The State of Aloha

Late one night I was in my car on Hansen Road waiting at the red light next to the old sugar mill in Puunene. I was not focused on the intersection in front of me. My attention was fixed on my favorite radio show that usually discusses aliens, ghosts and Sasquatch. When the light changed, I looked up at the intersection. That’s when I saw it for the first time.

Is this real or some hallucination? Could it be the radio show playing tricks on me? Mokulele Highway — the roadway linking Central Maui to the southern shore — was gone.

The new name for state Highway Route 311 is the Maui Veterans Highway. Turned out that I was late to the party. The name change happened late last year, in October 2017. Because the highway is only among the handful of state-run highways, its naming is not done by the county, but the state Legislature.

Last year, Maui Sens. Roz Baker and Gil Keith-Agaran and a few others introduced the bill that would eventually change the name. The findings of the Legislature justify the name change.

The stretch of aging cane fields from the mill to the south shore was once the nerve center of military operations during World War II. After the United States declared war on Imperial Japan, the country roared into action. The Territory of Hawaii was the best candidate among the country’s Pacific territories to use as a training ground for troops about to face the enemy in Asia. The other tropical territory — Guam — had been occupied by the Japanese, and the remote and frigid Aleutian Islands in the Alaska territory became a front line.

Thousands of service members came. Most went to Oahu and stayed there, but a few were sent to Maui. In addition to the massive influx of people, the federal government took over a lot of facilities and land.

That included our airport. Maui’s airport was not originally located in Kahului where it is today. In 1938, the runway was in a more central part of the island around where the Maui Humane Society now stands. It was called the Puunene Airport. Two years later, the United States Navy started to use the airport as a base for its utility squadron.

After the war began, the military took over the airport entirely and changed the name to the Puunene Naval Air Station. In 1942, the Navy started to build a bigger airport that would later become the one most planes use to get to the Valley Isle today. But the military still used Puunene to train its fighter planes. Smaller planes would take to the skies above Maui and tow targets for the fighter planes. They also retrieved parachuted target flares. More than a decade after the war ended, the Navy gave the land and the airport back to the territory.

The military also trained down the road. Back then, there were no hotels and very few people among the thickets of keawe in South Maui. Ranches used the land from upper Kula all the way down to the quiet, golden-colored beaches and blue waters.

The Marines and the Navy used the coastline to practice amphibious invasions. Kahoolawe’s few residents were vacated, and the island was used for target practice. You can still see the concrete bunkers in Makena and Kihei. It was the staging ground for some of the most vicious and harrowing battles of the war in the Pacific.

And the name of the road running connecting the little airport to the training grounds on the south coast? What was it called? Mokulele Road, of course. It made perfect sense. Mokulele is the Hawaiian word for “airplane” or “flying ship.” If you break down the word even further — moku and lele — you get “island hopper.”

So, decades after the war and after the airport started by the Navy became the main hub near Kanaha, the name Mokulele Highway served as an homage to the old airport hidden among the cane fields. There are other hints on the roadway that the 7-mile expanse was more than just cane grass. Large concrete structures still stick out among the weeds.

There’s a bittersweet irony to the name change. True, nobody objects to a highway named in honor of not only the veterans of the World War II, but all veterans of all conflicts. Their service and sacrifice ought to be recognized, honored and never taken for granted.

But in changing the name from Mokulele to the Maui Veterans Highway, the Legislature has erased an old reference point to Maui’s territorial and wartime past. It means that in a generation or two, most folks will forget the old name of the Maui Veterans Highway and the Puunene Naval Air Station, nee Puunene Airport, altogether. Auwe.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”