The date Dec. 7 is one of those historical touchstones that instantly spurs a rush of memories and emotions for most Americans. But the date also recalls a dark event in Maui history. This year, Dec. 7 marks the 70th anniversary of one of the worst air tragedies in the island’s history.
It happened in 1943, at the height of World War II. Two U.S. Navy Dauntless dive bombers collided somewhere over Haiku. Both pilots manage to bail out and survived, but each of their rear-seat gunners died in the collision. That would have been bad enough, except the planes were also carrying live ordnance.
“A bomb from one of the two planes in collision fell and detonated among a force of Marines participating in field maneuvers nearby,” stated the terse press release sent out by the Navy’s Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific (CINCPAC) five days later. “Twenty Marines were killed and twenty-nine were injured.”
Many details of the crash are simply lost to history. For instance, even historians aren’t really sure where it happened.
“The exact time and place of this accident are unclear,” Robert C. Schmitt wrote in his article “Catastrophic Mortality in Hawaii,” which appeared in the 1969 edition of the Hawaii Journal of History. “One source gives the date as December 7, another as December 11, and both locate it near ‘Keilii Point,’ possibly a misspelling for Kealii Point, several miles east of Pauwela.”
It’s also possible the accident occurred on Dec. 6. Though Schmitt, the original CINCPAC press release and historian Cummins E. Speakman’s 1978 book Mowee: A History of Maui The Magic Isle all peg the accident to the second anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, The Maui News at the time of the crash and a monument commemorating the dead and injured in Makawao say the incident took place one day earlier.
Looking back at life on Maui at the time of the crash (using predominantly The Maui News, which was published back then by the powerful Cameron family and appeared only on Wednesdays and Saturdays), we can see that while the crash seems extraordinary to us today, it was, in fact, just one of many hardships and tragedies that were occurring all too frequently.
* * *
In December 1943, the war dominated all aspects of life in the U.S., but especially so on Maui, given both its remote location and relative proximity to the fighting in the Pacific. War news, both international and local, covered the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the U.S., and The Maui News was no different. The threat of invasion from the Japanese was pretty much over after the battle of Midway in June 1942, but Hawaii retained a military governor and martial law until October 1944.
But in 1943, everyone in the islands was still using special U.S. currency that included an overprint of “HAWAII” on back to make it difficult for the Japanese, should they occupy Hawaii, to destabilize the U.S. economy. Martial law was still in effect, and would be until October 1944. What’s more, everyone over age of six had to carry an ID. In 1946, according to DeSoto Brown’s 1989 book Hawaii Goes To War, the U.S. Supreme Court found these measures to be unconstitutional.
During the war, there were military forces everywhere on Maui. The Marines set up a camp in Haiku where 4th Marine Division Park is today. The Pu‘unene Raceway was once a Naval Air Station. Navy frogmen trained at a base near what’s now the Royal Mauian in Kihei. Marines practiced the amphibious landings of Saipan at Sugar Beach. That building that today houses the Roots School in Haiku once held Japanese internees during the war’s early days.* And there were other bases and military posts scattered across the island that today exist only as distant memories.
“Artillery firing will be conducted all day Thursday on the new range inland from Kihei, army authorities announced yesterday,” reported The Maui News on April 7, 1943.
Fatal military accidents like the Haiku dive bomber collision were also fairly common throughout Hawaii, according to Schmitt’s Hawaii Journal of History article. In August 1943, a Navy bomber crashed into a bus at the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard, killing three crewmen and eight civilians. Eight months later, on April 11, 1944, an Army pilot managed to walk away from a crash at Bellows Field on Oahu that killed five workers. The next day, nine Army personnel died when an aircraft crashed into Kipapa Gulch on Oahu. A month later, in May 1944, during exercises held between Ma‘alaea and Kaho‘olawe in preparation for the invasion of Saipan, a landing craft that had been insufficiently lashed to the deck of LST-485 fell into heavy seas, killing 19 Marines.
“Other air disasters during World War II included the crash of an Army bomber near Ewa on July 3, 1942, a crash near Wheeler Field on April 14, 1943, the crash of an Army plane on Kahoolawe on December 21, 1943, and the crash of a B-24 bomber near Schofield Barracks on July 28, 1945,” Schmitt wrote. “The Wheeler mishap killed one civilian and ‘several’ soldiers. The other three took five lives each.”
The almost routine nature of military accidents in Hawaii matched the normalization of hardships that civilians had to endure. Simple consumer goods–tires, coffee, butter, meat, sugar, alcohol, fish–were rare or unavailable. “The manufacture of anything made of metal was soon forbidden or drastically curtailed, which meant not only no new cars but no bicycles, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, stoves or household appliances in general, typewriters, even alarm clocks,” the historian Paul Fussell–who had served as an infantry officer in Europe during the war–wrote in his 1989 book Wartime. “Paper was in short supply, and Kleenex virtually disappeared, not to mention toilet paper.”
As such, newspaper advertisements at the time were somewhat different than those we see today. One ad for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar’s Kahului Store that ran in the Dec. 8, 1943 Maui News stated that they’d just received “a large supply of GARBAGE CONTAINERS in 6-10-16-25 GALLON SIZES” and that “No Priority [was] Necessary!”
The government rationed everything of value–especially gasoline.
“Once gasoline-rationing mechanisms were fully in place, the ordinary person, the possessor of an ‘A’ windshield sticker, could buy four gallons a week, later reduced to three,” Fussell wrote. “That meant only about 60 miles of driving per week, but none of those miles was to be wasted in ‘pleasure’ driving.” Fussell also recalled the nation’s “Victory Speed”–a national speed limit of 35 miles an hour, meant to further conserve fuel. Even out on Maui, violating the rules governing either gasoline rations or driving speeds could bring harsh consequences.
