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Historical Events

Hui Panala‘au: Hawaiian Colonists in the Pacific, 1935–1942

Five men stand behind four kneeling men on a ship's deck.

Graduates and students of Kamehameha School onboard the Itasca, 4th expedition, January 1936. Back row, left to right: Luther Waiwaiole, Henry Ohumukini, William Yomes, Solomon Kalama, James Carroll. Front row, left to right: Henry Mahikoa, Alexander Kahapea, George Kahanu, Sr., Joseph Kim. (Photo courtesy George Kahanu, Sr.)

In the mid-1930s, the United States was exploring air routes between Australia and the U.S. West Coast. Because non-stop, trans-Pacific flying was not yet possible, various islands in the Pacific were looked upon as potential sites for the construction of air fields. The U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce identified the equatorial Line Islands as suitable sites. Historically, the islands were mined for guano in the mid- to late 1800s by both the U.S. and Britain, although apparently no clear-cut claim was established by either nation. To establish a claim, international law required non-military occupation of all neutral islands for at least one year.

“They just said, ‘You go down and your mission is to occupy the island and make weather reports,’ and that was about it. We were there to occupy the island. And I guess after one year, the United States claimed the island.” —Emanuel Sproat

The U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce believed, somewhat stereotypically, that Native Hawaiian men would be best suited for the role as colonizers. At the request of the bureau, the Kamehameha Schools administration selected the participants based on various academic, citizenship, and ROTC-related criteria, as well as their meeting specified requirements for the job: “The boys have to be grown-up, know how to fish in the native manner, swim excellently and handle a boat, that they be disciplined, friendly, and unattached, that they could stand the rigors of a South Seas existence.”

“I was involved in sports. Kamehameha School had this honor system where if you were top of the class, they gave you a silver pin . . . I like to think that my selection was based not only on my good looks (laughs) but my physical and mental ability, really. Kamehameha Schools, the way they operated, teachers and the principal met and evaluated different students because a lot of it is attitude. . . . ” —George Kahanu

“At that time, they wanted the local boys to go. Like Kamehameha boys, because they ate fish, and in case they ran short of food, you got fish and lobster.” —Henry Knell

The 130 men, many of whom were Kamehameha School for Boys students and graduates, occupied the uninhabited Line Islands of Baker, Howland, and Jarvis continually, in three-month shifts of four men per island, in an attempt to help the United States assert territorial jurisdiction over the islands, a jurisdiction crucial to air supremacy in the Pacific.

In addition to gathering meterological data for the government, the colonists were asked to keep journals and collect specimens for Bishop Museum.

“The Bishop Museum wanted to get involved and they asked us to collect specimens. You know, we sent them an eel . . . To put ’em in formaldehyde and stuff, we had to put ’em in three five-gallon cans, cut ’em up. That’s how big that bugger was. Jacob Haili say, ‘Hey, no send ’em back [to Bishop Museum]. We go cook ’em.’ (Laughs.) ” —Kenneth Bell

“We were required to do logs. And then when they come to my page, oh, ‘Went looking for shells.’ What I going say? ‘Went fishing?’ Same thing. ‘I looked at the skies.’ What, ‘Fill up the [weather] balloon.’ And not easy (chuckles) write down in the log, but I had to, yeah.” —Henry Knell

In October 1938, one colonist, Carl Kahalewai, died at sea while being evacuated from Jarvis for a ruptured appendix. The panala‘au or “colonizing” experiment ended tragically in early 1942, after two colonists, Joseph Keli‘ihananui and Richard Whaley, died in the shelling of Howland Island by Japanese planes on December 8, 1941.

“We were on sort of like a mound like this, and there was sort of a shrub all over the place there. So we burrowed underneath that, Tom [Bederman] and myself . . . Dickie and Joe were like fifteen feet away from us. And like I said, it was all mounds and stuff like that. So apparently they got up, they must have got up when they started dropping all the bombs because they had shrapnel on their chest . . . But they were up on the higher ground. So when the planes were gone, we went to look for them, both of them had these wounds.” —Elvin Mattson

Interviews were conducted with surviving colonists by Noelle Kahanu, Bishop Museum Hui Panala‘au project manager and granddaughter of interviewee George Kahanu, Sr.; Warren Nishimoto, COH director; and Ty P. Kawika Tengan, University of Hawai‘i assistant professor.


Link to videoHui Panala‘au video, produced by Bishop Museum, featuring interview excerpts, historical photos, and film clips. (Flash movie, 5:52.) Transcript of Hui Panala‘au video.



The following is a list of individuals interviewed for this oral history project, their ages at the time of their interview, the island(s) they occupied, and year(s) of occupation.



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