Friday, June 24, 2016

Famous 369th Regiment Provided WW-II Anti-Aircraft Defense For MCAS Ewa

Famous 369th African American Regiment Provided WW-II Anti-Aircraft Defense For MCAS Ewa

by Ewa Historian John Bond

This unique segregated Army 369th unit from Harlem, New York has a special place in the WW-II cultural history of wartime Hawaii. However the story is also about how Eleanor Roosevelt likely influenced this unit's assignment to Hawaii. The 369th came with well trained professional Jazz musicians who provided air defense for MCAS Ewa and also left their "Hep Cat" influence on music in the Hawaiian Islands, including likely influencing Hawaiian slack key legend Gabby Pahinui.

 The WW-I New York Harlem "Hell Fighters" Became The Harlem "Hepcats" Around Ewa Plantation Villages Providing Anti-Aircraft Defense For MCAS Ewa During WW-II

After the nomination of Ewa Battlefield to the National Historic Register on May 23, 2016 and the upcoming 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor in December, it is timely to bring to attention a unique facet of the Ewa Battlefield post-attack air defense history which involves the famous and highly decorated 369th African American Infantry Regiment from Harlem, New York City.

The 369th was not involved or located in Hawaii at the time of the December 7, 1941 attack by Japanese aircraft on the Ewa area. However, the unit was Federalized and converted from Coast Artillery to Anti-Aircraft Artillery and sent to Hawaii to become an historically noteworthy part of the MCAS Ewa history  through the subsequent air defense of MCAS Ewa and the Ewa Plain in 1943-44.

The Ewa Plain Battlefield as nominated to the National Historic register is located in the southwestern corner of Oahu, Honolulu County, in a geographic area referred to as the Ewa Plain, approximately 5.5 miles southwest of Ford Island (middle of Pearl Harbor). 

While the Battle of Ewa Plain encompasses three main population centers: Ewa Field, Ewa Villages, and Ewa Beach, the 1941 Ewa Field retains sufficient architectural, archeological, and/or landscape integrity to convey its historical significance. This includes retaining its integrity of location, setting, design, and association. The site is also capable of revealing additional archeological discoveries.

Unfortunately due to limited time and research capabilities in order to meet a project draft EIS comment deadline we are not yet able to completely confirm by specific Army records that the famous 369th was had Anti-Aircraft elements stationed by MCAS Ewa in 1944. 

Area between MCAS Ewa and Ewa Plantation Camps identified as 
369th AA battery sites

 The 369th converted into light and heavy Anti-Aircraft air defense 
guarding Oahu airfields

However a research survey of 1943-44 print media and local Ewa Village oral history all point to the unique segregated 369th African American Army unit that was distinctive from all other Army military units during that time. Limited research has discovered photos and written news articles spotlighting the 369th, when wartime security and censorship did not allow specific base defense locations to be named. Army photos were shot or cropped to eliminate identifying backgrounds and private photography was strictly prohibited.

Just prior to the start of the Pacific War in 1940 the 369th was a New York National Guard infantry Regiment that was Federalized and converted from infantry into a coast artillery (CA) regiment. They were then retrained again in 1942 to become an Anti-Aircraft (AA) regiment and sent to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu to protect military airfields in 1942-44 with various caliber Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns. The 1941 Ewa Field had no AA defense and nearly all of its planes were destroyed by the attacking Japanese naval air force on December 7. By early 1942 the rapidly expanding MCAS Ewa had massive numbers of air operations for both Marine and Navy aircraft of all types and quickly became the hub of Marine air operations in the Pacific.

The 369th Regiment arrived on Oahu on June 21, 1942 and units were subsequently  posted to man AA defenses at Kahuku Army Air Base, Ōpana Radar Station, Camp Malakole, Haleiwa airfield, Mokuleia Army Airfield and Marine Corps Air Station Ewa. They remained organized as segregated Army units which was actually more of a benefit rather than a racial disadvantage. There are mentions of the unit in the book “The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in WWII Hawaii,” by Bailey and Farber who use the example of the 396th Coast Artillery (AA) Regiment, then more commonly referred to as “The Harlem Hellfighters” to illustrate the 1940’s era racial tensions. White soldiers from Southern states often derided black soldiers for not knowing “their place” and resented the extra racial space accorded blacks in Hawaii’s multicultural milieu. 

