Remembering Camp Tarawa

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<p>Recently acquired Camp Tarawa photos, depicting a lion mascot, among other things, were on display at the talk story session held on June 8. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Jim Browne, a marine himself, shares his knowledge of the time of Camp Tarawa at the talk story session held on June 8. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Kathy Painton, with the Camp Tarawa Foundation, took a special interest in the history of the place, as her father was a member of the 5th Division at Camp Tarawa. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Kathy Painton, whose father was in the 5th Division at Camp Tarawa, was among the speakers at the talk story session held on June 8. She holds a rifle, showing how much weight the men had to carry in training and combat. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>
<p>Jim Browne plays a bugle at the closing of the Camp Tarawa Foundation talk story held on June 8 at Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)</p>

Seventy years ago in 1943, tens of thousands of war-weary U.S. Marines arrived on the Big Island, survivors of the amphibious assault and bloody three-day battle against the troops of the Imperial Japanese Special Landing Forces (Japanese Marines) at Tarawa, on the Betio Atoll, in the Gilbert Islands in the South Central Pacific.

They were transported by train and truck to their short-term home in the town of Waimea, where a tent camp had been set up as a base for training and recuperation. During the next two years, more than 50,000 troops lived and trained at this site, named Camp Tarawa, in recognition of their sacrifices far from home.

In 2006, a few local Marine veterans formed the Camp Tarawa detachment of the Marine Corps League, a national organization that bands together active duty Marines and veterans to perpetuate the traditions of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The mission of the Camp Tarawa detachment is “keeping history alive,” said Bob Strickland, Marine veteran and member of the detachment, during an informative presentation at Puu Kohola National Historic Site last Saturday.

“We formed the Camp Tarawa Foundation a few years ago so that we could accept donations. We wanted to open a Camp Tarawa museum in Waikoloa,” said detachment member Kathy Painton. The museum would archive the physical history of Camp Tarawa: the maps, uniforms, papers and memorabilia.

The 137,000 acres for Camp Tarawa, extending from Pohakuloa to Hapuna Beach and north to Mahukona, was leased from Richard Smart, the owner of Parker Ranch, for just $1 per year. One of the stipulations of the lease was that the land would be restored to its pre-military state at the end of the lease.

“That’s why there is so little physical evidence of Camp Tarawa in Waimea,” said Painton.

Despite the lack of physical history to observe, the detachment docents have laid out a 50-mile driving tour to key Camp Tarawa sites.

The site of the tent camp is adjacent to the Camp Tarawa memorial just outside Waimea town on both sides of Mamalohoa Highway. Thousands of tents stood on what is now the subdivision of Lualai, as well as along the road to the Smart family home, Puopelu, that was used as a command outpost. The airfield was located next to what is now Lalamilo Farm Road.

For training exercise, the Marines marched 12 miles down to Hapuna Beach, where they were housed in tents and practiced with landing craft. “Many of the Marines did not know how to swim, so they taught them down at Hapuna,” said Strickland.

The Kohala Coast was used to simulate the coast of Iwo Jima, an island south of the Japanese main islands that would be the site of a bloody invasion and victory for the Marines. To maintain secrecy, the invasion target was called “Island X.” Troops practiced scaling the Buster Brown hill, landing amphibious craft in Pololu Valley, and endured live-fire training, all of which took the lives of several Marines during the Camp Tarawa years.

“Iwo Jima was needed as a stop-over to extend the range of bombers heading from Saipan and Tinian to mainland Japan,” said Jim Browne, detachment member.

The next wave of Camp Tarawa Marines were headed to the invasions of Saipan and Tinian, so they trained in the sugar cane fields of the Hamakua Coast, to simulate local conditions on those islands.

The history of the Camp Tarawa years are being updated as local Waimea residents and Marine veterans share their memories. “We’d like to hear from anybody that has stories, photos, or memorabilia to share with us about Camp Tarawa,” said Painton.

This December 3, will mark the 70th Anniversary of the 2nd Marine Division’s arrival in Waimea. The Camp Tarawa Foundation is dedicated to preserving the history of the community’s involvement in providing support services for these young Marines and docents are anxious to meet with individuals who remember the Marine’s presence in Waimea during WWII. These kupuna will be honored as Grand Marshals in the Waimea Christmas Twilight Parade on December 7.

To learn more about Camp Tarawa history or to schedule a driving tour of historic sites, contact one of the detachment docents: Jim Browne at 883-0069, email barefoot@hawaii.rr.com; Kathy Painton at 880-9880, email kathypainton@hotmail.com, or Bob Strickland at 769-4870, email earlstrick@aol.com.