Expulsion from paradise: the civilian evacuees from Hawaii after Pearl Harbor.

pearl harbor color

Everybody knows what happened at Pearl Harbor 72 years ago today. The stories will be told and re-told again and again, as they deserve to be. In this, the final article for my Hawaiian History Week, I want to focus on an aspect of Pearl Harbor that isn’t well known: the story of those Hawaiians who had to leave their homes because of the war, some of whom never returned. I think these stories are a reminder of the real human impact of war, as well as food for thought as to what it meant, in 1941, to be a Hawaiian and an American.

The Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor was primarily a military strike, but its consequences were perhaps most deeply felt among the non-military personnel–the ordinary Hawaiians whose homes were attacked. Amidst the battleships and cruisers left burning and sinking in Pearl Harbor there were 49 civilians killed in the Honolulu area, ranging in age from 3-month old baby Janet Ohta to 66-year-old Soon Chip Kim. What’s interesting about the names of the civilian casualties (read them, here) is how multicultural they were. Many of them were of Japanese background. Again this highlights the highly diverse population of Hawaii and the issues that raised.

Almost immediately after the attack–certainly within hours, possibly minutes–Hawaii was placed under martial law. Censorship of the mails and radio broadcasts clamped down on the morning of December 7. The military authorities were terrified of sabotage, and it must be remembered that the Pearl Harbor strike was only one part of a large cross-Pacific Japanese offensive: the Japanese struck Hong Kong, Malaya, Guam and Manila the same day or shortly after. There was a very real sense that Hawaii itself was going to be a battleground in the war between the United States and Japan. Consequently, a lot of people decided to leave, or to get their families out of the danger zone. Hence, many civilians were quickly evacuated from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland.

ss lurline

The SS Lurline, which usually cruised from Honolulu to San Francisco, was one of the ships that brought thousands of Hawaiians to the U.S. mainland in the early days of World War II.

It was a pretty huge exodus, which makes it even more strange how seldom the story of it is told. About 20,000 dependents of U.S. Army and Navy personnel stationed in Hawaii left the islands in December 1941 and early 1942, along with 10,000 women who were not related to military personnel. Basically, any American ships that were anywhere between Hawaii and the West Coast at the time of Pearl Harbor were suddenly diverted to ferry duty: carrying weapons and military supplies to Hawaii, and carrying women, children and wounded casualties from Pearl Harbor out. Many ships did this, among them the Matson Lines ship SS Lurline. In researching this article I found an amazing first person story from a woman named Alice Adams, 10 years old at the time of the attack. Her father was an Army Air Corps crewman stationed at Clark Field at Pearl Harbor. Her full story is here, if you’d like to look at it. Here she describes being evacuated from Hawaii aboard the Lurline.

We knew we would have to go back to the States. Where to? My Mom made plans with her sister in Baltimore to live temporarily with them. We were on a few hours’ notice, and on December 24th received word we would leave the next day. All there was in the refrigerator was a bowl of red jello.

I don’t remember how we got to the docks the next morning, but we hugged our Dad goodbye, and next thing I knew we were standing on the deck of a ship (the Lurline), waving to him — no band played Aloha Oi, we had no leis to throw overboard. A bright sunny warm sad Christmas Day, December 25, 1941. I cried and cried.

The Lurline was a Matson luxury liner converted to a troop ship, and we had a cabin with two rows of canvas bunks, three tiers high.

We were accompanied by a destroyer escort. There may have been another ship but I’m not sure. The ocean was rough and we all were slightly seasick. The dining room served good food, but I couldn’t eat, and the kind waiter was so worried about me , “you don’t eat any more than a little bird!” There were many children on this trip, and we played on the deck where there was a ping-pong table, and a ball flew off into the sea — we were afraid a Japanese submarine would spot it and sink us. We all were being constantly warned not to let anything fall overboard.

In researching this article I couldn’t get a reliable figure on exactly how many of the 30,000 Hawaiians who fled after Pearl Harbor eventually returned, whether during the war or after it. But as we’ve seen with mass evacuations in more recent times, such as the one after Hurricane Katrina, a sudden move for a traumatic reason like this often ends up being permanent. Thus, we’re certainly talking about a lot of people who  never saw home again for whatever reason. For some, certainly, Hawaii was their paradise, and the serpent in the garden–the war–cast them out of it.

hawaii1

Thank you to everyone who read, commented, reblogged, liked and shared my Hawaiian History Week articles. This has been a great success and I’m looking forward to doing something like this again!

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11 Comments

  1. I loved you’re story my mother was born in 1942in Hawaii my grandfather Dan Caravallo was a machine operator and worked on the planes. My mom and grandma took the ship over to the states in 1944 the lurline was the name of the ship neet story

  2. Sean, I very much enjoyed your article. My mother-in-law was in Pearl City when Pearl Harbor was bombed; she certainly had stories to tell. She was a young woman married to a Navy submariner whose submarine, The Cuttlefish, was out of port the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He is still with us and will turn 100 next April. I have been trying to find a list of passengers who were aboard with Odessa on the SS Lurline without success. We believe she left Hawaii on December 27, 1941 and arrived in California on New Years Day. She passed away in 2004, but her name was Odessa Moody. Any assistance you can give me will be very much appreciated.

    1. Sean, after discussing your article and my response with my husband, there is a correction to be made to my post. My father-in-law was out of port on board the USS Pompano, he transferred to the USS Cuttlefish mid-year 1943, not long after his transfer to the Cuttlefish the USS Pompano was sunk off the coast of Japan sometime at the end of September 1943.

      1. Suzanne Moody, I lived with my father, George William Davis, mother and brother in the Naval Housing at Pearl City. My father was on the Pompano. We left the housing during the attack and when we wanted to return, the shore patrol blocked us. We spent the night at a ball field where the army had set up tents. The next morning, we followed an escort into the hills and spent the next two nights in a cold storage tunnel. When the Pompano returned on the 10th, my father located us and we were allowed to return to the housing. Call me at 479-394-4521

  3. Is there any record of the ships evacuating the civilians and the people they carried? My mother and I were on one of the first ones to leave.. I knew it was a Matson liner and always though it was the Lurline This article and the description by Alice Adams confirms it!. We sailed on Christmas day! The ship carried mothers and children and Mom often describe the awful conditions. Everyone seasick and the “hot bunking” where people had to share a birth stacked 3 high Just as Alice describes. Mom has been gone for some time now but reading Alice’s comments was almost like hearing her again!

    1. It seems like there should be some record of the passenger lists…seems like the kind of stuff genealogists would be working on. I’ve actually met in person and online several people who were on that exact same voyage, the Christmas sailing of the Lurline. Many of the families who sailed on her settled in Oregon (where I live), and whenever I give a lecture on ocean liners, someone always comes up to me and tells this same story. It really is a fascinating story; I’d love to see it portrayed in a movie.

  4. Sean , my mother , Pat, is 88, and she was 12 then, and her mother , Helen, and Grandmother Jean Fewel were on the Lurline on Christmas Eve, too. My Grandfather was a Naval Captain, Wm. ” Galusha Fewel . She said that the three Matson ships had to zig zag back to California,so her “Cot ” would slip on the floor and she could not sleep. So the next night Pat and Helen slept on the deck . There was a place on the ship where the youngest children played and Mom doesn’t recall any crayons only that she cut a little girl’s hair . Also that their dog had to go into a veterinarian place . May 29,2017

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