 Members of the 369th jazz and swing band out on 
the Royal Hawaiian Hotel beach front

It is important to know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a politically progressive administration with an especially socially and politically activist wife- Eleanor Roosevelt. She especially pushed for social reforms for African Americans and their advancement through the war effort. The Roosevelts had first visited Hawaii in 1934 and saw the islands as the future of racial tolerance and a link to the culture of Polynesia and Asia. At the same time Japan sought to gain cultural control of the Hawaiian Islands as well as encourage blacks to revolt and overthrow white culture. The military Martial Law government promoted racial tolerance among the military in Hawaii as a cultural experiment and as the best way to not disrupt the war effort. As directed from the highest levels the army’s newspaper in Hawaii transformed itself into a “steady instrument for racial progress.”

 Eleanor Roosevelt during one of her WW-II Hawaii visits getting an ID card

 President Franklin D. Roosevelt touring Hawaii in 1934. 
He returned again in July, 1944

While under Martial Law, the Hawaii authorities enforced a mixed desegregation policy against race discrimination while still keeping segregated “colored” army units. This was an experimental mix of semi-segregation with buses, theaters and chow halls not segregated while personal services like barber shops remained segregated. Whites who did not like this policy had to live with it as the military police were ordered to protect colored soldiers rights if necessary. For the 369th “Hellfighters” unit members they were always ready to fight if necessary earning them a reputation of respect on the streets of wartime Honolulu. This also caused some wartime colored army members to wear the insignia of the 369th when off duty in the downtown and Waikiki area. 

Some of the first desegregation of US military units happened in Hawaii and was very likely a policy strongly influenced by FDR and his socially activist wife. Research has indicated that FDR and Mrs. Roosevelt knew of the 369th unit’s special New York Harlem history and likely arranged to have them serve in Hawaii in a special segregated unit capacity to allow them to retain their unique military heritage and not be sent to southern states which presented many racial conflicts for black soldiers during WW-II. FDR visited Hawaii twice and Mrs. Roosevelt several times during WW-II as a Red Cross representative.  In July 1944 FDR toured MCAS Ewa and other Oahu bases in a convertible sedan sitting with Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur. Eleanor Roosevelt was known to visit a wide variety of military installations, including internment camps, colored segregated Army units as well as troop hospitals.

The president’s wife was also concerned with giving colored soldiers the same military service opportunities as white troops which resulted in the formation of an air unit that became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. This may also explain why a widely circulated Army wartime photo (below) shows  the Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson and Lt Gen Robert Richardson (then military governor of Hawaii) inspecting 369th troops and then greeting Col. Chauncey Hooper, commanding officer of the 369th with Lt. Col. Harry B. Reubel, executive officer. Hooper retired as a brigadier general in the New York National Guard in 1954. The first Black American to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general, Benjamin O. Davis had served as commander of the 369th Coast Artillery prior to the start of WW-II. His son Benjamin O. Davis Jr. became commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen and retired a four star general in the US Air Force in 1998.

 Under Secretary of War Patterson, Lt Gen Richardson, Col. Hooper, 
and Lt. Col. Reubel 1942

Not yet settled into AA camps, newly arrived 369th troops 
march down South King Street

When the 369th arrived on Oahu in August 1942 (then often called a colored or negro army unit) they were already quite unique and extremely proud of their WW-I Harlem Hell Fighters military history. Their well-educated African American officers and also non-commissioned officers which included talented jazz musicians from the New York Harlem community then known as the capital of African American culture and jazz music.  The 369th quickly found local social acceptance for their musical talents by being invited to play at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki at a time when swing and jazz was extremely popular war era music. 

 Jazz Pianist Claude Thornhill joined the Navy to discover Honolulu was a "Hotbed of Swing"

 The 369th came to Hawaii already well staffed with professionally trained Jazz and Swing musicians and quickly developed a following among WW-II troops and sailors

The 1944 air photos of MCAS Ewa document their reinforced AA gun battery positions constructed with brick, mortar and sandbag protected 90 MM guns and smaller 50 Cal. Machine guns between the Ewa Marine airbase and Ewa Villages. There is also a hand drawn map created after the war by a retired Marine military police officer showing the location of the Army artillery unit camp. The location today is near the current Hawaiian Railway Society railyard museum and in an area behind the Honouliuli Waste Water Treatment Plant. It is on this current City own property that is conducting a draft EIS and which brought about the research into the Army unit that occupied the gun positions.

During WW-II this same City parcel area was at the end of the main MCAS Ewa runway and location of the Marine base headquarters and base flag pole. Archeological evidence of the AA battery sites and barracks still exist however primarily in small pieces of brick, mortar and concrete over subsequent post war surface land use for general small agriculture. Ground penetrating radar and other archeology methods today would likely reveal more subsurface evidence. While trail evidence would be difficult to find today, the 1825 Malden Royal Navy trail map shows this City parcel as being a very likely route of the Oneula Beach segment of the ancient Hawaiian trail route. Ewa oral histories indicate that this trail was
still used by the Ewa Plantation community up until the late 1930’s to reach the beach dunes for shoreline fishing and limu picking.

