U.S. KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Marshall Islands - It's the end of an era. After four and a half decades on Kwajalein, long-time resident Jimmy Matsunaga and his wife Doreen departed Tuesday.

Matsunaga arrived at Kwajalein in 1966 at age 23. He has only lived in Hawaii and Kwajalein his whole life, besides 4 years in the Air Force. The Matsunagas will retire in Honolulu where they will be surrounded by family and friends.

The decision to leave wasn't an easy one. Doreen especially loves living on Kwajalein.

"My wife loves it out here," Matsunaga said. "Kwajalein is a beautiful place."

Staying or leaving became kind of a standoff between him and his wife. "If I don't say it, she won't say it. So I said, 'We're leaving.'"

They've talked about leaving for the past several years, "and I feel this is just the right time. It's time for us to go home and enjoy life."

They look forward to traveling and visiting friends while they can still enjoy it.

"Now we'll have time to travel more, and we don't have to worry about time. We have all the time in the world now."

They've made many friends over the years who have come and gone -- they plan to travel around the U.S. to visit them. Matsunaga is also looking forward to "knowing every day is Saturday, (I can) get up when I want to get up, and I hope my wife will let me go where I want to go."

Matsunaga said he will remember his adventure on Kwajalein fondly. He reminisced about the 'good old days' when sports were competitive and met with over 200 screaming fans.

"Sports used to be a highlight," he said. "They had some star athletes from Hawaii out here." In his bachelor days, Matsunaga played every sport offered -- volleyball, basketball, handball, slow pitch and mountain ball.

His bachelor days didn't last too long. Matsunaga married in 1970 in Honolulu. He and Doreen had their daughter Serena shortly thereafter. His family was able to accompany him on Kwajalein in 1977. While sports, the "aloha spirit" on Kwajalein and "making the big bucks" was his initial drive for staying on Kwajalein, his family was soon the new reason to stay.

"Of course when your family's here it's another chapter," he explained. "That kept me here. My daughter went from pre-school to graduation (on Kwajalein)." Saving money during that time made it easier to put her through college, Matsunaga said. After she left for school, the years just seemed to fly by. "Two years became three, three became four, four became five and you know how it goes. After a certain amount of years you don't even think about the years, time just went by so fast," he said.

Here for 45.5 years, Matsunaga has witnessed all the development and disassembly of infrastructure on island. What sticks out in his mind is when they closed the Crossroads Restaurant, a dining facility that once stood north of the Ocean View Club.

"That was the best," he recalled. "In the back there was a candlelight dinner area with glass windows looking out over the ocean. In the middle there was a long bar, and in the front was where the guys came straight from work and played shuffleboard and drank beer."

Even with the closing of the Crossroads, he still had the Yokwe Yuk Club -- for a while at least. It was closed in 2007.

"They never replaced it so there's no really good dining facility (now). We would always look forward to the weekend to take our wives out with other couples and go out to the club for a nice sit-down dinner."

The annual carnival that used to come to Kwajalein was remembered as a fun time in Matsunaga's past. It was held at Daily Field.

"We all looked forward to it," he said. "Even the adults."

They had games of chance, professional entertainment from Hawaii, food booths, a beer tent and lots of rides -- a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and even a train. The band from Fr. Hacker High School would wander around the carnival playing music. "That was one of the big things in the old days." Other big events back then were block parties and luaus -- complete with Hawaiian bands.

Matsunaga could easily be described as one of the most well-known Kwajalein residents. He has even been branded by a few nicknames -- like the Godfather of the Hawaiians. When asked how this nickname came about he just laughed. "I don't know. Maybe I have some friends in Hawaii," he joked. "In the old days this place was loaded with Hawaiian people … with many well-known names. I guess I got the name Godfather because maybe I've been here longest. They called me 'The Mayor.'"

Leaving after 45.5 years is no easy feat, emotionally or logistically. Most accompanied families are allotted 2,000 pounds when they packout. After living here so long the Matsunagas had acquired quite a bit more than that. Matsunaga ended up packing out 45.5 years of his life into five crates and four triwalls -- a total of 4,976 pounds. Of course after living in the same house since the late 1980s, they came across items they hadn't seen in years tucked behind dressers and stowed away in closets.

Matsunaga spoke very highly of the packers in charge of his packout.

"I was curious to see how they were going to package my rosewood furniture -- it's heavy, tall and big. Even my daughter couldn't believe the guys were that good. They were just amazing. … I rate them among the top in the world."

Matsunaga knows shipping and receiving will survive without him. "Life goes on. In any job there's nobody that's irreplaceable. My guys are trained; they run on automatic."

While Matsunaga may miss a lot of what Kwajalein has to offer, one in particular stands out in his mind -- his Marshallese friends.

"They're good people. They are the friendliest people on Earth. My guys, they work, they sweat every day, they do their job, they get the job done and they don't complain. That's what I'll look back on -- my Marshallese friends."

Leaving his home for the past four and a half decades does not make Matsunaga sad.

"I don't want to look back here. My heart in all these years, believe it or not, was in Hono. I spent four years in the Air Force. When I got out, I missed Hawaii. I said I'll never leave Hawaii again. Two months after I got out, I was out here for 45.5 years. I enjoyed it out here, it was a nice ride. It was a long, fun ride -- what a journey. But, I won't look back. I'll just look forward and enjoy life."

Editor's note: Excerpts were taken from an Aug. 5, 2006, Hourglass article.

Page last updated Fri January 20th, 2012 at 00:00