills, typically stripped to red dirt, are now filled with swaths of green. For Davianna McGregor, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Hawaii and a member of Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, it's just one of the signs of hope.

"You feel like the island is finally at rest and can begin healing," she said.

Healing has been a long time coming.

Anthropologists say the wind-swept island of Kahoolawe (pronounced ka-HO'oh LA-vay) was first settled and established into small fishing communities around 1000 A.D. Its lack of fresh water always posed a problem, and led to a decline in its inhabitants.

King Kamehameha III made Kahoolawe -- the smallest of the Hawaiian archipelago's eight major islands -- a prison colony for about two decades beginning around 1830. Prisoners moved out, goats and sheep moved in, and it didn't take long after ranching began in 1858 for overgrazing to leave the landscape barren.

Then came Pearl Harbor, the declaration of martial law in Hawaii, and the military's takeover of Kahoolawe as a training range. Soldiers got real-life training here that military officials say saved American lives in World War II and beyond.

For nearly five decades -- until 1990, when President George H.W. Bush ordered a halt to bombing exercises after years of protests and lawsuits by Hawaiians -- the land was ravaged.

"They sure did a hell of a job destroying it," said Walter Ritte, who was arrested when he went to Kahoolawe aboard a fishing boat in 1976 with Aluli.

The military and the U.S. Congress agreed in 1993 to an unprecedented $460 million cleanup on this heap of red dirt rising from the Pacific. Logistics aside, the numbers alone are incredible: More than 100,000 ordnance items collected and destroyed, contributing to a tally of 12.9 million pounds of scrap metal hauled away.

"The Navy is not disappointed," said Rear Adm. Barry McCullough, commander of Navy Region Hawaii, who made a final trip to the island Friday to survey the land and thank workers. McCullough said he understood the hurt and concerns of some who felt more could have been done, but insisted "the Navy did what it was chartered to do."

The massive cleanup -- on a land area far greater than the high-profile bombing site of Vieques in Puerto Rico -- was limited by funding, technology and time.

Some 22,114 acres of Kahoolawe's surface have been cleared of ordnance -- about 84.5 percent, according to the Navy, which does not count 2,600 acres it deems completely inaccessible, or about 76.9 percent of the island's total area. Only 2,650 acres -- 9 or 10 percent, depending who's counting -- has been cleared to four feet below ground.

The amount of land cleared below ground is of concern because it represents areas where native plants can possibly be grown, a first step in ending erosion.

Stanton Enomoto, the acting executive director of Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, says the Navy did what it could given constraints, but work remains to be done.

"That's always going to be a reminder to us," he said. "There's still an obligation on the part of the United States that they have to finish the job."

It's unlikely Kahoolawe and its waters will ever -- or at least not soon -- be freed of the reminders of the bombings that scarred the land. But the remaining ordnance may actually be a blessing.

"It provides an ironic sense of protection from the kind of commercial development that has happened on the other islands," said McGregor. "It's never going to be safe for hotel development or golf course development or other commercial uses that have ruined very sacred spaces on the other islands."

For all the desolation of this land, it's also a place of beauty -- both overt and subdued. There are stretches of white sand beaches, high cliffs plunging to seas of sapphire waters that attract seals, whales and pods of dolphins. And fields of spindly tamarisk, spurts of ilima and kiawe.

All manner of suggestions have surfaced on how this priceless piece of real estate should be used -- from a homeland for Palestinians to a massive casino in a state that bars all gambling but whose people favor Las Vegas vacations.

For now, though, access will be limited. Small groups will visit for cultural and educational purposes, but widespread use will likely be restricted until the fragile environment is restored. Ultimately, control is to be transferred to a Native Hawaiian sovereign entity.

It will always remain a reminder of what Hawaiians regard as a painful lapse in history.

Hawaiians regularly hold religious ceremonies on the island, chanting and praying that ancestors grant forgiveness for allowing the land to be disrespected.

Aluli said the wrongs done to Kahoolawe are no longer the focus.

"The main thing is the island is at peace again."


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