by Louis Bignami

After the last supper boat returns to port, and the tourists thin out on Kapialani Boulevard, the glass doors of the US Army Museum of Hawaii clang shut and olive drab ghosts gather. Soldiers who "bought the farm" in the Philippine Insurrection compare notes with W.W.II veterans of the Bataan Death March. Japanese-Hawaiian vets of the 442nd Combat Team tell of Italy's cold and their rescue of a Texas unit in the South of France. Korean-era wraiths argue with Vietnam vets about the comparative delights of cold and hot weather combat and the fertilization methods of the Orient.. Submariners recollect days in the sun just down the beach at the Royal Hawaiian. It burned backs which were fish-belly white after months submerged at sea. Pilots' hands replicate combats long past as spectral vets belly up to the relocated Barefoot Bar and down phantom drinks deep inside the echoing corridors of Fort DeRussy's Battery Randolph.

I remember Randolph from its Vietnam Era Days when it was used more as a storage center and, for those with the "keys to heaven", as a site for Mai-Tai or Primo beers fueling coeducational activities of dubious virtue. Then it lurked like a huge abandoned lump behind dusty cyclone fencing. Even though the Corp of Engineers tried so hard to blow it up that the windows of nearby hotels were threatened, it endured.

Frank, a buddy who faced another 'Nam tour "noted, "There's a lesson in that ugly mother. Just hunker down, stay low and don't attract attention and you may survive." Battery Randolph endured. Frank ignored his own advice, tried to bring a wounded buddy in and got caught in our own Claymores. Like most of war's heroes he didn't even get a medal.

Even in its current well-manicured state, Battery Randolph certainly doesn't impress. The low sod-covered mound with a concrete lid and oddly angled casements here and there barely projects from the coconut palm dotted grass. Approach a bit closer and you'll see the still blades of a Vietnam-era helicopter, and behind the old WW II tracked vehicles, you'll spot a modern entrance and a modest sign.

Inside you can visit one of the best military museums in America. It's a shame that many visitors to Hawaii miss their chance to remember, and learn, from the past. There's no place better to spend a dry couple of hours on a rainy day, and if it's hot out you can cool off in its subterranean tunnels after you've cooked to a turn on the beach.

Best of all, DeRussy's free. Like the small 25th "Tropic Lightning" Museum at Schofield Barracks in the center of Oahu, they ask only a donation. Too bad the same can't be said for the Bishop Museum and the Navy's Sub Pack Museum at Pearl Harbor.

Most important of all for those who never went to war, the museum's about warriors, not just the history of war. Napoleon Bonaparte noted "Soldiers usually win the battles and generals get the credit for them." So it's a fine thing to see a museum that so concentrates on the young men who are sent out by old men to fight their battles. More than anything else, DeRussy looks to the individual soldier, the Hawaiian warrior, the doughboy, GI or grunt who goes out and does what's necessary between the peace times, when soldiers serve and sacrifice without salutation.

Like most military installations built between the Civil and First World Wars, DeRussy took its name from a general who, oddly enough, never fired a shot when in charge of the defenses of San Francisco Harbor during the Civil War. General DeRussy earned his place in history with his barbette depressing gun carriage that pops up to fire, but drops back behind cover to reload. Such guns also served well at Bataan and Corregidor and the two on the roof are the Museum's most impressive pieces of hardware.

When they were installed in 1911, their 24,000 yard (14 mile) range was a complete protection for the mouth of strategic Pearl Harbor all the way round to Koko Head. Nothing that floated could brave the 1,560 pound shells these 138,000 pound guns could spit out at a rate of two per minute in response to aiming information sent down from Diamond Head.

DeRussy's site isn't accidental either. The widest beaches in Waikiki were, of course, more difficult to attack across. Just imagine trying to wade in from the reef's edge like the Marines did at Tarawa. The swamps, mosquitoes big enough to impress Mark Twain and the low ground to the mountain side -- now drained by the Ala Wai Canal -- protected the fort's rear too. However, its guns fired rarely even in practice as their massive recoil shook downtown buildings.

Then the Japanese came by air, and the massive 14 inch guns of Battery Randolph were obsolete. So too was Fort DeRussy in the military sense. But, while the guns were scrapped in 1946, the battery continued to be used as storage space until 1969 when the failure of escalating demolition attempts demonstrated the structure's strength and threatened nearby hotel windows.

DeRussy Now

Today DeRussy serves as a recreation center for military past and present. Its beaches and most other facilities are open to the public and the wide sand here offers some of the best lazing ground in the island. Now all DeRussy needs is protection from the eyes of hungry developers that see the land as a prime site for another high rise. However, by doubling the size of the military's Hale Koa --Hawaiian for "house of warriors" Hotel that's such an attraction for military past and present, it seems likely that DeRussy, a welcome green spot in an increasingly high rise hotel area, will last as long as the battery. The Hale Koa Hotel, it should be added, is run on a profit making basis and is so popular that it's mobbed most of the year. There's no place better to hear war stories than the beach bar either.

It's appropriate that the superb U.S. Army Museum, Hawaii was dedicated on the bicentennial 4th of July in 1976 and, even with the sad memories, opened to the public on December 7th of that Bicentennial year. According to a museum spokesman, the mission of the Army Museum in Waikiki is to: "Collect, preserve and exhibit the history of the U.S. Army in the Pacific Area, the military history of Hawaii, and the contributions made by Hawaii and Hawaiians to the nation's defense."