The front page of the Dec. 11, 1943 edition of The Maui News included the story “Four More Motorists Are Penalized by Rationing Board.” Their crime? Driving “in excess of 35 miles per hour.” According to the story, the court fined Manuel Andrade of Paia one coupon out of his “A” book, Mrs. John Akina of Kihei two “A” book coupons and Alfred Boteilho of Makawao (whose name now adorns a public gymnasium in Paia) three coupons from his “A” book.
But the worst punishment, according to the story, fell on Rokuro Yamaguchi of Wailuku. He, who held a much better “B” book, lost four coupons–16 precious gallons of gas–for “improper use of his ration by allowing his son to use his car for pleasure driving.”
Driving (or doing anything in public) after dark was also frowned upon. Martial law meant strict curfews, but the threat of invasion or attack by prowling Japanese submarines (which shelled Kahului Harbor on the first day of 1942) led authorities to institute blackout schedules. According to the schedule published in the Dec. 8, 1943 Maui News, from Dec. 15, 1943 to Jan. 14, 1944, all lights were to be out across Maui between the hours of 7pm and 7:15am.
That meant either living in dark or covering the windows with black tar paper–which, in pre-air-conditioning Hawaii, meant turning your house into a sauna. In any case, violating the blackout brought a $15 fine.
Above all, the government and society expected people to keep quiet, work and buy war bonds (ads for the latter ran throughout newspapers and all forms of media–to do their parts to contribute to the war effort. In those days, The Maui News ran the words “Don’t Let Your Lip Slip” in the upper right-hand corner of every front page–odd words for a newspaper today, but back then, the paper was essentially just an arm of government and big business.
Merely standing on a street during the day could bring the hammer down on a man’s head. In fact, on Dec. 11, 1943, The Maui News’ front page carried a story about how cops arrested 23 “Maui Idlers.”
“Police rounded up 23 persons Thursday afternoon in a series of surprise raids against Maui non-workers and subsequently charged them with various offenses and released them on nolle prosequi motions,” stated the story. The men “had been seen loitering on the streets and in various places of amusement.”
There were also strict price controls–imposed by the federal government’s Office of Price Administration (OPA). These controls could impose drastic hardship on small businesses. In fact, the Dec. 15, 1943 Maui News carried a story on how various Honolulu restaurants had just formed the Restaurant Association of Honolulu in protest of a new OPA “list of ceiling prices for various items on their menus.”
Still, Hawaii’s military government wasn’t completely without mercy. “Koreans Permitted on Streets Until 10pm Curfew,” read one story in the Dec. 11, 1943 Maui News. Marking a liberalization of curfew regulations, the story reported that, “Koreans may also leave their homes at 5:30am to report for work early in the morning under the new regulations.”
Tracking the largely racial nature of the war in the Pacific, it wasn’t unusual to find such matter-of-fact references to race in the paper. One help-wanted ad from 1943 read simply, “Girl to care for baby. Japanese preferred. Good pay.” Another Maui News headline (April 7, 1943), read “Nip column turned back by Chinese.”
Of course, life on Maui during the war wasn’t all bad. Coca Cola was sold (The Maui News carried their ads), as was Five Islands Imitation Bourbon Whiskey (though it was often sold in used bottles). In the Dec. 22, 1943 Maui News, a story–not an advertisement–even proclaimed that a new supply of booze had just reached Maui’s shores. “A shipment of synthetic cheer arrived this week in time for the holiday trade and is being distributed to dealers as quickly as possible,” the paper reported.
* * *
The day of the big 1943 Haiku air disaster, residents attending the King Theater on Vineyard in Wailuku could see largely escapist fare like Day the Bookies Wept starring Betty Grable, Blind Alley starring Ralph Bellamy or Rulers of the Sea starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The next night, they could go to the Baldwin Auditorium at 7pm to hear “Uncle Sam’s Smash Hit ‘Requisitions of 1943,’” which according to its Maui News advertisement featured “Costumes, Songs, Dancing, Music and Sizzling Boogie-Woogie!”
Though the crash took place on Dec. 7, most island residents probably didn’t learn of it until more than a week later, when they looked at the Dec. 15, 1943 Maui News. There, on the front page–among 16 or so other stories–was a very brief write-up on the crash.
“Twenty two servicemen died here last week in one of the Territory’s worst tragedies since the start of the war,” stated the story. “Revelation of the accident, which occurred on December 6, came almost a week after it happened.”
Except for the discrepancy as to the date of the crash, the story hewed very closely to the CINCPAC press release from Dec. 12. What’s more, it contained no new reporting or information (it even included the same misspelling of “Keilii”).
Today there’s a plaque at the Maui Veteran’s Cemetery in Makawao listing the names of those were injured or died in the disaster (the plaque also states the crash took place on Dec. 6).
“This Memorial is Dedicated to the Forty Five (45) U.S. Marines of the 22nd Regiment, and One (1) U.S. Navy Aviator That Lost Their Lives or Were Wounded During an Air Ground Training Accident on December 6, 1943, at Pauwela Point, Maui, T.H.,” the plaque states. “May Their Sacrifices and Dedication To Our Country Never Be Forgotten.”
They had been in uniform to fight the enemies of the United States, but they had been wounded and killed on U.S. Territory, far from battlefields and their homes, by equipment and bombs built to help them. While rare, such “friendly fire” incidents continue to plague armies to this day.
* This story originally misstated which school is operating in the old Haiku internment camp building. The Roots School moved into the building in 2012.
Cover design: Darris Hurst