Lesser known than Hawaii’s famed U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, a military airfield in Honolulu, also was targeted by Japanese torpedo planes, dive bombers and fighter aircraft on that “day of infamy.” The surprise military strike prompted U.S. entry into World War II.
Battered by 100 bombs and strafed in three waves of attack, Hickam’s barracks were in flames and its hangars wrecked, with 51 U.S. airplanes destroyed or unusable.
Though a National Historical Landmark, Hickam Field is not open for public tours because it’s an active military base. However, as a volunteer liaison to survivors and their families, Jessie Higa offers private tours that focus on visitors’ families and loved ones. Her advance research in the base’s on-site archives reveals that each person present on the day of the attack has his own story.
With a smile, a hug and a friendly “Aloha,” Higa welcomes Isabel Wilson, 12, and her family to Hickam Field, ready to tell Isabel the story of her great-grandfather’s actions on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I got to see the bullet holes on the buildings and what Grandpa Hiram looked like when he was young,” says Isabel, of Bloomington, Illinois, after taking Higa’s two-hour tour of Hickam Field last spring.
Pfc. Hiram Jenkins, a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps that preceded creation of the U.S. Air Force, was part of the 11th Bombardment Group’s 50th Reconnaissance Squadron, stationed at the nation’s largest and most modern airfield at the time. Activated in 1938, the 2,200-acre installation was built adjacent to Pearl Harbor to maintain and deploy B-17 aircraft to defend the nation’s Pacific fleet and military bases.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it also targeted U.S. aircraft parked at nearby military facilities to prevent a counterattack. Hickam recorded 189 airmen and civilians killed and 303 wounded.
“These families want their fathers’ stories to come alive,” explains Higa, 42, about her service as Hickam’s volunteer historian. “It brings them closure.”
Higa showed Isabel and her family the 3,200-bed barracks where her great-grandfather was sleeping when the attack started, as well as the hangars he ran toward to try to save U.S. airplanes, which were lined up wingtip to wingtip. Jenkins survived the strike and later, as a B-24 waist gunner, was shot down over Romania and held as a prisoner of war. He died in 2003 at age 83.
“We were the recipients of an honor most never experience,” says Leonard Jenkins, 63, Hiram’s son, of his tour with Higa. “We walked the footsteps Dad walked on that infamous day.”
When Hickam Field was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, its buildings were preserved, even bullet holes left by Japanese machine guns. Their interiors now house Navy and Air Force offices. Visitors can see the bullet-riddled U.S. flag that flew during the attack and the bronze monument donated by the 11th Bombardment Group Association that lists the names of those killed. Near the barracks, Higa tells the story of an unidentified lieutenant who stood by a manhole, directing men to take cover inside, only to be killed himself.
Higa’s fascination with Hickam Field began as a journalism project in 1991 while she was attending the University of Hawaii. Marriage and children intervened until she returned to the air base as a volunteer in 2004.
“Once I started to be a storyteller, I realized I’m going to do this rest of my life,” Higa says. “It’s my life’s passion. I need to keep this history going. This is sacred ground.”
Born of Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian heritage, Higa also shares the history of the land of sugarcane, how the community of Watertown was displaced when the military base was constructed between 1935 and 1938, and how its residents, representing peoples of Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Portugese, Hawaiian and Filipino ancestry, helped dredge Pearl Harbor during the early 1900s. Dignitaries and newly assigned military personnel often attend her tours.
“Her actions motivate us all to connect with our heritage and therefore be inspired by those who came before us,” says Col. Johnny Roscoe, 15th Wing commander at today’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, which merged in 2010 to support Air Force and Navy missions. “She is the embodiment of a bridge between the current generation and the heroes that served here in the past.”
Higa visits the base daily, hosting families or school children, cataloging personal mementos shared by Hickam Field families, researching the 11th Bombardment Group Association archives on base, arranging veterans’ reunions, piecing together the base’s history, and searching for survivors to tell their stories. Her goal is to write a book about Hickam Field and those who served there during the attack.
“It’s creating an archive so that generations from now can retrieve information for the families,” she says.