Experience: Hawaiʻi Life Histories – Survivors of the 1946 Tsunami

[Hawaiian slack key guitar music] [voice of Davianna McGregor, Director, Center for Oral History] Aloha. Welcome to Experience: Hawaiʻi Life Histories, a podcast series in partnership with Hawaiʻi Public Radio and Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities featuring excerpts from the archive of over 800 interviews of Hawaiʻi women and men at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa Center for Oral History in the Department of Ethnic Studies. In this segment, we hear the voices of survivors of the 1946 tsunami talking about the shock of seeing a massive deadly tidal wave, their struggle to escape and live on to pick up the pieces of their shattered communities Chicken skin and inspiring! Now we have a warning system, but how would we react to a Hawaiʻi-generated tsunami with only 15 minutes advance warning? These and other stories about Hawaiʻi lifeways, key historic events, social movements and our role in a globalizing world are among 30,000 transcript pages accessible at the UH Mānoa Hamilton Library ScholarSpace. HPR’s “The Conversation” about this podcast is posted on the HPR and Center for Oral History websites Find us! [Hawaiian slack key guitar music] [voice of Bill Dorman, HPR reporter for “The Conversation”] The tsunami that struck on April 1st, 1946 was the most destructive to hit Hawaii in modern times It killed 159 people in the territory, destroyed more than 500 homes and other buildings. The overall damages were estimated at the
time to be 26-million dollars. Accounting for inflation, that’s the equivalent
today of more than 326-million dollars. It all started with a powerful earthquake
hitting the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska estimated at 8-point-6. One of the first casualties was the Scotch
Cap lighthouse on Unimak island, the largest island in the Aleutians. All five lighthouse keepers were killed – no one could sound any kind of alarm It took nearly five hours for the first waves
of destruction to roll into Hilo, and when they arrived, it was a shock. Alexander Riviera was 15 years old and headed
to school the morning of April 1st, 1946. He shared his memories in an interview recorded
in February, 1999: Now in 1946 you would say I am fifteen years old. Now I’m going to school this morning. That particular morning it was a very strange—it
must have been sort of a grayish morning, overcasted skies and stuff like that. I can remember that. And while I was walking down, I came by Skipper’s
Cove, by Waiākea Theatre. I saw this great big eel. Not a little eel, big one, look like one snake,
eh. But it was coiling and coiling in the middle
of the road, you know. And I seen water over there (on the road). I knew something strange about this. But people was saying, ”Tidal wave! Tidal Wave!” “No go school, tidal wave.” What I going know about tidal wave? I don’t even know what a tsunami is. Now we call it tsunami. That particular day was All Fools’ Day. Until I remember that, that time somebody
tell me, “Tidal wave. Tidal wave.” I say, “Ah, those guys stay pulling my leg
again.” So I went across that. And I was on top the bridge and here I am
looking at you know just like when you look over a horizon. But here the water was going out. And [it was] really, really going out far. I could see the Hilo Bay. I could see bottom. I seen that wave coming. Was very, very big. It seemed as though you could-just like it
was boiling. Boy I’m telling you, it was the biggest and
ugliest thing because it was black. WN: Black? AR: It was black. See, the water over there is black because
you have that black sand beach. So I told Kats, “Kats, we gotta run! I don’t know if we going to make it.” We went up. We go up. WN: When you saw it where were you standing? AR: On the very center of the bridge. We could have been safe there, you know. But what happened next I would say no. Because you see, the whole bridge lift up. Lift right up. I pushed him ahead and we started to run up
Manono Street. Now we were running full strength because
we had to get away, we had to save our lives. It didn’t dawn on me that we were saving our
lives. When it hit us we were upside down already. We were all wet. So we managed to get back to our home using the railroad tracks, because that used to pass right in front of my house. My mom was already home and she was the one
that told my dad that probably I had gotten killed in the wave. Because I had gone to school about seven o’clock,
yeah. The main wave hit 7:05. See, my dad was working in Kamuela so when
he got the report they said, “You better go home because they have a tidal wave or something in Hilo. So when he had saw me he put his arm around
me, he was kissing me and he was so happy to see me alive. But it was-he probably given me a couple slaps,
too. BD: He found his way home by following the
railroad tracks. Another survivor called the first huge wave
she saw a “great big black wall.” James Low was 16 when he was nearly caught in the middle of it driving down a road where he came up on a policeman who probably saved
his life: [Voice of James Low] As I headed down that road and I was just
about at the bottom of that road, just when I begin to enter Kam[ehameha] Avenue, a policeman – and I wish I knew his name because it has some bearing or some impact on me. I’ve wondered from that day on till today,
