When Worlds Collide
The highest peak on O‘ahu, Mount Ka‘ala rises up like a god at the head of the Makaha and Wai‘anae Valleys and watches over the entire Westside. Ancient Hawaiian kahuna (priests) considered it one of the most sacred sites on the Island and built heiau (temples) at its base. They believed the mountain wore the golden robes of Kane, heavenly father of all living things, who was associated with the sun. Like the clouds that envelop Mount Ka‘ala, the history of the Wai‘anae Coast and its people is shrouded in myth and mystery.
Local legends say that Wakea, Sky Father, and Papa, Earth Mother, first mated on the coast of Makua, which means "parent." Their children were born in a womblike lava tube nearby called Kaneana. It was here that the Polynesian demigod Maui landed his canoe, learned to make fire, and gave the gift of light to the people. Farther down the coast at the northwestern corner of the island, Kaena Point juts out into the ocean like the long, rocky finger of Mount Ka‘ala, pointing toward the endless sea of eternity. Here the souls of the dead would leap from this world to the next. Though poor and isolated, this part of the Island offers rich mythical stories about the supernatural origins of life and the final destination beyond death.
At the base of Mount Ka‘ala and along the Wai‘anae Coast, there are the remains of old heiau. The people of the land once gathered at these stone temple sites to celebrate and make offerings to their gods: Kane, Ku, Lono, and Kanaloa. Wandering among these crumbling ruins, a boy like Richard "Buffalo" Keaulana probably wondered what solemn chants and ceremonies his ancestors had performed at these sacred sites. Touching the lava rocks must have sparked his imagination and given him a glimpse of Hawai‘i’s ancient past, before the arrival of the white men and their tall ships.
A pure Hawaiian, Buffalo came from a long line of leaders, including some of Hawai‘i’s great chiefs and ancient explorers. Like most Hawaiians, he revered his ancestors and probably felt like they were watching over him as ‘aumakua, spirits that could take the form of sharks, lizards, sea turtles, or any element of nature. Buffalo knew of kahuna who could recite genealogies going back to the gods and the first humans who walked this land. There were familiar stories from the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation story that traced their ancestry back to the origins of creation. The spirit of his ancestors was in the sea, the forests, and the mountains because they were all part of nature and eternally present. Though Buffalo grew up in an increasingly Westernized world, he never forgot the proud origins of his people.
According to the ancient chants in the Kumulipo, Wakea’s first child, Haloa (long stalk), was stillborn and buried in the earth. He returned in the form of taro, the sacred plant also known as kalo that became a central source of food in Hawai‘i. His brother was born soon after and also named Haloa. His mission was to nurture his brother, kalo, who would in turn provide nourishment for all their people. Like most Hawaiians, Buffalo grew up eating poi, the purple paste made from pounded kalo. This staple was part of their daily diet, and the stories of Haloa fed their spiritual hunger and love of the land.
These beliefs about their interdependence on nature also helped sustain Hawai‘i’s people for centuries, ever since the first Polynesian voyagers sailed here in their double- hulled canoes and settled the Islands more than twelve hundred years ago. As a boy, Buffalo would have heard stories about the legendary navigators who guided their canoes all the way across the Pacific. But staring at the seemingly endless sea, he must have wondered if these were just made- up stories, childhood myths. Only later in his life, Buffalo would sail on the Hokule‘a, a modern replica of these voyaging canoes, and retrace the journeys of his ancestors all the way back to Tahiti.
Living on the most isolated island chain on earth, ancient Hawaiians had to be innovative and completely self- sufficient to survive. The people in Wai‘anae had an even greater challenge in that they lived on the driest part of O‘ahu. To conserve their natural resources, they developed a sophisticated plan to divide the land into wedge- shaped districts called ahupua‘a that stretched from the mountains to the sea. Instead of having individual ownership, each district was communally managed by the ali‘i (chiefs). The people worked hard and played hard, and many of their activities revolved around the sea.
The name Wai‘anae may have originated from the fact that fishing became their main source of food, wai meaning "water" and ‘anae being the large mullet so abundant in the area. Besides being talented fishermen, the people on the Leeward Coast felt at home in the ocean and excelled at sailing, surfing, and paddling canoes. When the surf was up, almost all work came to a standstill as people rushed to the shore to ride the waves. The commoners generally rode shorter wooden boards on their stomachs, while the chiefs stood up to ride their long, heavy boards. During the Makahiki season, they held festivals on the beach. The chiefs would compete against each other, and people would gamble on who would win. A similar festival would later be resurrected in the form of the Makaha International Surfing Championship during the 1950s and ’60s, and Buffalo would become one of its early champions.
