As the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of the U.S. involvement in World War II draw near, service members here have an opportunity to reflect on their base’s history.
Camp H.M. Smith is home to U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, the largest field command in the Marine Corps, but in March 1941, Congress approved Aiea as the site, not for a headquarters, but for a place to build a naval hospital.
The building that now houses the MarForPac headquarters was once used to treat the wounded Marines and Sailors of World War II.
Construction on the Aiea Naval Hospital began in July 1939 because of the expectations of war, still the tragedy that occurred was more than anyone expected.
“Before [the attacks,] there was concern (about what) the Japanese were doing in the Pacific ... ,” said Robert Stubbs, the historian for Pacific Command. “The Japanese had been given trusteeship over all of the German (colonies in the Pacific), which included many of the islands in Polynesia and Micronesia, so they already had outposts. They’d moved into China, were being more aggressive in South East Asia … but no one imagined Pearl Harbor.”
Months later, the surprise attack prompted the United States to enter World War II. Because of the fighting and increased need for a hospital, Aiea Naval Hospital was hurried to completion.
“When the war broke out in (December 1941), they sped up construction and finished it in 1942. This became the primary rear-area hospital for Navy and Marines,” said Stubbs.
What is currently occupied with military work sections, desks and offices was then a series of wards, hospital beds and living quarters.
“That’s why a lot of the old offices still have the really wide doors, so they (could) roll beds and gurneys in and out,” said Stubbs.
As for the capabilities of the hospital, they correlated directly with the war. In 1943, the number of staff and facilities grew tremendously. New wards were constructed to better support the waves of casualties, numbering in the hundreds, arriving from the Solomon, Gilbert and Marshall Islands.
The hospital expanded again in 1944, adding staff and temporary wards to hold up to 5,000 patients. Aiea Naval Hospital had improved efficiency for admitting patients by the time casualties began arriving from Saipan, Guam and Tinian in the Mariana Islands.
On Jan. 1, 1944, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz personally presented awards to the many combat-wounded service members at the hospital. Patients were assembled in front of the hospital where 632 men who fought during the Battle of Tarawa received awards.
Of the 41,872 admissions in 1944, 39,006 patients were relocated to the mainland or returned to duty, according to the hospital’s historical documents.
In March 1945, the hospital peaked at 5,676 patients during the battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. But as high as the hospital’s patient number was, so was its morale.
The enlisted staff and patients were entertained by well-known celebrities of the time. Stars like Joe Cronin, manager of the Boston Red Sox, Gaylord Carter, a famous radio organist, and others visited the hospital.
Bowling alleys, tennis and volleyball courts, and billiard tables were prescribed as therapy for some patients.
“Down where Bordelon Field is, a lot of the areas here on the camp were used as gardens,” said Stubbs. “The patients would go work in the gardens. They’d use the food from the gardens to feed the patients, but that was more a rehabilitation-type activity.”
In 1945, some of the hospital’s staff were ordered back to the mainland for military separation. A year later, the patient capacity at the hospital was reduced from approximately 5,000 to 529 patients. In May 1949, the hospital stopped receiving patients altogether.
“It sat idle for a long time and they were in the process of selling all the property,” said Stubbs. “General (Holland M.) Smith came up and looked at it and decided this was what he wanted for the home of the (Fleet Marine Force Pacific) headquarters.”
It was renamed on June 8, 1955 in honor of Smith, the first commanding general of Fleet Marine Force Pacific.
“Knowing that I’m working at a base where people who were famous in the Marine Corps and did amazing things stood 60 to 70 years ago (gives me a sense of pride) " said Sgt. Luke D. Madsen, a supply administration chief at Headquarters and Service Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific.
Today the halls no longer echo the sounds of nurses and corpsman rushing to treat hundreds of wounded Sailors and Marines. There are no more patient evacuations or hospitalized heroes of the island-hopping campaign. Today, major military events like Operation Tomodachi and annual training exercises keep the halls of MarForPac busy.
“I think people who work here are proud to work at a place like this, the higher echelon over the Pacific Marines,” said Madsen. “When they look down [the hill] they see the Arizona Memorial and the [USS] Missouri, so they get that sense of history just from standing here.”