Even in the notoriously small fraternity of the U.S. Army Air Corps in the years following the Great War, this was, in retrospect, a collision of coincidences.
On May 10, 1926, pilot Maj. Harold Geiger had a midair collision with Maj. Horace Hickam while both were building flying hours at Langley Field, Va. Both men parachuted to safety, earning pins from the Caterpillar Club, a club based on surviving an emergency parachute jump.
Within a year, however, Geiger died in another crash. An airfield in Spokane, Wash., was named in his honor. In 1913 Geiger had commanded the first detachment of military aviators in the Hawaiian Islands.
In the fall of 1934, Hickam, by then a lieutenant colonel, also died in a crash, and a new airfield was named in his honor as well — at the same location as Geiger’s original command, a flat, former reef on the eastern shore of Pearl Harbor.
Ground was broken at Hickam Field on May 31, 1935. This year is the 75th birthday of one of the largest, most modern airfields in the Air Force.
"It’s the gateway to the Pacific, the first line of defense for the U.S.," says Jim Goodall, curator at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor. "Hawaii is the front door to the West Coast."
"Hickam has been a crucial element in modern Hawaiian history from its very start," said Dave Swift, a University of Hawaii sociology professor and organizer of the Aviation and Aerospace Forum, a group of aviation buffs. "It was right there at ground zero of the Pearl Harbor attack, and since then has been the leader in projecting air power across the Pacific."
The difference Hickam Air Force Base made, according to Park Service historian Dan Martinez, is that for the first time "aviation was used to project as well as protect. Small airfields like Wheeler Field were built as local defense, like coastal (artillery) batteries, but when Hickam was created, it was a significant advance in the development of air power, the equal to any historic site on the mainland."
For visiting aviation artist Russell Smith of North Carolina, Hickam Field has legendary status. Describing the small Army base nestled between the airfield and the sea, "Fort Kamehameha was home of one of the first U.S. Signal Corps aviation training schools. Although the actual flying school was short-lived, it still represents a milestone in the history of U.S. aviation," said Smith, standing at the site where the original buildings are boarded up.
HICKAM AFB is today an active-duty base humming with Air Force business, although control of the property recently passed to the Navy. The base is celebrating its birthday quietly, with no exhibits or commemorations planned. Some artifacts linked to Lt. Col. Hickam are kept locked away, although you can’t escape the base’s historic legacy, such as the fragments and bullet holes from the Pearl Harbor attack that still pockmark buildings. Even the tree-lined base quarters are being rebuilt with an eye toward preserving their historic fabric. Author Thurston Clarke wrote that all you have to do to time-travel back to 1940s Hawaii is set foot on Hickam.
"It’s so commendable what they’ve done to preserve the original landscape at Hickam," said Martinez. "In the blink of an eye, you’re back in time."
Jessie Higa, a bubbly civilian married into the Air Force, has become an unofficial guide to the base’s legacy, and she’s steeped in Hickam history — even Hickam’s prehistory.
HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE TOURS
Two types of tours are available, but access is difficult. Hickam Air Force Base is an active-duty field with high security. All visitors entering the base need a valid diver’s license and proof of vehicle registration, safety check and insurance.
» Private tours for scholars, classes or other special groups can be arranged with Jessie Higa, a private historian who works on a contract basis for the Air Force. Call the Public Affairs Office at 449-2490.
» Guided tours are offered Wednesdays for groups of 10 or more people when scheduled in advance. Guests must be military or sponsored by someone on base. Cost: $40, includes lunch. For reservations, call 448-2295.
For a list of historical markers at Hickam AFB, go to www.staradvertiser.com
"Before Horace Hickam became a pioneer aviator, he served as an officer in the cavalry during World War I, chasing Pancho Villa under the command of Gen. Pershing, and was awarded the Silver Star," said Higa. "He later became one of the first aviation pioneers of the Army Air Corps and was well respected by his commanders, fellow officers and airmen — so much so that Hickam Field was dedicated in his memory specifically on Memorial Day 1935."
Base public affairs officer Staff Sgt. Mike Meares said units flying from Hickam took part in exercises "designed to test the practicality of high-level bombardment of naval targets during the interwar period. Their success was important to the development of U.S. aerial strategy during World War II.
"After 1945, Hickam served as the U.S. Air Force’s main transportation hub in the Pacific and as a major support installation during the Jet Age. The present mission of the wing continues this legacy. The C-17 Globemaster III is one of the Air Force’s newest and most advanced airlift vehicles, and the wing is now operational with F-22 Raptors, the world’s most advanced fighters," he said in an e-mail.
