Kaho'olawe Uncovered Part II

Kaho'olawe Uncovered Part II

The Penal Colony, and the ranching and bombing eras:

Part two in a series about Maui County's most mysterious isle.


By the early 1800s, the population of Kaho'olawe had dwindled, but a few hearty souls, most likely fisherman and their families, remained. A missionary census in 1831 reported 80 inhabitants, including 20 children. Records indicate there was a school.


Western influence favored exile and isolation over the traditional death penalty for those who violated the kapu. According to documents produced by the federally created Kaho'olawe Island Conveyance Commission for the U.S. Congress, the first prisoners were sent to Kaho'olawe in 1826. Conditions were harsh, and food and water scarce. In 1841, 15 convicts were reported, living in eight huts at Kaulana on the island's North Shore. Kaho'olawe's use as a penal colony ended when the last prisoner was removed in 1852.


As a parting gift, Captain George Vancouver had presented goats to Maui King Kahekiki, who is said to have sent them to Kaho'olawe to grow and multiply. And that is exactly what they did.


In 1850, adventurer Edwin Perkins wrote in his journal of large herds of wild goats and the damage done to native plants. But during that time, commercial ventures were far more important than environmental concerns.


In 1858, Hawaiian Kingdom Chancellor R.C. Wyllie and Interior Minister Alisha Allen leased the island for 20 years at $505 per year, established a small ranch and shipped in and released 2,000 sheep. An 1866 census states there were 11 men and five women tending the ranch.


In 1880, title was transferred to Albert Courtney and William Cummins, who also brought in cattle. The Kaho'olawe Stock Ranch reported to have 9,000 goats, 2,000 sheep, 200 cattle and 40 horses.


Severe overgrazing and degradation of the land continued. An 1879 government report stated Kaho'olawe's "upper plains totally denuded of topsoil" and further stated overgrazing, wind and flooding resulted in "nothing but hard red grit left."


Following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893 and the change in status to a U.S. Territory in 1898, Hawai'i Gov. Walter Frear attempted to prevent further damage by declaring the ravaged island a forest reserve in 1910. But just eight years later, that status was withdrawn and the island leased to Wyoming rancher Angus McPhee for 21 years at $600 a year.


In 1920, H.A. Baldwin joined McPhee as partner to establish the Kaho'olawe Ranch Company, which experienced some successes and a number of hardships until 1941.

Ranching life was difficult, but the ranch hands made the best of it.


Kim Birnie, whose great, great grandfather Hans Mortensen had worked on the Wyllie Ranch in the 1800s, visited Kaho'olawe in 2008 with Steve Pedro, Sr., who spent his summers on the island. Pedro's father, Manuel, was ranch manager for the Kaho'olawe Ranch Company.


"Steve pointed out troughs, corrals and dams and showed us the 'Haole House' site, where guests were entertained," Birnie said.


Each week, a boat arrived with food, newspapers and kerosene. Drinking water was secured from a rooftop catchment system.


But the events of Dec. 7, 1941, would bring an even deadlier cost to the shores of Kaho'olawe.


The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor sent the world into a tailspin. America braced for a new type of warfare-far different than the land battles occurring in Europe. The War in the Pacific would require ship-to-shore bombardment of an entrenched enemy and infantry assaults on small islands.


On June 8, 1941, Marshal Law was declared and the island of Kaho'olawe was appropriated for use as a training ground and bombing target. Ranchers were abruptly told to leave. From that day until the end of World War II in 1945, the southern and eastern cliffs were used for torpedo and bomb practice while the western beaches served as dress rehearsal for the invasion of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and many other islands in the Pacific campaign. Inland areas were used as target practice by ships at sea and fighter and bomber aircraft.


For nearly five decades, throughout the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam era, untold amounts of nearly every type of conventional ordnance was fired at or dropped on the island. All four military branches participated, as did a number of U.S. allies.

What little natural habitat remained was vanishing. The island, already denuded and eroded, had now become littered with the remnants of war.


"We have found ordnance ranging from projectiles as small as your thumb to 2,000-pound bombs eight feet in length," said Bart Maybee, an unexploded ordnance and safety specialist, who is employed by Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), the state agency that currently manages the island.


Much of the ordnance on Kaho'olawe and in its surrounding waters remains dangerous, Maybee explained. Typically, there is what he calls a "dud ratio" of about 30 percent, meaning only 70 percent of the ordnance "functioned as designed," or detonated. Volunteers and visitors to the island must avoid off-limit areas and adhere to strict safety guidelines.


As the atomic and nuclear ages progressed, military leaders and scientists pondered the effects of a nuclear explosion. Once again, Kaho'olawe would serve a military purpose.

In 1965, the U.S. Navy conducted three tests, each detonating 500 tons of TNT to simulate a nuclear blast and observe its effects on ships offshore near the Bay of Honokanai'a.


Dubbed "Operation Sailor's Hat," due to the huge crater the explosions left, the massive blasts are believed to have further degraded the island, possibly affecting its water table.


But opposition to military use of the island was growing, and a grassroots organization dedicated to taking the island back for the people of Hawai'i was planning its strategy.


Scott Broadbent is the public information specialist for the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission.


Maui Weekly, November 18-24, 2010



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