Descendants of former Dillingham Airfield landholders seek voice on closure

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The State’s plan to shut down Dillingham Airfield operations this summer is leaving more than just the aviation tenants in limbo. Always Investigating reports Native Hawaiian descendants of the area have concerns too.

Before it was Dillingham Airfield, the breathtaking stretch of Mokuleia was home to Hawaiian and kamaaina families and farms going back generations.

“This is where my grandfather’s family lived,” explains Thomas Shirai, a lineal descendant with roots on a large portion of what became the airfield. “The house was right here.”

Then the Army started a communication station in 1922, and it grew to hundreds of acres in World WarII. Among the biggest former landholders was his great grandmother.

“It spread like a cancer, just 1 or 2 acres, then 500 acres plus, because they wanted an airfield,” Shirai said, flipping through a 100-year-old deed transfer booklet. “That book contains a take-it-or-leave-it, below-fair-market value. You don’t take then well you don’t get nothing.”

Nothing is what business tenants such as skydivers and gliders, and private or nonprofit tenants including youth flight programs, fear they’ll also end up with after their eviction by the State Department of Transportation. They have until just June 30 to get out after being there in many cases for decades.

Shirai feels their pain but says of them: “Not to be arrogant, but before you came here on this airfield there is something a lot deeper than you, and your existence is not even close, and I just want it acknowledged. That’s part of the healing process.”

KHON2 was there in 2007 when Shirai re-interred his great-great grandmother’s iwi, which had been unearthed in an improper Dillingham sand mining operation by a private DOT contractor.

“Sorry we disturbed you,” Shirai said at the time as he returned the remains to the earth at his ancestral land. “Some people they no like listen, now you’re back at home.”

Now Shirai is calling for a more thoughtful approach than the abrupt closure by the State.

“I was really thinking about go see the governor myself you know,” he said. “Whatever decision that’s going to be made with all those people, I want a seat at the table, which I deserve on behalf of my family and all the other ancestors and other families that were here, because it’s not being addressed.”

“I want to be a part,” Shirai said. “I feel that I have been left out of this process. I’m doing it for her (his great grandmother). She died very young at 58 years old, just one year younger than what I am now, 59. And I’m also doing it for her father, the main guy down here was considered by all those old-time people as the last konohiki.”

Shirai said he says he commends the Army’s handling of cultural resource protections at Dillingham in recent years.

“This ahupuaa of Kawaihapai is the gem of this place,” Shirai said. “There are fishing shrines, there’s an agricultural heiau, there’s numerous taro patches up on the mountains.”

Shirai has served in U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue and was a former DOT Airports employee. His father was awarded an Army lifesaving medal for a nearby ocean rescue. His mother was a decorated lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol with a wing based at Mokuleia.

“I have lots and lots and lots of connection to this place,” Shirai said. “I am a strong proponent of search and rescue and first responders. I would be a very strong proponent of the Civil Air Patrol relocating here. I would also be a proponent of the kids learning how to fly here, and I would also be a proponent of the Coast Guard having a subunit here with a C-130 and a helicopter base. Why? So that their search and rescue time is faster on the North Shore and to Kauai.”

Shirai says city and resources like police and fire helicopters, pump trucks, rescue boats, ambulances and more could station at Dillingham.

A government entity such as the City, or another State department, is just about the only candidates the Army would consider to replace the DOT as a managing lessee.

The Army tells KHON2: “Operating Dillingham Airfield for non-military purposes would have to be undertaken by a sponsoring government agency fulfilling all FAA and other requirements with the Army. We’re interested in reaching a solution and will fully consider any future proposal from government agencies to resolve this issue.”

KHON2 asked area Honolulu City Councilmember Heidi Tsuneyoshi what she thinks of the city being a potential sponsor?

“I think of course we have to look at all options on the table,” Tsuneyoshi said. “I think definitely we have to look for a public purpose for the land, something that is a support to the community and something that the community can be invested in and support.”

moving forward we would have to have a lot of discussion about that, so it again goes to the idea of having an extension of time.”

That’s a plea Tsuneyoshi and other State lawmakers such as Sen. Gil Riviere and Rep. Sean Quinlan have made repeatedly, to at least to give any potential replacement agency time to make a bid.

The DOT, however, told KHON2: “It isn’t prudent to respond to hypothetical scenarios. HDOT, the U.S. Army and the FAA are engaged in continued dialogue regarding the transfer of HDOT’s lease of the Dillingham Airfield.”

Lawmakers want to schedule an event dedicated to the airfield’s future with the Department of Transportation and the Army present

“Moving forward we need better answers from DOT and the Army with the community, in the community, to see what our steps are moving forward,” Tsuneyoshi said.

DOT told KHON2: “HDOT will respond to the Councilmember directly if we are invited to a community meeting.

The Army told KHON2: “The Army is empathetic to the community’s concerns about Dillingham Airfield. The Army desires to resolve the current Dillingham Airfield lease termination with the State of Hawaii and is beginning this process working with the State and other agencies.”

Shirai and others whose family lands were amassed by the Army to create the airfield spoke out at a standing room only community meeting this week in Waialua, where the Dillingham closure was on everyone’s mind. The event – a talk story hosted by area city and county lawmakers – had been scheduled prior to news breaking about the Dillingham closure.

“There were some lineal descendants of the area that came out to say, ‘Hold on, time out,’” Tsuneyoshi said. “It was a telltale sign of the problems that were created by having such a big news dropped so unexpectedly onto everybody and the backlash was pretty tremendous

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