The past is interwoven into the present, and the Makahiki season is still celebrated today in Hawai‘i. Sponsored by Quiksilver, the annual Makahiki surf contest in Makaha features longboard surfing, canoe paddling, and tandem surfing, where couples perform balletlike poses while riding the waves. But the origin of the Makahiki season came from the fact that war was taboo from mid-October to January because it was prophesied that Lono would return during this time and bring peace. But when the season was over, old conflicts would often resume, and warriors would fight for control over the land and freshwater streams. The people developed their own form of martial art called lua, and bandits who lived in Makaha would swoop down from the hills to beat up and rob travelers along the coast. Theft would continue to be a serious issue on the Westside even in modern times, though later it was less about tribal conflicts and more about a lack of economic opportunities.
For centuries, Mount Ka‘ala and the Wai‘anae Mountains have served as a kind of defensive wall guarding the small Hawaiian villages of the Leeward Coast of O‘ahu. Cutting across the sky like the serrated edge of a stone spearhead, these mountains have kept the people of Wai‘anae isolated from the rest of the world, and its fierce warriors fought to maintain their independence. Yet this isolation could not last. "A gap in the Wai‘anae Range where one can cross over is called Kolekole Pass," writes Bob Krauss in Historic Wai‘anae, "because it was here that the warriors of Wahiawa (the other side) and those of Wai‘anae met in battles that left their flesh kolekole (raw) with wounds." One Wai‘anae kahuna prophesied that "big fish" would arrive one day in the form of foreigners and eat up the natives like little fish.
When the British ships under the command of Captain James Cook first sailed to Hawai‘i in 1778, the local fishermen thought that Cook was the god Lono returning for the Makahiki festival. Sailing, paddling, and swimming, thousands of natives greeted the three ships with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and awe. On the Big Island of Hawai‘i, they feted the visitors with huge feasts and gifts before they departed. Although there were several thousand kanaka maole (Native Hawaiians) living in Wai‘anae at the time, Cook and his officers passed them by, thinking the land was barren, rocky, and barely inhabited. In fact, there was a thriving local culture, where kalo and other crops grew in the mountains and fishponds flourished on the coast.
Later that year, the captain and his men returned to the Big Island after the Makahiki season was over. After trading and interacting with the foreigners, the chiefs no longer considered them benevolent gods or peaceful guests. When one of his small boats was stolen, Captain Cook ordered his men to take a local chief hostage until it was returned. A skirmish broke out, and the warriors killed Cook and four of his men on the beach. This event began the long and contentious relationship between Hawaiians and the endless waves of foreigners who would land upon their shores and gradually take over the Islands.
With the aid of Western guns and ships, a young chief named Kamehameha waged battles against his rivals on the Big Island, Maui, and O‘ahu. After driving the last warriors off the steep cliffs of the Nu‘uanu Pali, he conquered O‘ahu in 1795 and united the Islands. A great warrior and natural leader, Kamehameha became the first king of Hawai‘i, but none of his royal descendants would ever achieve the same level of power and leadership. Many of the conquered chiefs fled to the isolated area of Wai‘anae, where they formed a school at Poka‘i Bay to preserve the old ways. Their kahuna taught the history, culture, and chants of the ancient chiefs of O‘ahu, instilling in their students a sense of pride and a resistance to change. Growing up on the Westside, Hawaiian boys would inherit a fierce pride in their culture and a suspicion of outsiders.
During his reign, Kamehameha embraced the new technology, ideas, and goods of the West without sacrificing the independence or culture of the Hawaiian kingdom. But after he died, Ka‘ahu-manu, his favorite wife and royal regent of the Islands, gradually came under the increasing influence of Western advisors. After seeing that the foreigners had broken many of their traditional taboos without consequence, she and Kamehameha’s son Liholiho even commanded the kahuna to destroy the ancient temples. Six months later, in 1820, the first Protestant missionaries arrived, bringing with them a new God to fill the spiritual void.
The cultural and religious transformation of the Hawaiian people was compounded when Ka‘ahumanu converted to Christianity. She then dismissed most of the remaining kapu (taboos) and insisted that her people study the Bible. The people wavered between their traditional ways and beliefs and the new faith and rules of the foreigners, whom they called haoles, which literally means "no breath," because they seemed to lack the spirit of joy in their lives. Coming from such different worlds, these cultures continued to clash like waves against a rocky shore. And like their ancestors, the Hawaiians found comfort in the ocean, whether they were fishing, swimming, or surfing.
