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.


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!