To Save The Tower

That’s what former aviators Ken DeHoff and Scotty Scott of the Pacific Aviation Museum are trying to do with the historic Ford Island air field control tower. A fundraiser happens there Thursday

Steve Murray
Wednesday - December 02, 2009
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That’s the goal of a fundraiser at the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island Thursday to save the aging control tower

The Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island is a cool place. It has enough toys to satisfy any child or adult who still dreams of jumping into the cockpit of a World War II fighter. It also boasts enough history to impress the most demanding teacher. But for all its fancy displays, priceless artifacts and a cafe that offers more than just chips and dogs, it is the human element that separates this museum from many of its relatives. The aircraft are important, but its highest honor is reserved for the men who flew the planes, the women who built them and the witnesses who bring it all to life either on film or in person.

This is a living history museum where some of the active participants in history’s deadliest war don’t just talk about static displays, but actually put a face and a voice behind the history. Invitees to its theater include heroes such as former Tuskegee Airman Bill Holloman and many other witnesses to history. They are the human equivalent to the bullet holes that remain in the hangar windows - a visual reference to the events that are normally confined to books and television.

“That’s what makes our museum different from other museums ... There are not too many museums you can go into where you can talk to someone who actually had a stick in their hands, let alone pull the trigger,” says executive director Kenneth H. DeHoff. “You’ve got combat pilots here, transport pilots, helicopter pilots.”

The 16-acre museum complex boasts 140 volunteers, three hangars, one control tower, numerous planes, munitions, maps - and it’s in need of $80 million in repairs that will change this once-forgotten part of Ford Island into a complex celebrating aviation in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. The cost isn’t cheap, but it’s history that has to be preserved. And after decades of neglect and practical abandonment - one plan was to demolish the area and turn it into a cheap shopping center for island residents - one of the most important American battlefields has been saved.

WWII aviator Chip Gunther talks at the Pacific Air Museum about this Stearman flown in combat by future president George H.W. Bush

“Those three hangars and the control tower survived the Dec. 7 attack, so we are literally on the battlefield. We’ve got scars on the concrete, we’ve got bullet holes in the windows that still reflect the attack,” says DeHoff, a Cobra helicopter pilot who was shot down five times during Vietnam and was awarded three Purple Hearts.

Favorite displays in the museum vary with the visitor. Flight simulators, which allow the visitor to fly a P-38 Lighting, P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair or a Mitsubishi Zero in the Battle of Guadalcanal, are obvious hits with children. The Japanese Zero, one of only five in existence, is singularly unique and fascinating. The biplane flown by President George H.W. Bush is flawless. The F-15 celebrates modern jet aviation. For DeHoff’s wife, Tanja, it’s the wreckage of Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi’s plane that crashed on Niihau after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The rusted pieces of metal sit on sandy soil, the air conditioning causing the long grasses to wave in the air, giving the simple scene an impressive feeling of realism. The backdrop gives the exact view of the area where the plane came to rest. The scene was surveyed, and the pieces sit in the exact relationship to each other where they came to rest nearly 70 years ago.

“She loves studying the Niihau wreck while trying to imagine what would have happened if the pilot had been treated as a prisoner of war and not as a guest. Or if he had not been allowed to burn the plane, and if the husband and wife who were taken prisoner by Nishikaichi and the husband killed the pilot.“At the time, Niihau residents didn’t know Pearl Harbor had been attacked and, for at least a short while, treated the downed pilot as an honored guest.

One of the displays that doesn’t initially seem to fit in with the rest of the artifacts is the Aeronca 65TC that hangs from the ceiling a few feet from the Zero. Unknown to most, eight civilian pilots were enjoying an early Sunday flight around Oahu when the attack began. Three were shot down and one was shot up on the ground, and the pilot was killed. The aircraft on display is one of the lucky civilian aircraft to survive. In fact, the plane remains air worthy today.

There’s something for everyone at the Pacific Air Museum

Like the other historic sights that have found a home at Pearl Harbor, the aviation museum is a labor of love for those involved. None more so than John Sterling, who, with his family’s blessing, risked their financial security to get the museum up and running.

“Kim, my wife, is the secretary over there, and she was really in support of a lot of things, and she would juggle bills ... she went to Goodwill for clothes, so it was a really knuckle-down kind of thing because I was using all of my vacation and any time I got off from work. I will go from here at 4 p.m. and go to work until midnight, sleep, then come back here and do the whole thing over again.”

The former Merchant Mariner and now Matson mechanic was a one-man promotion machine and the driving force behind the museum’s beginning more than a decade ago. Now, with most of the hard work finished, he can just relax, work on his plane and help out wherever needed.

“Nowadays, I really enjoy coming down here because we’ve got really neat people involved and there are a lot of things to do,” he says.

The museum is in the midst of a $100 million capital improvement campaign that will pay for the three remaining phases of the project. The first phase is to restore the control tower that has been left to rot and which hasn’t seen a dollop of paint since 1960. DeHoff calls this part “a shovel-ready” project.

“I’ve got the plans already for what we are going to do - they have already been approved by the Navy. I got $4.8 million of earmark money coming from (U.S. Rep. Neil) Abercrombie,” says DeHoff.

The job won’t be easy. The tower is fundamentally sound, but the platforms that surround it are rusted and have to be replaced. There are lead paint and asbestos tiles that need replacing, the electricity is shot and the plumbing is far below par. But it’s a job that needs to

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