When the first Western sailors and traders arrived in the Islands and saw surfing for the first time, they marveled at the Hawaiians’ ability to "walk on water." But the missionaries were frightened and offended by the Hawaiians’ near nakedness. They condemned the "savage" sport and banned traditional practices such as the hula because they thought these acts led to promiscuity and depravity. Surfing and the hula suffered a serious decline for de cades and were looked down upon by the white establishment. Along with denigrating Hawai‘i’s culture and traditions, the haoles introduced deadly illnesses that would almost destroy its people.
Just as the Native Americans had been infected by foreign diseases, Hawaiians began to fall victim to the same kinds of mass epidemics. When this was coupled with a profound cultural and spiritual depression, their health as a people declined dramatically. Strong warriors succumbed to common diseases such as chicken pox and influenza, which struck them down in vast numbers. Because of their isolation from the rest of the world, they had no natural defenses to protect themselves from these foreign illnesses. Within forty years of Western contact, the Hawaiian population had gone from an estimated four hundred thousand to about forty thousand. Nine out of ten had died, and the rest were physically weak and spiritually broken. Most of their religious ser vices consisted of funerals, and survivors spent much of their time burying and mourning for the dead.
In the face of such devastation, Wai‘anae remained a fiercely in de pen dent region under the command of Chief Boki. A powerful Hawaiian leader, Boki distrusted the haole and resented their Western diseases, business practices, and alien beliefs. But he knew he would have to work with them to stay in power. Eventually, many Hawaiian families like the Keaulanas became dedicated Christians while also maintaining the spiritual beliefs of their ancestors.
Influenced by the haole merchants and traders, most of the local chiefs or ali‘i fell under the spell of alcohol and Western goods. The merchants in turn wanted the sweet- smelling sandalwood that was so abundant in Wai‘anae and highly sought after in the Orient. So the chiefs forced most of their followers to harvest as much sandalwood as possible to fuel their greed. Gradually, the taro fields grew fallow and the fishponds deteriorated, and the people began to starve. The chiefs continued their collaboration with the haole businessmen who decided that the land should be divided and sold in order to promote private ownership. The missionaries also supported this movement because they thought it would encourage Hawaiians to become small, in de pen dent farmers.
Starting in 1848, the king and the legislature enacted what came to be known as the "Great Mahele," which legalized landownership and divided the land into parcels. According to author Bob Krauss, the missionaries argued that "the Mahele provided that a commoner had only to file a claim in order to receive title to his kuleana, the parcel of land his family had worked for generations." But complicated legal procedures and title claims were used to intimidate the commoners from filling out the forms. Besides, the idea of buying and selling land was inconceivable to Hawaiians. They didn’t believe that humans could own any part of nature because the land was considered sacred, a gift to be shared by the community and preserved for their descendants. Coming from a communal way of life, they rejected the idea that land could be bought and sold or taken away from the people. They must have wondered if these foreigners would even try to claim the rights to the streams, the ocean, or even the sky.
Only a few commoners signed up for the land, and the ruling chiefs claimed the title to the rest. After Chief Boki passed away, his wife, Liliha, gave her claim to Makaha to High Chief Abner Paki, who continued Boki’s re sis tance against the ways of the Western missionaries. Like many ali‘i, Paki liked to surf, drink, and gamble, activities that were condemned by Ka‘ahumanu’s missionary advisors.
Encouraged by sea captains and traders who also resented the Puritanical influence of the religious leaders, supporters of Liliha and Paki attempted to overthrow Ka‘ahumanu and the Kamehameha Dynasty. But the plot failed, and government soldiers came in to establish control. Liliha was stripped of her title as Governor of O‘ahu, and Paki converted to Christianity. He probably realized it was futile to fight against the growing influence of the Western missionaries and politicians, but he never gave up his love of surfing or drinking. Nor did his people. Dependence on alcohol, drugs, and pakalolo (marijuana) is still common in Wai‘anae, and some would say it’s a way to numb the pain they feel over the loss of their land and culture.
With their newfound desire for imported goods from Eu rope, Paki and other ali‘i began selling off their vast parcels of land to Western businessmen who were buying up everything they could. "The chiefs were selling their rights to foreigners," historian Samuel Kamakau wrote, "and those who were thus turned out [of their homes] became wanderers without any property and had to become contract laborers and serve like slaves." Many Hawaiians made their way into the city to find work, while a small number survived on subsistence farming and fishing. Wai‘anae’s once-thriving villages were all but abandoned, and the people became homeless in their own homeland. And to this day, thousands of itinerant Hawaiians can be found camping on the beach grounds in Wai‘anae. Then and now, the people of the land needed a new leader to guide them.
