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The Centenarians

Over the past year, a surprising number of major local institutions have turned 100—from farms to schools to military bases. What does it take to last a century?


(page 5 of 7)

The Gibraltar of the Pacific

A number of Hawaii’s biggest military bases are celebrating their centennial. What was so special about 1908 that the U.S. military would build Fort Shafter, Schofield Barracks, Tripler Hospital and the naval base at Pearl Harbor at the same time? It happened in part because it could—Fort Shafter, for example, was built on former crown lands ceded to the U.S. government after annexation. But the U.S. interest in Hawaii bases went as far back as 1872, when Civil War veteran Maj. Gen. John Schofield scouted the islands and determined that Pearl Harbor would make an excellent naval base. By 1898, the U.S. had taken the Philippines and Guam, supplanting Spain in the Pacific. And another nation emerged with Pacific ambitions—Japan, which defeated Russia with a surprise attack in 1904, in a brief war that claimed nearly a quarter-million lives.

The race for control of the Pacific was on.

Fort Shafter

Fort Shafter— named after Major Gen. William Rufus Shafter—was the first permanent U.S. military post in Hawaii. It was constructed as the headquarters of the Army in the Pacific, and still serves that same purpose 101 years later.

Fort Shafter originally consisted only of Palm Circle, complete with stables, corrals and homes that are still lived in by senior officers today, says Ken Hays, an architectural historian for the Army. The National Register of Historic Places recognized the circle as a historic landmark in 1984.

One of Palm Circle’s most important structures is Building 100, or Richardson Hall. It was nicknamed the “Pineapple Pentagon,” during World War II, because it’s where top military officials, such as Adm. Chester Nimitz, made the wartime strategies of the Pacific. President Franklin Roosevelt even brainstormed in the Pineapple Pentagon once.

Historic architecture, like the Pineapple Pentagon, make the base’s history come alive. “When you drive through the gate, you go back in time 50 or 60 years,” says Hays, adding that the majority of buildings remain unchanged.

Even the 1948 Richardson Theatre—named after Lt. Gen. Robert C. Richardson—is also architecturally historic. “It’s beautiful art deco,” says Hays. Richardson Theatre, now home of the Army Community Theatre, was originally painted rose coral like Tripler.

Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in 1942.

Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives

Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard

centuries ago, pearl harbor sheltered the fishponds of the Native Hawaiians, who called it Puuloa or Wai Momi, meaning “water of pearl.”

But Hawaiians weren’t the only people intrigued by the harbor’s safety. In 1887, Congress approved a treaty with the Hawaiian Kingdom allowing the Navy exclusive use of Pearl Harbor to establish operations. The base began as a coaling station, but a $2 million congressional appropriations in 1908 funded construction of a drydock and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was born.

“A shipyard isn’t a shipyard unless you have a drydock, it’s just piers,” says Kerry Gershaneck, the shipyard’s public affairs officer. “You need to be able to work under a [ship’s] hull to be a no-kidding shipyard.” 

But not everyone was pleased with the harbor’s transformation. According to legend, an old Hawaiian fisherman warned workers to stop dredging because the area was kapu, sacred to the shark goddess Kaahupahau. Despite his warning, construction and dredging continued, for four years. Then, on Feb. 17, 1913, the drydock suddenly imploded. “A report describes chunks of concrete the size of small cars shooting into the air,” says Gershaneck. “It was a miracle that no one was killed.”

The report cited seismic pressures as the official cause of the disaster. However, a blessing was made to Kaahupahau before the shipyard’s reconstruction. Six years and nearly $5 million later, Drydock 1 was completed, without further incident.

Today, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard has four drydocks, and continues to be one of the state’s largest industrial employers. Events celebrating the centennial have taken place throughout the year. For more on Pearl Harbor’s history to its modern work as a nuclear-capable shipyard, see our May 2008 story, “The Yard.”

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Honolulu Magazine March 2018
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