I just want to know who that person was. Not that he was sarcastic in any way, but
when I got to that corner he made that corner coming in from the Hilo side of that corner,
turning up Kumu and yelled at me to get out of there. So I was shocked. So I just sat there kind of wondering why he did that to me. In the meantime, I pulled my head up to look
out towards the ocean, and lo and behold, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,
but there was this huge, huge, huge wave. I think, I wouldn’t be exaggerating, it was
taller than the American Factors building that was sitting on the ocean side of Kam[ehameha]. And by that time I was kind of puzzled, I
didn’t know what to do. I wanted to turn around so I turned the car
into Island Motors and by that time the water had already struck and I was already sitting
in neck-high water in the automobile. And I could feel the car kind of floating
with the force of the wave that came in. Well, when I finally came to my senses I felt
the car being sucked out, back towards the ocean, as the wave receded. And I, at that point in time, jumped out of
the car, climbed through the window. Not even thinking about opening the door,
I jumped out of the window, and headed upland, I struggled through that current that was
pulling everything back out towards the ocean, the receding tide. And I finally got to a fenced area that was
situated between Island Motors and Moto’s Inn. I was fortunate enough to grab that fence
and climb over it and get back of the Island Motors building, where the current or receding tide wasn’t as strong. From there I made my way up Kumu Street and
back home. BD: Incredible stories of escape and survival. Hilo suffered the most losses from the tsunami
in 1946, both in terms of human life and in property. But other areas were hit hard as well. Laupāhoehoe on the Hamakua Coast where 25 people were killed, including students and a teacher who were in a school when the first wave struck. At least 77 homes on Maui were destroyed. But it was Hilo that took the most direct
impact. And it was Hilo where the comeback was the most difficult and areas where waves crashed through were changed forever. Lenore Van Gieson was 11 years old and remembers
growing up around neighborhoods that became very different. And in the short term, for her family it
meant a move: LV: We moved up to Volcano. That was because a home was given to us to
use until they rebuilt our home, until my parents figured out what they were going to
do. We stayed there all summer. Coming down—while school was still in session
we’d come down every day. My father would go to work, we would go to
school. When he was through with work then we’d go
back up to Volcano. My mom stayed up there. Then we moved back, I would say at the end
of summer. WN: To… LV: To the same place. The only thing, the house we stayed in was
a lot smaller and not in the same location. It was where the original home landed and
fell apart. WN: How did life change in Keaukaha after
the ’46? LV: We became closer. All those survivors that we met, all these
children from the other side, you know, like from the Cooks, we would go up to the Cooks’
before ’46 but after ’46 we would go down to Richardsons’. And we became a very close unit. We would support each other, we would do things
together, you know. WN: Why is that, though? LV: I don’t know. Maybe because we were the same age. But—and still today, we see each other,
we still support each other. WN: But prior to the tsunami you folks didn’t
… LV: Well, we didn’t go too far. I guess because we were younger yet, we were
below eleven now. So we would go as far as Cooks’ house. Play with the children up to the Cooks’
house. Played with the Saikis’ grandchildren, all
of them. And that was it. But after the tidal wave, now we were bigger. So we used to go with our bikes and we all
made friends and we all got along. WN: And who moved out from Keaukaha because
of ’46? LV: Carlsmiths moved out, the Weights moved
out. Carter came back. I would say the Kamais moved out The Ludloffs
moved out. The Furtados moved out. The Lalakeas moved out. The Martins never rebuilt. Lalakea never rebuilt, they sold instead. The Puas never rebuilt. The Kais, that family sold the property. WN: So, after these people never came back
today. So who did they sell to? Did the neighborhood change at all? LV: No, no. Because we were still our own group and we
just hung out with each other. Now, it’s a different type of community down
there. We don’t know too many people down there. But we still stayed in contact with each other,
even after we moved away to different places. But we’ll always go back. We’ll go back, go swimming, you know. We’ll find reasons to go down. But you’ll always find us around the beach. WN: So you had your core, still have your
core group? LV: Oh yeah, we still have our core group. In fact, we’re planning a neighborhood reunion
next year. Where we won’t be involved in a tsunami reunion,
we just going to do a neighborhood reunion. So that would probably be another wonderful
time. BD: All those families hit by the 1946 tsunami some stayed, many moved. Some didn’t or couldn’t rebuild. That interview, by the way was done in 1999 by Warren Nishimoto, who did most of these interviews. He was the director of the Center for Oral
