Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From the archives: Saipan airport exhibit details evolution of As Lito airfield

As Lito became Conroy Field then later Isely Field in 1944

Saipan airport exhibit shows As Lito airfield evolution
By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor
Associate editor / reporter 
Marianas Variety 
(Published in June 2012)
IT was the first operational airbase in Micronesia. Such was the historical significance and importance of the Aslito airfield, where the present Saipan International Airport now stands and where an exhibit chronicling its evolution is on display.

Northern Marianas Humanities Council executive director Scott Russell and University of Guam and Australia National University research associate Wakako Higuchi teamed up to work on the 10-panel exhibit now on display in the airport’s departure area.

Russell told Variety that it took them close to three years, including research, to put it all together.

“The field was actually the first in Micronesia to have had aircraft land on it. We knew none of this before Wakako [Higuchi] began her research,” said Russell.

Acknowledging Higuchi’s research, Russell said she relied on primary Japanese sources that they did not have access to before.

“She found new information that had not been published, at least in English, previously about the early development of Aslito,” he said.

Higuchi, for her part, told Variety that initially, she could not find any reference to Aslito, “but I started to pick up little by little from archival information.”

Being in English and Japanese was a requirement of the Historic Preservation Office for the Commonwealth Ports Authority to have the public exhibit, which shows the airport’s development and its historical significance.

Russell told Variety that the idea behind this exhibit is to research the history of both airfields and the roles they played during the war and to be able to get the information in two languages at the airport.

The resulting 10-panel exhibit, whose layout and production was overseen by Dr. Dave Tuggle,  shows in prose and photographs the development of the formerly sugarcane farmlands into Aslito Airfield during the Japanese period, to Isely Field under the Americans, and to the present Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport.

In her studies, Higuchi discovered Aslito Airfield used to be part of the Nanyo Kohatsu Kaisha’s farmlands.

“It was a Japanese sugarcane farm,” said Higuchi, who pored over documents about the Japanese Administration Period in the Marianas in the Japanese Defense Ministry.

“I studied research about Aslito, then I found how significant the area itself [was] for Japan and the Japanese Administration of the Marianas,” confessed Higuchi.

Russell said there are two parts to Aslito: Aslito and Isely.

As Lito, he said, was the Japanese Navy air station, and then there was Isely Field, which was the first operational B-29 base in the Marianas.

According to Russell, the two fields were both important for their own reason.

Russell told Variety, “The new Saipan International Airport sits on the two airfields.”

He said there was Aslito, then Isely on top of Aslito, and finally the Saipan International Airport on top of Isely.

Asked if their research on Aslito would be made available elsewhere, Russell said “the exhibit is just specific to the airport.”

Located at the east side of the departure area, the exhibit, according to Russell, gives people who use the airport an understanding of the historical significance of where they are.

Highlights of the exhibit
Russell and Higuchi trace the early beginnings of Aslito from the founding of the village in the 1920s as part of the sugarcane cultivation.

Matsue Haruji, also known as the Sugar King, made possible the growth of the sugarcane industry on Saipan, with Aslito the first farm placed under cultivation by Matsue’s company Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha.

As part of the Japanese Imperial Navy operation, the NKK was ordered by the Navy to cede 245 acres of farmland and covertly convert this expanse of flatland into an airstrip, efforts they kept under wraps in order to avoid stirring the suspicions of U.S. military forces on Guam.

On July 20, 1933, a squadron of 10 Mitsubishi B2M1 carrier attack bombers shipped from Tateyama, Japan took off from Aslito and headed to Pagan.

This flight was integral to the Special-Great Exercise conducted in the Marianas-Ogasawara area, which lasted for 86 days.

The presence of the Emperor Hirohito himself, who observed the exercise from aboard the battleship Hiei, and the participation of Prince Fushimi Hiroyasu and three members of the imperial household, made the exercise a significant one.

Following the completion of the Saipan-Pagan flight, the Aslito airfield was abandoned, only to be revived in 1937 when a survey was commissioned to lay out an L-shaped airfield.

To accommodate the new facility, the NKK ceded 1,960 more acres of sugarcane farmlands.

Thus commenced the three-year, three-phased construction of the airfield.

By the end of 1939, the Aslito Naval Air Base had a 1,200 m. long and 800 m. wide paved runway.

Aslito became the first operational airbase in Micronesia.

But the airfield would soon pass hands to the Americans, when they invaded Saipan on June 15, 1944.

On June 18, 1944, the 165th Regimental Combat Team headed by Colonel Gerard W. Kelly secured the airfield with no opposition from Japanese forces.

The Aslito Airfield was renamed Conroy Field in honor of Colonel Gardiner J. Conroy, former head of the combat team, who was killed in action in the Gilbert Islands.

This was short-lived as the Navy renamed the airfield Isely Field in honor of Commander Robert H. Isely, who was shot and killed while leading an attack against Aslito.

On Nov. 24, 111 B-29s of the 73rd Bomb Wing took off from Isely Field to conduct the first air raid mission on Japan.

Under General Curtis Lemay, the U.S. revised its air raid strategy with by dropping incendiary bombs during low-level night raids.

This strategy was tested on March 9, 1945 when a total of 334 B-29s from Saipan, Guam and Tinian flew to Japan between 5,000 to 7,000 feet of altitude carrying 2,000 tons of bombs.

In 10 months of combat, the 73rd Bomb Wing flew 9,894 combat sorties and dropped close to 50,000 tons of firebombs.

Isely was then considered one of the world’s largest airbases, with two paved 8,500-foot taxiways and  186 hardstands.

From 1945 until its closure in 1949, the airfield was used for emergency and refueling purposes.

Over the next two decades, commercial flights used Koblerville Field, until its deterioration in 1968 led to the revival of Isely Field.

On Dec. 15, 1975, the first commercial aircraft landed on what is now known as the Saipan International Airport.

Higuchi believes that understanding the history of the airfields will lead one to understand Saipan’s place in history.

Said Russell, “That airfield played a very significant role in both the prewar and WWII era histories of Japan, the U.S. and the Marianas.”

He only wished that the exhibit could have been located in a more prominent area, so more people could learn to appreciate the airport’s place not just in American and Japanese but also world history.

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