I have a framed twenty dollar bill unchanged since the end of WWII. I also have, within the same frame, a ten and a five dollar bill in the same condition. This frame is hand made, the bills are nestled in cutouts of cream-colored cardboard and the entire wall hanging is reversible, revealing both sides of each bill. They are “A” series, circa 1935, from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and issued with treasury seals and serial numbers in an unusual brown ink. On the presidential portrait side of each is printed the word “HAWAII” twice and sideways, near the edges. On the monument depiction side the word “HAWAII” is printed straight across the view. This beautiful presentation of history was given as a wedding gift to my husband and myself in 1987. It was designed and assembled by the father of a good friend who lives in New Jersey and had spent time on Maui during WWII.
The history: United States military officials feared that, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese might attack again and invade, possibly gaining access to U.S. currency. So they ordered Hawaii’s Governor Poindexter to declare martial law. Poindexter consulted President Roosevelt, who agreed with the idea; he thought if another attack didn’t come, the military could easily suspend the order.
Martial law during wartime was allowed in Hawaii under the same act of Congress that had made the island chain a U.S. territory. The military controlled daily life to an incredible degree. They froze wages, set working hours and regulated bars and restaurants. A strictly enforced nighttime blackout was decreed, and anyone caught with a lit cigarette, pipe or cigar, a dial on a clock, a lit stove or candle that was visible to the outside, was subject to arrest. A car with the headlights on at night was severely prohibited, and the army instituted a 6pm-6am curfew for any vehicle not on official business. Intelligence reports on 450,000 Hawaiians were drawn up as a result of violations. Officials confiscated more than 300,000 acres of land for military use. They controlled rent prices and, of course, censored the press.
The Big Five companies wined and dined Generals and politicians and various high-ranking military officers at social events; naturally the military was influenced in Big Five’s direction. Criticism was deemed unpatriotic and censorship of the press assured no public debate on any of these issues.
On the tenth of January, 1942, the Governor issued an order recalling all regular U.S. paper money in the Islands. In July, the replacements with “HAWAII” on them assured the U.S. government these bills could be singled out and declared worthless. The logic was simple: if an enemy captured a depository or a bank or money reserve, the U.S. could immediately demonetize the specially printed notes.
One version is that when everyone in Hawaii was directed to turn in cash and securities, an astonishing $200 million-plus was gathered. Someone in the government determined it would be better to burn it all than risk it falling into Japanese hands, so this fortune was reportedly taken to the Nuuanu Mortuary on Oahu. The mortuary was unable to dispose of it all in the proscribed time, so what they couldn’t handle allegedly went up in smoke at the Aiea Sugar Plantation.
All outgoing mail was read by military censors, and letters that could not be edited with black ink or scissors were returned to the sender to be rewritten. Long-distance telephone calls were required to be in English so military personnel could listen in and understand. In addition, Hawaiians were forbidden to make bank withdrawals of more than $200 in cash per month or to carry more than $200 in cash at one time. To keep track of civilians, the military issued identification cards to everyone over the age of six; anyone caught without a card was subject to arrest.
The military also oversaw the Hawaiian legal system, with military courts trying thousands of cases, most of them having nothing to do with wartime security. People accused of a crime went before a military judge who heard the charges—typically without the presence of a lawyer—and then passed sentence, which could only be revoked by a pardon from the military Governor. Never before in the history of the Constitution had its guarantees been so overtly challenged, yet they got away with it partly because Hawaii wasn’t yet a state.
Martial law was hated and fought against on all the Islands, at great risk to the locals, but finally, in 1944, a federal judge ruled that a military government amounted to dictatorship. The whole situation was declared no longer valid. But meanwhile, back in Hawaii, the military ignored the ruling. President Roosevelt had to step in. October of 1944 brought an order announcing the suspension of martial law and the restoration of habeas corpus. After the war, the federal judge for the islands condemned the conduct of martial law, saying, “Gov. Poindexter declared lawfully martial law but the Army went beyond the governor … threw the Constitution into the discard and set up a military dictatorship.”
The “HAWAII” overprints were absorbed into the economy of the islands and eventually phased out by the war’s end, though in the years since occasional newspaper stories tell of people finding surprise stashes of “HAWAII” emergency currency—in Hawaii and elsewhere. Ours came from New Jersey, after all. In 1980 a man painting an attic discovered $100,000 in “HAWAII” overprints, a total of 1,793 bills. In a more recent revelation, an elderly woman who had accumulated some $45,000 in “HAWAII” currency asked a banker how she might go about selling them. The advice given was to spend it since the bills were not crisp or new. They were simply worth face value.
The real mystery is where all the confiscated non-”HAWAII” overprint bills ended up. We all know the whole of it didn’t get torched. Those bills were official U.S. treasury notes; they didn’t have one historical or unusual mark of interest on them at the time, no identifiable differences pointing them out as special. And yet they were fated to burn, and one version says that they did. Perhaps there’s another version.
On December 7, 1941, the Lurline was on her usual run from Honolulu to San Francisco when she received news about the attack behind her and immediately began to zigzag and divert from her normal course. She arrived in San Franciso on December 10. The next day Matson’s famed four white ships were handed over to the U.S. Maritime Commission, painted wartime gray and transformed into troop transports. Nonetheless, rumors persist to this day that Matson passenger ships collected and evacuated civilians carrying fortunes from Hawaii.
The U.S. plan to demonetize any captured wartime emergency currency offered the government the protection of preventing any benefit to the enemy, but not one iota of protection for the individuals whose money was initially confiscated, nor any way to locate and prosecute the thieves who allowed millions of dollars to be stolen. Some might say it wasn’t actually stolen from anybody, since it was all replaced by the “HAWAII” bills, but those who absconded with the originals made millions of dollars that weren’t supposed to be there. Sound familiar?