Few other museums serve so well, with such a sense of the presence of those who served their nation. Fort Sumpter, or on a cold, foggy day, Little Round Top at Gettysburg offer the same sense of patriots past. At DeRussy the echoing corridors that saw generations of military serve the mighty above, now serve as a fitting entrance to the ammunition bays that offer up an outstanding series of displays of important military eras in Hawaii, which start when Hawaiian slings were the weapons of choice.

To best enjoy this sense of the past, visit early before the soft comments of visitors override the sounds of the long-gone wars. Take your time. Expect to spend at least two or three hours following the chronological exhibit layout. Then move outside where today's youngsters in military service laze away off-duty hours on the beach.

The Early Days

Just inside the museum entrance and its interesting shop filled with military memorabilia (buy a copy of the December 7th, 1941 paper), the long corridor's displays cover the early days from King Kamehameha to the establishment of the Coast Artillery in a mural and graphic history from Captain Cook to WW II.

The Hawaiian Room, first of a number of special areas in the old battery magazines, shows how King Kamehameha united the Big Island and, eventually, all of Hawaii. The displays of old Hawaiian weapons rank with those of the Bishop Museum. This isn't surprising, the superb exhibits here were largely built by John McLaghlin who prepared 17 major exhibits for the Bishop.

Another section of displays shows how the massive guns on the roof of Battery Randolph functioned, and one of the old shell magazines has been restored with shell and powder handling tables, nearly 50 fourteen inch shells and enough mannequins and other memorabilia to bring back the 1920's military.

A series of corridor displays covers the muddy virtues of the old time infantry units in the islands; some it should be noted went to war in the Philippines long before Pearl Harbor.

The Air Story

Military aviation, and its flip side, anti-aircraft artillery, line a long series of cases and murals replete with models and the history of times when Hawaii's women manned its air defense center. The long series of aviation firsts that included the huge pre-W.W.II amphibians demonstrates the importance of air power and its history in the islands before WW II.

December 7, 1941

The "day that will live in infamy" gets the full treatment with its own room stuffed with a variety of graphics, displays and models. The souvenir edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin headlines WAR! OAHU BOMBED BY JAPANESE PLANES begins a series of displays that shows how Japan came to go to war. A number of additional displays cover Martial Law in the islands and more. Along with the naval displays at Pearl Harbor, the US Army Museum makes the war real with its cases full of weapons, lively displays and accurate wall maps.

Go for Broke - The 442 Combat Team

While California sent their Japanese to internment camps, Hawaii's Japanese suffered less dislocation after the initial panic. As a result, a far higher percentage of young Japanese men joined the famous 442nd Combat Team composed largely of Japanese, that, in Italy and France, suffered a greater percentage of casualties, and more medals per man, than any other combat unit in WW II. Other Japanese Hawaiians worked as interpreters and performed other valuable duties in the Pacific Theater.

Hawaii's senator, Daniel K. Inouye and other important figures of the post war era received their case hardening in this splendid unit that, in effect, opened the door for integrating other races into the US Military. Senator Inouye narrates the Museum's audio-visual presentation "The Military History of Hawaii" that tells you what to expect in the museum.

Korean Conflict

Never have so many gone home so fast. And never has the military scaled down so radically as at the end of WW II. Fortunately, Hawaii's incredible military logistics base remained mostly intact when the North Koreans poured south over the 38th Parallel. As soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen were dragged back into the service, Hawaii geared up to supply and service the combat arms that streamed through towards "Frozen Chosen" and eventual stalemate.

Vietnam Virtues

The Limited War displays show how Hawaii supplied that conflict with supplies and units like the 25th "Tropic Lightning" and its own 29th Brigade of the Hawaiian National Guard that once trained at DeRussy. The Barefoot Bar helps vets who didn't opt for Thailand's I&I remember Hawaiian R&R.

The assortment of cases and displays brings back everything any vet remembers from the war save the heat and the smell. Models of Vietnamese and American bunkers demonstrate the different logistic requirements of each side and, some experts feel, the weakness of our fixed tour approach. For had the American military been allowed to fight full out, and its servicemen told they were to serve until the war was won, there's no question that the result would have been reversed.

The Gallery of Heroes

War's waste never seems clearer than in the Gallery of Heroes where lighted translucent photos of Hawaii's Six Medal of Honor and other major medal winners wait in their own ghostly space. Jack Lord -- Steve McGarrett from the television show, "Hawaii Five-0" -- tells their story. Here, as elsewhere in the museum, it's not unusual to see tough-looking men turn to hide a tear as they remember faces, names and deaths from their service past.

The Way it Was

Stout gray haired oldsters haltingly speak of long buried memories of gas masks, Banzai attacks and North Korean or Vietnamese regular bugles. An AK-47, an olive drab wrist watch with a moldy strap on a mannequin or the look of a bandoleer of M-1 ammo take those who were there back to days of boredom punctuated with periods of fighting and fear. Hopefully, those too young or too lucky to share these experiences can imagine combat's scope and impact. For, without understanding history we are, after all, doomed to repeat its mistakes.

People, Islands & Water

It's appropriate that the Regional Visitor Center of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sits on top of Battery Randolph; since the engineers couldn't knock the battery down they simply used it as the site for their multi-image display, "PEOPLE, ISLANDS and WATER. The Corps has been in the Pacific since they dredged the channel into Pearl harbor in 1902. Over the years, they've built a new harbor at Barber's Point and improved Hilo Harbor on the Big Island, Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai, Kahului Harbor on Maui and Kaunakakai Harbor on Molokai among others.

The exhibit shows local flood control, beach protection and erosion control programs that, in large part, help protect some of Hawaii's most colorful species of birds and wildlife. Guides are available for group tours of the exhibit and the display.