Gwen Battad Ishikawa
A plaque dedicating the Neal S. Blaisdell Center as a war memorial — as it was originally intended back in the 1960s when it was built — was rededicated last November with much pomp and circumstance and in a more visible location.
In the original plans for the Honolulu International Center — as it was known back then — the complex was to consist of a war memorial auditorium (today the arena, which was the first structure completed), an exhibition hall and a theatre-concert hall. When the Honolulu International Center was dedicated on Sept. 12, 1964, the memorial plaque was unveiled and blessed by the Rev. Abraham Akaka. It dedicated the HIC as a living memorial to all of Hawai‘i’s war veterans and war dead and bore the following words: “Honolulu International Center: Dedicated to All the Sons and Daughters of Hawaii Who Served Their Country in Time of War and in Special Tribute to Those Who Gave Their Lives in Order That Freedom and Justice Might Prevail Throughout the World.”
Sometime in the 1970s, the plaque disappeared without a trace. Without a physical reminder, the center’s legacy as a war memorial disappeared.
Years passed and the center underwent renovations. In 1984, the entire complex was renamed the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, in honor of Mayor Neal Blaisdell, who had overseen construction of the original center.
Enter Tanya Harrison . . .
In 2010, while researching her family’s genealogy in Kaka‘ako, Oregon resident (and former Hawaii resident) Tanya Harrison stumbled upon written documents that referred to the Honolulu International Center as a war memorial. Harrison wanted to see the memorial plaque, but her search for it on the grounds of the complex turned up nothing. No one, not even city officials, knew anything about the plaque, nor that the complex had even been dedicated as a war memorial.
Determined that visitors enjoying events and activities at the popular entertainment venue would know that the center had originally been dedicated as a war memorial, Harrison continued her research in the city and state archives and formed a grassroots committee made up of local residents in 2014. The committee consisted of Ret. USMC Col. Gene Castagnetti, Ret. Col. Walter Ozawa, Ret. USAF Maj. Lawrence Enomoto, and veterans advocate and descendant Drusilla Tanaka.
The group was successful in gaining the attention and support of the city, and on Feb. 19, 2015, Honolulu City Councilmembers Ann Kobayashi and Carol Fukunaga introduced a resolution requesting that the Neal S. Blaisdell Center be rededicated as a war memorial so that the public would be reminded of the center’s heritage as a war memorial and that its original purpose had been to honor Hawai‘i’s fallen heroes.
On Nov. 10, 2015, the group’s mission was realized with the unveiling of a stone-encased plaque near the mauka-‘ewa corner of Ward Avenue and South King Street. It bears the same dedication words from the 1964 plaque. The ceremony was attended by military officials, war veterans and government representatives. The plaque is located on the lawn facing Ward Avenue, surrounded by landscaping and highlighted by floodlights.
The late afternoon ceremony, aptly held on the eve of Veterans Day, was held on the länai of the Blaisdell Center Concert Hall. The Royal Hawaiian Band performed a musical prelude. Misty Kela‘i, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Arts, sang the national anthem and Hawai‘i Pono‘i and Kahu Curtis Kekuna of Kawaiaha‘o Church delivered the invocation. Guy H. Kaulukukui, director of the city Department of Enterprise Services, emceed the program. Guest speakers included city managing director Roy Amemiya and Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Civil Air Patrol cadets from Maryknoll High School were on hand to assist, just as their predecessors did in 1964. Retired Judge Ben F. Kaito, a World War II Military Intelligence Service veteran who was a member of the Honolulu City Council in 1964, was among the first to offer ho‘okupu — a gift of a maile lei.
Former Circuit Judge Thomas K. Kaulukukui Jr., board chair and managing trustee of the Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust and a Vietnam War veteran, served as the keynote speaker. Kaulukukui gave a broad perspective on memorials and cited examples of memorial rededication ceremonies in Pennsylvania, Vermont and California.
“In ancient times, the desire to erect lasting memorials often led to the establishment of megaliths — large, upright stones of commanding visual presence . . . . The purpose and meaning of these ancient memorials were preserved in oral stories, told and retold by people who remembered. When the people no longer remembered, the memorials were no longer memorials — they were just large stones,” Kaulukukui said.
“As civilizations progressed, memorials such as war memorials became accurate likenesses of those who were to be memorialized . . . . These life-like memorials need no explanation, because their purpose is obvious.
“After World War II, the concept and construction of so-called “living memorials” became increasingly popular. A living memorial is usually not a stone edifice or a sculptured human figure. Instead, it is most often an area of nature, a park or other public facility, or a building or complex of buildings like this one. Because living memorials do not by their very appearance signal their memorial purpose, an explanatory plaque or other writing is critical to remind the public to remember those who are memorialized. Without such an explanation, then the so-called “living memorial” is not fully alive, because it lacks the power to inspire people to remember.
“It is a natural aspect of the human condition to forget things over time. This happens with memorials, as it has with this one. Fortunately for us, such memorials can be revived, and we are here today to infuse new life into our memorial.”
Kaulukukui went on to say, “Let all ponder the meaning of what we are doing:
“Today, we do more than to simply dedicate a new plaque — we re-vitalize and re-sanctify an old memorial.
“This afternoon, we do more than to just recall our heroes of the past — we inspire our heroes of the future.
“At this special moment in time, we do far more than to achieve a worthy civic purpose — we fulfill our sacred duty to those who, in tempestuous times, have risked all for us and for our dear country.”