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Abandoned building full of history

The “Telephone Exchange Building” off of Mokulele Highway was built in 1942 at Naval Air Station Puunene during World War II. The bombproof building, which sits on a site owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, may become a hurricane shelter or utilized for other emergency use. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A lone two-story cement building standing in the middle of a field on the West Maui Mountains side of Mokulele Highway is a curious but familiar sight for passers-by.

The message “Never Give Up Still Missing” and the names of missing people have been painted on the weathered building’s protective wall with six vertically slit hollow windows and a ladder to the roof visible above the facade.

The old building is a mysterious landmark.

Imagine that lonely building only a few years old surrounded by two paved runways, taxiways, ramps, hangars, 271 aircraft, 300 permanent buildings and 137 temporary ones. Envision the area as a bustling Naval Air Station with more than 3,300 people.

That’s the picture in 1945 painted by reports for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which owns the site, and a state Land Use Commission filing.

The “Telephone Exchange Building” was built in 1942 and assigned to the Communications Department of Naval Air Station Puunene, said DHHL spokeswoman Ku’u-wehi Hiraishi, citing the “2016 Pulehunui Conceptual Plan” by PBR Hawaii & Associates.

The building and two other remnant Naval Air Station structures remain on the DHHL’s 184 acres along Mokulele Highway, she said. The other two structures are the Inflammable Storage Building and a concrete steel storehouse.

The buildings are considered significant under state and federal preservation guidelines and are eligible for National Historic Places recognition, Hiraishi said.

She described the Telephone Exchange Building as “a bombproof concrete structure,” which is likely why it is still standing 75 years later. Maui naval aviation historian and former U.S. Marines Sgt. Alan DeCoite said that the walls are 4 feet thick in some areas and meant to withstand bombardment from offshore warships as well as bullets.

“That’s old-school concrete,” he said Friday. “I wish they would make concrete like that today.”

“Navy specs are always the best,” he continued. “They take no shortcuts.”

DeCoite has taken veterans who were assigned to the station in its heyday through the building. He learned that “top secret stuff” from Pearl Harbor went through the teletype machines in the command center. During visits to the old building, DeCoite said he found old teletype machines with rolls of ticker tape.

He once climbed up to the second level and noticed a large water tank. DeCoite said that an old officer from the station told him that the water tank was meant to supply those inside the critical command center during attack and building lockdown.

Lenie Lawrence said he found wires on the floor, radio consoles and a bedroom in his treks inside the building. He is involved with a model airplane club that uses the drag strip on the old runway across Mokulele Highway. His father also took him on visits to the building when he was younger.

The building has double bombproof doors on the first floor and a Frigidaire air-conditioning unit, which was rare for its time but a necessity for the windowless first floor, he said.

Lawrence mentioned that his brother once landed a helicopter on the roof, which was only accessible from outside ladders that have deteriorated and become unusable.

During the 1940s, numerous buildings filled the flat plains area that was once sugar cane fields, Lawrence said.

The Maui Humane Society parking lot was the foundation for the station’s laundry. Big washing machines, “like an Army tank,” can be found in the bushes, he said.

Quonset huts that filled the isthmus were taken away for free by local residents after the station shut down. They dotted the island landscape for years, he said.

Naval Air Station Puunene grew from a civil airfield built in 1937 in the cane fields, according to LUC filings. In 1940, with war looming, the Navy, along with a small Army Air Corps support unit, began using the Puunene Airport.

The site became Naval Air Station Puunene two years later after the start of World War II. The runways were lengthened, flight simulators put in and hundreds of buildings constructed.

In 1947, the Navy returned the Puunene Airport to the Territory of Hawaii.

Hiraishi said there have been problems with trespassing, vandalism and illegal occupancy through the years in the historic buildings.

“However, if secured and maintained, the buildings could be an asset to the site and may be repurposed and integrated into future site uses, potentially as a hurricane shelter or other emergency use, due to the high quality of construction and low flooding concern,” she said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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