It was a gorgeous afternoon. The trade winds had returned, the sun was warm, and I gave myself the all-too-rare treat of a swim at Charley Young, aka Kamaole I, my vote for best beach on Maui.
The water was cool and clear, the wind not too bad. Soon I was gliding through the aqua waves, letting the current drive me to the south end. We sometimes grab dinner and watch the sun set there from the little park.
It's all so far from the days in World War II when sleepy South Maui teemed with military installations. From an in-house column Maizie Sanford wrote for The Maui News, I learned that the Army took over Kalama Park, the Navy took over Pu'unene airfield, and the whole coastline was guarded by military units including the National Guard.
When the Marines arrived, they trained for beach landings on the south shore from Maalaea to La Perouse Bay. Kamaole I became the training encampment for the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams, forerunner of the vaunted SEALs.
The UDTs were classified top secret, and the base was off limits for news correspondents and USO shows, thus nothing was written about them in The Maui News. Maizie, who lived on Maui when Pearl Harbor was attacked, mentioned her interest in World War II history one day to Denise Cohen, who gave her a treasure. It was a manuscript by Cohen's stepfather, Lionel Blankenship, recounting his training days at the base, built in March 1944.
"A primitive road ran through the Demolition Base . . . parallel to the beach. On the beach side were officers' quarters, training staff quarters, library, laundry and chow hall. All were tent-like construction. The only thing made of good solid wood were the old, smelly outdoor toilets. Completing the makai layout were a couple of volleyball courts in the sand, a scrawny post office and a two-story training pier protruding into the ocean."
(With a snorkel you can still see the remains of the pier, a double row of pilings heading straight out to sea, not too far from the current lifeguard tower.)
On the mauka side of the road were enlisted men's quarters called "The Dust Bowl" with toilets on one side and open-air cold-water showers on the other. There was also a drill area and a softball field for recreation. Refreshments were found in an open-air beer garden (two cans of beer a day was the allotment) and "a hamburger and pineapple juice restaurant run by some Hawaiians. The Demos called it the 'kanakee shack.'"
A guardhouse sat at the north end of the base next to the road. "This was the only security available on the unfenced base. A top secret organization with minimum security seemed to be the situation on Maui. The people who ran the kanakee shack, a hog farmer down the road, and an occasional lady taxi driver from Wailuku, were admitted freely. It was nothing uncommon to see a lady taxi driver unloading a couple of drunken Demos by the open showers while naked sailors were taking their shower. But war correspondents were never allowed on the base - just everyone else, it seemed."
A bronze plaque at the south end of the beach memorializes the "frogmen," who numbered 3,000 by the end of the war and served as invaluable advance teams for the invasions of the Pacific islands held by the Japanese - the Marshall Islands, Peleliu, Saipan, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa among others.
The men trained 12 to 18 hours a day for six weeks in both reconnaissance and demolition work. "Wearing only swimming trunks, special swim shoes, fins, and a knife," they were dropped into the water by a high-speed landing craft heading at 30 miles an hour toward the shore. The men scrambled into a rubber boat tied alongside, rolled into the water and swam to shore to perform reconnaissance exercises.
Demolition teams paddled rubber boats up to the surfline, unloaded 20-pound satchels of tetrytol explosives and swam them to targets on or near the beach. Charges were set with timed fuses, then activated and "the swimmers would return to deep water before the whole beach blew up." Their "final examination" was held on Kaho'olawe.
I know how many of us feel about that part of Hawaii's history, the wounding of Kanaloa, as the island was called in ancient times, red-colored, dolphin-finned. Despite a massive cleanup grant from the Navy, places there are still dangerous with explosives.
Thank goodness they cleaned up Charley Young.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.