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Artifacts collection tells of Maui’s role in World War II

Lahaina Public Library to host exhibit Tuesday and Wednesday

Photos and artifacts that local naval aviation historian Alan DeCoite has collected over the years sit on display. With the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor coming up, DeCoite will be presenting an exhibit on the USS Arizona and Maui’s World War II aviation history at the Lahaina Public Library. The exhibit will be open 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Alan DeCoite

Marine Corps veteran Alan DeCoite was searching for a downed World War II-era plane when he stumbled upon a different set of military artifacts, the likes of which he’d seen nowhere else.

It was the early 1990s, and the U.S. Navy had asked DeCoite to help locate a plane that had gone down in 1941 on the extensive von Tempsky ranch in Kula. Every morning at 5:30, DeCoite would scour the estate by helicopter. One day, the family’s cook confronted him at the grocery store.

“You that boy that’s been flying that helicopter waking everybody up in the morning?” the woman asked, thoroughly annoyed.

Once DeCoite explained that the Navy had sent him, the cook calmed down. She told DeCoite that the plane had been removed years ago and invited him to meet Gordon von Tempsky. When DeCoite stepped into the von Tempsky home, he saw something that gave him goose bumps over its historical significance — a wall etched with the signatures of more than 20,000 flyboys who’d stopped by the house during the war.

“The thing was alive,” DeCoite said. “I cannot tell you why, but I never felt like this.”

One of the displays at the Lahaina Public Library exhibit will be seven World War II-era fuzes that were attached to the back of ordnances to trigger explosions. The artifacts, which have red tags with Japanese inscriptions on them, were a wartime gift from Adm. Chester Nimitz to Kula resident Alexa von Tempsky. Photo courtesy of Alan DeCoite

But what also caught DeCoite’s attention was a cluster of “one-of-a-kind fuzes” — propellers that had been attached to ordnances to trigger explosions. Each bore a red tag with Japanese writing. They had been gifts from Adm. Chester Nimitz to Gordon’s aunt, Alexa von Tempsky. With the house soon to be for sale and Gordon planning to get rid of the fuzes, DeCoite feared that the artifacts would be lost and convinced Gordon to save them.

Today, the wall stands in the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., but the fuzes and other artifacts DeCoite has saved over the years will be part of an exhibit at the Lahaina Public Library this week. With the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor approaching, DeCoite plans to spotlight Maui’s “proud aviation heritage,” which was crucial to war efforts before and after Pearl Harbor.

“This is not about me,” DeCoite said. “This is about the people of Hawaii, the people of Maui who gave up a lot during the war years. . . . They should feel proud about where America has come after 75 years.”

DeCoite, 63, is “a product of the Cold War,” a former Marine Corps sergeant and reconnaissance specialist who has taken part in clandestine missions across Europe and the U.S. He learned to fly when he came home to Maui, and the Navy asked him to start locating wrecked World War II airplanes.

Over the years, DeCoite’s passion for history and naval aviation has helped him build a collection of artifacts and stories from veterans, local families and many firsthand witnesses who are now dead.

One of the centerpieces of DeCoite’s exhibit will be a 4-foot model replica of the USS Arizona, the battleship that was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, and still rests just below the water’s surface at Pearl Harbor.

The USS Arizona once docked off West Maui’s Mala Wharf. The Navy’s sailing fleet used to anchor off Mala Wharf frequently in the early 1900s, DeCoite said. The fleet of submarines, scout ships, medical ships, supply ships and battleships was so vast that it stretched almost to Lanai.

“Mala Wharf, Lahaina Roads, could’ve easily been Pearl Harbor if the fleet anchored there,” DeCoite said.

Maui, however, is perhaps more well known for providing an important air base — the Naval Air Station at Puunene. After Dec. 7, Navy carriers began stopping 100 miles offshore to let the planes fly to Maui, before the carriers headed toward Oahu with nothing aboard, DeCoite said.

Pilots trained extensively on Maui, practicing the art of engaging the Japanese military’s light Mitsubishi A6M Zeros with the Americans’ heavier Grumman aircraft. However, this training also left a scar on the islands. After Pearl Harbor, the Navy began using Kahoolawe as a bombing range, a practice that protests and lawsuits finally brought to a halt in 1990, according to the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission. By 2004, the Navy had finished its unexploded ordnance clearance project, but about 25 percent of the island remains unsafe for access. DeCoite also worked on that island for nine years, salvaging 12 airplanes.

Some of the pilots based at Puunene would go on to form the Blue Angels, the Navy’s famous aviation demonstration team. When World War II ended, the military was “scrapping everything,” turning military machines into everyday materials, DeCoite said. In an effort to drum up support for the military and to save the Navy’s aircraft carriers, Nimitz selected some of his best pilots to fly across the U.S. and demonstrate their skills to the public.

“They were flying out of Puunene and Kahului practicing war maneuvers,” DeCoite said. “They turned that into acrobatics and took it to the American people.”

Among them were Capt. Roy Marlin “Butch” Voris, the first commander of the Blue Angels; Lt. Maurice “Wick” Wickendoll; and Adm. Edward “Whitey” Feightner, all of whom signed the von Tempsky wall in August 1942, DeCoite said.

As for the fuzes, DeCoite said this is the first time he’s bringing them out for public display. The pieces were found by American forces sweeping captured enemy airfields. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for veterans like Nimitz to bring “war trophies” home with them, such as rifles or samurai swords.

“Nowadays you can’t,” DeCoite said. “They’re very much regulated.”

The exhibit will be at the library from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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