Haʻikū Stairs History
The Ha'ikū Stairs were built beginning in 1942 as part of a pioneering top secret US Naval Radio Station. The US Navy had begun its WWII preparations in Hawai'i in 1939. Prior to that time, there were no separate Atlantic and Pacific fleets and Pearl Harbor was a small unit with little significance. After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, however, President Roosevelt declared a state of National Emergency, and the Navy began to send part of its fleet to Pearl Harbor for the purpose of deterring Japanese movement in the Dutch East Indies (Allen, 1950:227).
The positioning of Naval forces to Hawai'i began as a temporary movement but by the summer of 1940 the chief of Naval Operations determined the fleet would remain indefinitely. And then on the 7th December, 1941, the Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor fell under a surprise aerial attack.
Sunday, Dec 7th 1941
Map showing Pearl Harbor, O'ahu, circa 1941. This map was found in a captured midget submarine launched to attack ships during the attack on the US Pearl Harbor in 7 Dec 1941. Image courtesy of US Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation
Overnight, the islands of Hawai'i were transformed. The people were fearful of future attacks as the military struggled to repair the damage from Pearl Harbor bomb raid, and rapidly began to prepare itself as the base center of America’s World War II Pacific military efforts. The construction was rapid and widespread on the island of O'ahu. By the time the Japanese government surrendered to the allied forces in 1945, the affiliated Naval bases in Hawai'i comprised the most extensive defense installation in the world.
Planning the Impossible
Early in 1942, the proposal was put forward to build a pioneering radio communications system in Hawai'i. The proposal was headed by Commander Hord, Radio Materials Officer at CINCPAC; BuDocks (Bureau of Yards and Docks) engineers, Lt. Commander R.M. Belt, Lt. Butzine, and Lt. Thatcher, engineers of the Radio Corporation of America, including Mr. McKesson; and the New York designing firm of Gibbs and Hill (Woodbury, 1946:349). The project was a result of extensive combined efforts.
Plans were made for the construction and design of the facility. On May 14, 1942, a summary of cost was written by the five members of CPNAB for an estimate of a radio transmitting station. The estimate contained a detailed listing for the transmitter building which included the cost for clearing the site, 850 cubic yards of concrete and 136,550 pounds of reinforced steel to construct the bomb-proof structure. It also included the cost of installing a 10 ton crane (CPNAB, Estimate, 1942). This crane currently remains in place at the transmitter building at the Omega Station in Haʻikū Valley.
The estimate for the design and construction of the antenna’s anchors included costs for cableways to the ridges, lateral transport along the ridges, hoists and hoist houses, rigging gear, special tools, excavation and rock trimming, and a large sum for contingencies. This initial estimate attempted to prepare for the ability to make full use of the radio station as soon as possible. It allowed for not only the construction of the transmitter building and cableways but also telephone installation, roads, a fence, topographic survey, and quarters for 35 men. The equipment would be shipped on the mainland by railroad freight to California, by ocean freight to Hawai'i, by truck from Honolulu to the site, placed in storage at the site, and it was planned that guards would be hired to protect the materials. The total estimate for the transmitter building was $598,300 and included 10.24% for accident insurance and taxes, 20% for the job overhead, 5% for the operating base office in Alameda, and a 5% fee for the contractors (CPNAB, Estimate,1942).
Construction of the Bomb Proof Transmitter Building
from US Coast Guard Omega Station Records, 22nd Jan 2943
Method of raising the antennae in Ha'ikū Valley. Illustration in Woodbury Builders for Battle, 1946
Drawings were prepared by the District Public Works Design Section, and by the contractors’ design department. Mountain-top anchorage, method of raising and lowering the aerial systems, and layout of roads and trails were designed by the contractors. The aerial system, the antenna ground system, the transmission lines for carrying radio-frequency power from transmitter to antenna and ground system, and the transmitter layout (including suggestions for main and auxiliary building layouts) were designed by R.C.A. communications, Inc., in connection with their order to furnish radio-installation material and field-engineer supervision on installation. R.M. Towill, of Honolulu, was employed to make preliminary site surveys (U.S. Dept. Navy, 1944: A-816).
The Amphitheater Valley
Ha'ikū Valley was chosen for the top-secret radio station because of its topography. A site was needed that had two mountain walls rising as vertically as possible, both a similar height over 2,000 feet, and with flat land in between. By studying a Coast and Geodetic map it was determined that the walls of Ha'ikū Valley eroded into a series of cliffs like in an amphitheater open towards the ocean, would be ideal.
Ha'ikū Valley circa 1950
Image from the US Geological Survey
On May 25, 1942, the valley was sketched out by Lt. Butzine. The sketch showed the land area that the Navy hoped to lease for the station in order to ‘stretch aerial wires’. After some study, on June 11, 1942, BuDocks authorized acquisition of the land instead of leasing the area, with a decision that the land would be leased temporarily in order that construction on the radio station could begin as soon as possible (PACDIV:9). It was not uncommon for months to go by before legal acquisitions were made during the time of the outbreak of the war.
Lt. Butzine also noted on his 1942 rendering of Ha'ikū Valley and its proposed aerials: "There has been no decision to date of the final locations of Aerials. BuDocks has recommended an overall spread of 1700 feet but the Officer in Charge has recommended that the maximum spread not exceed 1200 feet to simplify construction. It is essential to construct small helix houses under the aerials as well as installing certain ground and telephone poles" (Butzine, 1942).
Butzine's early sketch indicated both options of placements of aerials on the ridges, 1200 and 1700 feet apart. It also placed four helix houses near the center of the valley, one for each of the cables, a transmitter building at the east of the helix houses near the entrance to the valley, and a building that would serve as quarters for 35 men, also near the entrance and the transmitter (Butzine, 1942).
Over the next months the Contractors, PNAB regularly corresponded with the R.C.A. engineers in New York. Due to the fact that the project was experimental all aspects of the construction were up for revision as the combined efforts of the workers resulted in innovative solutions to handle each new problem as it arose. On June 23, 1942, the Plant Design Superintendent, J.L. Finch from R.C.A. Communications, Inc. wrote to the CPNAB regarding further specifics of the anchor and aerial placement. At this point R.C.A. was basing its information on photographs and maps they had been sent on May 19, 1942, and a field representative they had in Hawai'i.
Ha'ikū Valley facing towards Kahalu'u
Sketch of possible layout by Lt. Buztine, 25 May 1942. From National Archives and Records, San Bruno, CA
The wooden ladder known as the Haiku Ladder was staked into place in 1942. The metal stairway was installed 11 years later
The Stairs lead to a cable house that sits close the peak of Pu'u Keahiakahoe in Ha'ikū Valley