History for many years and recorded interviews for more than thirty years. He also spoke with a man who was on duty as
a policeman that April day in 1946 when the tsunami struck. Robert Chow, nicknamed “Steamy,” was
called on to help with a truly difficult job: RC: I was asked to go down to the icehouse, which is the Hilo Electric Light [Company,
Inc.] icehouse. It was a temporary morgue in the first locker. I was asked to go down there to try identify
bodies. And there, I couldn’t identify the bodies
but it was real sickening to see small ones, several years old, among the victims. The Boy Scouts were around, trying to help
identify or recover certain things. And the labor union [i.e., International Longshoremen’s
and Warehousemen’s Union] volunteered to work. And the plantations and the big construction
companies furnished all the equipment. So they were working, cleaning up mess. WN: Did they start cleaning up that day? RC: They start doing it that day. And the county, the state, use their equipment. They worked continuously. It wasn’t just I’m putting eight hours and
that’s all, they just continue working. Because, most of the workers had families,
victims, so they want to help. And there’s lot of volunteers wanting to help. And yet, there’s a lot of people there looking
for bargains. It’s not looting because they discard it already. But they go down there and see what they can
get. I didn’t go down there, but they said there
are more people down there than people helping. So, there were a lot of things that were just-with
the bulldozer just goes right though, the crane put it in the truck, and off they go
down to the rubbish dump. WN: Did you actually see people looting, you
know, taking merchandise? RC: Yeah we seen … WN: Before the cleanup now. RC: Yeah, the cleaning up. People would take some things and say, “Oh,
so-and-so told me I could have it” And if you know who they are and who the owner was
before, you can put two and two together, you would let ’em go. We take their word for it. So that’s how in those days we control the
crowd. Because not like now, it’s too many outsiders
or people that you don’t know. It’s hard to control. WN: How long did it take to actually clean
up? RC: Anything from two weeks to a month or
longer. BD: Steamy Chow was still on the police force
in Hilo on May 23rd 1960 when an 8.3 quake struck off the coast of Chile, and the tsunami
that followed again rocked Hilo, killing 61 people. Fusae Takaki was another resident of Hilo
back in 1946 and she lived in a part of town called Shinmachi, or “new town.” This area was devastated by the tsunami and her house was no exception. She lost her parents, a niece, a nephew. And in the midst of tragedy she had to move — very
quickly: FT: Before we evacuate my sister came, my
elder sister came about losing the child. “Fusae, oh I lost Vivian.” I said, “Oh Ne-san, no can help. You know, everyone went through that. I think I lost Mom and Dad.” And here we was crying, but gee whiz, no more
time for be crying because there’s so many people there that we have to evacuate. So, we evacuate and went someplace. I don’t know where we went, to friend’s house,
yeah. Stayed there for one day and they fed us. I used to see chickens [in their coop] and
I used to say, “You chicken, you’re lucky you have a house to live.” We don’t have anybody, no place to go. We don’t know where to go. And that was the worst, most miserable time
that we had. But from there on we found houses, stayed
one day, one night Then we had a lady friend that had a friend whose house was empty so
she rented that So we live with them for a while So each one has to find their own way to live. But there were about three or four Japanese[-language]
schools so I guess some of those places they used as a housing for the people that had
lost everything. And NAS airport, they used to have army barracks. WN: Oh, Naval Air Station. FT: Yeah. So lot of people were housing there. WN: Where were you staying? FT: We were living in Piopio Street for three
months. WN: With a friend? FT: A friend. Then after that they had houses available. You know where the [Afook-Chinen] Civic Auditorium
is [today]? WN: Yeah. FT: Around there they used to have an army
camp [during World War II]. So we lived there for three years, I think,
[or] four years. So they used to have barracks after barracks
lined up. And then the screen would be open this much,
so on a rainy day, the rain used to blow into our bedroom. We couldn’t sleep. But what choice we had? Then individually they started to settle in. So at that time we had house where we lived
until I was able to get [a] house. And I watched the hospital. That was my life. I had to get up two o’clock in the morning,
one o’clock in the morning, sometimes, they [i.e., patients] had asthma, they can’t breathe. Ho boy, I tell you. BD: The 1946 tsunami changed so many lives
in Hawaiʻi, especially in Hilo. But it also led to some changes, including
the first efforts by the U.S. federal government to create the capability of an early warning
system. Three years later, in 1949 the government
set up what is now the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. [Hawaiian slack key guitar music]

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