BY RON ELAND
North Hawaii News
Jim Browne knows a thing or two about combat.
The Waikoloa resident and retired Marine fought in the Korean War where he received a Purple Heart in addition to several other medals and honors. But today, he spends a lot of his free time preserving the history of World War II — specifically the role Camp Tarawa played.
One of the many ways Browne and his fellow members of the Marine Corps League Camp Tarawa Detachment 1255 have kept the camp’s history alive and well is through a docent program in conjunction with the National Park Service. For the past four years, Browne and Kathy Painton have led regular presentations at Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Last Friday they held one in as part of the Memorial Day weekend.
“Kathy and I have a lot of fun doing this,” Browne said following the presentation. “I feel it’s important to educate the public about history which is quickly going away. If we don’t keep it going, it will go away.”
During their 45-minute presentation, Browne and Painton took turns leading the slide presentation which focused on the 2nd Marine Division which arrived on the Big Island on Dec. 3, 1943 to recover from the Battle of Tarawa and to prepare for Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. The 5th Marine Division began to arrive in the summer of 1944 and trained at Camp Tarawa for the battle of Iwo Jima and the occupation of Japan.
“We’re not historians — we’re history buffs,” Browne told the crowd.
In the early 1940s, Waimea had a population of less than 400 residents, many of whom worked for Parker Ranch. But that all changed as more than 25,000 military personnel (mostly Marines) would soon call it “home.” By the time the war was over, more than 50,000 Marines, Navy corpsmen and Army Seabees passed through Camp Tarawa.
Regarding the Navy corpsmen, Browne said each received the nickname of “doc” no matter how old they were or their background.
“A lot of Marines are alive today because of them,” he said. “They were some of the bravest people I’ve ever seen in combat.”
Richard Smart, owner of Park Ranch at the time, leased 42,000 acres to the government for $1 a year — making it the Marines’ largest training camp in the Pacific. In fact, he also allowed his home (Puuopelu) to be used as divisional headquarters.
It was apparent early on that the Big Island (specifically the area around Waimea) had a very close resemblance the island of Iwo Jima and thus Camp Tarawa’s importance increased.
“The Marines would line up on the beaches here and move up mauka (toward the mountains) to simulate the beaches of Iwo Jima,” Browne said.
Painton, whose father was killed at Iwo Jima, said that down in Pololu Valley (at the tip of the island) the Marines practiced amphibious landings there. In fact, there are still three amtracs (amphibious vehicles) which can be found partially buried in the valley.
“The Marines would spend the night there, hike out in the morning and march the 20 miles back to Camp Tarawa,” she said. “Their training was very brutal and extensive. Many of these men came from the Midwest and have never seen the ocean. Many didn’t even know how to swim. When my dad trained here he wrote that it was cold, windy, wet and dusty.”
During their slide presentation, Browne and Painton pointed out that it wasn’t all work and no play while at Tarawa. The Marines helped introduce rodeo here which was always followed by a large barbecue provided by Smart.
“The local residents embraced the Marines and vice versa,” she said.
For more information on Camp Tarawa and the docent program visit www.camptarawamcl.com.