Higa said Hickam’s legacy is remembered throughout the base. "There is an elementary school named after him, as well as a private dining room at the officer’s club, where there’s an oil painting and framed photographs of his life. The wing headquarters has another oil painting and photographs as well as a memorial marker," she said. "The base water tower was renamed Freedom Tower in 1985, honoring his memory during our 50th-anniversary dedication."
Items stored at the 15th Wing History Office include Hickam’s flying boots, West Point belt buckle, logbooks, cloth service wings and Caterpillar Club pin. Some of his decorations, including his Mexican campaign service medal and Silver Star, have not been on display since 2004, and a painting of Hickam is kept in a stairwell.
THE BASE ALSO had a history before it became an airfield.
"My experience is that the base has been very respectful toward native Hawaiian issues, especially at Fort Kamehameha," said Higa. "I have been a Hickam resident for more than seven years, and I am part native Hawaiian. It’s wonderful to see the base continue the makahiki tradition with the Hawaiian community as well as maintaining the native Hawaiian burial site that was created to reinter iwi, the Hawaiian ancestral bones. For a year now, members of the Hawaii Air National Guard have been volunteering their time to manicure the overgrown vegetation surrounding the burial vault."
When the field was built, beginning in 1935, there had been a small community on the site called Watertown. There is no trace of it today and little documentation of its existence.
"Watertown was a very special place with quaint wooden houses nestled in the kiawe bushes, family businesses, a Catholic church, park and school. I’m grateful for all the wonderful stories and photographs the last few remaining children of Watertown share with me," said Higa.
Like any community, Hickam has neighborhoods that have evolved over the years.
"The original triangle of landing mats and runway has been substantially altered since the 1950s with the construction of new housing," reported Meares after consulting with base historians. "The original officers’ and enlisted housing neighborhoods are retained in their historical state, and include 301 Julian Ave., the traditional home of the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) commanders.
"The older housing areas and the central administrative part of the base — comprising the Operations Building, the present PACAF HQ building, Hangar Row and the 15th Wing headquarters building — were constructed according to the plans of Capt. Howard Nurse, one of the finest planners of early Army Air Corps bases. He designed Hickam to exist as a "garden city," in which the central buildings on the base would be surrounded by its flight line and by housing, so that the personnel would always have easy access to their places of work and their homes."
Higa said many of the original buildings "are with us today, having survived a war and the test of time." Hickam’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places will help preserve the bullet holes and bomb-shrapnel wounds as a reminder of the 189 men who gave their lives there on Dec. 7, 1941.
"Next year is the 70th remembrance of Pearl Harbor, and the last few remaining survivors will be returning to the battlefield one last time," she said. "We have a responsibility to honor them by preserving history here at Hickam. It’s all about leaving a legacy for generations to come."
CURRENT HISTORICAL MARKERS AT HICKAM AFB
» Base Operations: One of the earliest permanent buildings at Hickam Field.
» Memorial Circle: Site of the original 75-foot flagpole that flew on Dec. 7, 1941. The shredded original flag is on display in Pacific Air Force’s Courtyard of Heroes.
» Freedom Tower: It looks like a lighthouse, but it was designed as a water tower and was one of the first visible structures built on the base. The water tank was damaged during the Pearl Harbor attack and never reused.
» 15th Medical Group: At the time of the 1941 attack, the 40-bed hospital had been open only a few weeks. Air Force medical personnel treated hundreds of injured servicemen there. It is named "Schick Clinic" to honor 1st Lt. William R. Schick, the first Army Air Forces doctor killed during World War II.
» PACAF Headquarters: Completed as the world’s largest single military barracks in 1940, the building is still riddled with shell holes from the Dec. 7 attack.
» Battery Hawkins: The smallest of Fort Kamehameha’s five coastal defense batteries built during World War I, Hawkins was part of Pearl Harbor’s artillery system.
» Fort Kamehameha: The only U.S. military base named after a foreign ruler, Fort Kamehameha is the oldest military area of the modern air base. The five coastal batteries were built between 1911 and 1920.
» Zero Crash Site: One of the first of Japan’s super-secret airplanes to fall into Allied hands smashed into a courtyard at Fort Kamehameha, killing several on the ground.
» Hawaii Air National Guard: Mustered in 1946, HIANG continues to guard the Islands and provide humanitarian assistance. It is only the second guard unit to receive the new F-22 fighter.
According to the Hickam history office, there are a number of other historical markers on the base in memory of units, personnel and events. Some of the most notable are those at the base flag at Atterbury Circle, the Courtyard of Heroes, the Missing Man formation display, and the old shore batteries. A number of other plaques mark events that took place at buildings that no longer exist, such as the one in front of the present Firestone auto-care station that marks the return point of Vietnam-era prisoners of war.
Plans to include more than 20 historical markers were scaled back due to budget constraints, the office said.