The AA artillery base camp site on the City parcel currently under review as an expansion of the Honouliuli Waste Water Treatment Plant is on a relatively flat karst, ancient coral reef slope between General Geiger road and the Oahu Railway track now on the National Historic Register. Ewa Villages are on the State historic register as well as the Hawaiian Railway Museum rail yard.

The MCAS Ewa Field – Ewa Battlefield area now placed on the National Historic register covers all of this battlefield area as a potential Ewa Historic Battlefield District, as mentioned in the Ewa Battlefield nomination. It is very possible that this parcel contains evidence of the December 7, 1941 attack on the Ewa airfield and villages revealing Pearl Harbor fired inbound 50 Cal. and larger anti-aircraft artillery shells as well as spent Japanese 7.7 MM machine gun shells. Such spent munitions have been found in adjacent land parcels. Many local residents report finding many Ewa battlefield ammunition artifacts and are still finding them in tall grass and surface disturbed areas.

In some of the parcel areas it is apparent that there were low mounds of red imported dirt that was brought in to use for building the artillery gun positions and leveling areas for the Quonset huts. Karst sink holes, some filled with very old bottles and broken ceramic eating implements exist in the area as well as land subsidence indicating subsurface water flow well known in the Ewa Plain. In some places large trees flourish which are typical Karst indicators of subsurface water channels and caves holding water. Even in such difficult environments tiny Opae Ula fresh water shrimp have been found. In older times Karst sinkholes were used for Hawaiian burials and Ewa Village oral histories report seeing bones (iwi) in holes and caves as not unusual in this same area.

The 1944 air photos show at least 6 or more Quonset huts placed close together.  Quonset  hut corrugated roof sheets can be found as well as remnants of military chain link fencing.
Also found was a concrete curb with Army style letters on it indicating a possible staff parking location. Other ground evidence includes small pieces of red brick and mortar typical of AA gun emplacements that were built possibly sometime in 1944 to emplace heavy AA guns like the 120 mm (4.7 inch) gun) and possibly 40 mm automatic weapons for close-in air defense and M51 Quad .50 caliber machine guns. Elements of the 369th were known to have such air defense weapon systems placed around MCAS Ewa and coastal areas.

In WW-I the 369th was a highly decorated infantry unit fighting in France, receiving the  French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star. The unit history goes back to 1840 and their New York City Armory in Harlem is on the National Historic Register. The 396th Coast Artillery (AA) Regiment from the New York National Guard was Federalized 13 January 1941 and converted into the 396th AAA (Gun) Battalion for the heavy guns (90 mm) and the 870th AAA (Automatic Weapons) Battalion for the 40 mm automatic weapons and .50 caliber AA machine guns around the end of December 1943. Both units later served in the Okinawan Campaign in 1945 on the little island of Karma Retto some 30 miles south of Okinawa. After the war the units returned to New York and still train and operate as the 396th Sustainment Brigade. There is a “Harlem Hell fighters” book published in 2014 by author Max Brooks.

 World War I Harlem Hell Fighters On Return From Europe

The 369th was by all accounts a very sharp Army unit lead by well-educated black officers and from Harlem, the center of the 1930’s black American cultural renaissance.  James Reese Europe as the leader of the 369th Infantry Jazz Band, also known as the "Hellfighters," introduced the sounds of American ragtime to Europeans during World War I. Although his career was brief, he profoundly influenced the course of popular music in the United States and throughout the world.

In addition the musical influence of James Reese Europe’s bands reached the New York high society  including the Roosevelts which in turn likely created the political conditions for the 369th to be sent to Hawaii during WW-II. Interestingly also is that the sounds of the 369th American ragtime influenced European musicians who then later influenced Hawaiian slack key musicians such as Gabby Pahinui who had a strong interest in jazz music.

This unit was well remembered by local Ewa Villagers because they were very proud and very friendly, handing out treats and inviting neighboring plantation villagers to watch the latest Hollywood movies at their artillery base camp next to Ewa Villages (B, C and Mill village camps.) They used the Ewa Plantation swimming pool, sports facilities and were seen at the local Ewa Community Church attending Sunday services. They were especially known for their “hep cat” style of lyrical speaking. This was the first experience most in the multi-ethnic Ewa plantation community ever had with African Americans and they were invited to share all the local Ewa community facilities and attend the local churches. 


“The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in WWII Hawaii,” 
by Bailey and Farber

Also see: African Americans in Hawai'i - By D. M Guttman