Eventually, foreign companies and businessmen bought up huge tracts of land that were turned into profitable sugar plantations. Because the Hawaiian population had been decimated by disease, alcohol, and despair, the landowners brought in waves of immigrants from Portugal, Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines to work the fields. With the rise of the big plantation owners, they began to assert increasing control over the Hawaiian monarchs. In 1893, a group of haole businessmen collaborated with American marines to overthrow Hawai‘i’s last ruler, Queen Lili‘uokalani. They established their own republic and then, in 1898, convinced President McKinley and the Congress to annex Hawai‘i and make it an American territory despite fierce opposition from many Hawaiians.
The new territorial government took over most of the royal land, which was ceded to the United States on behalf of the Hawaiian people. Control and ownership of that land was a controversial issue and is still disputed to this day. Much of the best land was leased out to plantation owners and non- Hawaiians for farming and development. In 1920, more than two hundred thousand acres of the least arable land were turned into Hawaiian homesteads in places such as Nanakuli, where many present day Hawaiians’ parents settled as tenants. A little more than a century after the first Westerners touched these shores, they now had almost total control of the Islands. But this version of history was never taught in school, and it was only years later that most Hawaiians would learn about the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.
After annexation, Hawai‘i became an important part of America’s growth as an economic and military power. Endowed with some of the deepest and safest harbors in the world, the port of Honolulu grew into a busy trading post in the Pacific, while farther up the coast Pearl Harbor was being built up as an important military base. The Islands also began to attract wealthy Americans who wanted to explore this exotic outpost in the middle of the Pacific. In order to entertain these tourists, local Hawaiian watermen began teaching them the ancient art of he‘e nalu (wave- sliding or surfing), along with sailing and paddling outrigger canoes.
Early explorers and journalists such as Mark Twain were intrigued by surfing but didn’t have much luck with the sport. "I tried surf- bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it," he wrote. "I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three- quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of gallons of water in me." After nearly drowning, Twain concluded, "None but the natives ever master the art of surf- bathing thoroughly."
Yet by the turn of the century surfing was enjoying a revival in Waikiki. With the help of Hawaiian beach boys who instructed him, American writer Jack London tried surfing and had more success with it. Writing lavishly about what he called "a royal sport of the natural kings of earth," London described the Hawaiians’ agility in the waves. He wrote that many of the best surfers were often descendants of ali‘i or at least treated like royalty for their regal grace in the ocean. More and more tourists picked up the sport from Hawaiians during their stays in Waikiki.
With the growing popularity of surfing in the Islands, Hawaiian watermen such as George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku traveled to America and performed surfing demonstrations on the West and East Coasts. After setting new world records in swimming at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Duke surfed in Southern California and New Jersey, where a group of bystanders watched in awe. Fans formed small surf clubs and dreamed of surfing in Hawai‘i one day, but outside of the Islands the sport remained the refuge of only a few dedicated groups of "beach bums" on the fringes of American society.
The American people never liked their nation being called an empire, but their government began establishing colonial control over Hawai‘i, the Philippines, Guam, and other Pacific "territories." The sugar plantations flourished in Wai‘anae, and wealthy land barons ruled the area like feudal lords. Hawai‘i was basically run by the "Big Five," a wealthy group of Hawaiian corporations owned by the descendants of business and missionary families.
These powerful dynasties started out as plantation owners who controlled the Republican political machine and then diversified into banks, businesses, real estate, and transportation. The elite landlords kept their immigrant workers in plantation camps, which were divided by race. The plantation owners encouraged tension between the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and other ethnic groups to keep them from uniting and organizing into labor unions. Meanwhile, Hawaiian families like the Keaulanas continued to eke out a living through fishing and farming the dry homestead lands in Nanakuli. Although Buffalo’s family came from a noble line of chiefs and warriors, he was conceived during a time of great poverty, when his people had very little power. Yet even while forming in his mother’s womb, he had royal blood and salt water running through his veins.
Like many Hawaiians, Buffalo’s father, Abraham "Red" Keaulana, found work down at the docks in Honolulu Harbor. As the father of a boy and three girls and with another baby on the way, he had to work hard to support his growing family. But one day at the docks, Abraham was killed in a tragic accident while saving two co- workers from being struck by a wrecking ball. His last act was to sacrifice himself to help his co- workers, and he died just one month before Buffalo was born.
Buffalo’s mother was devastated, but Mary Phoebe Mahi Keaulana had to remain strong for her daughters and the child to come. During her pregnancy, an old Hawaiian- Japanese woman told Mary something that would later turn out to be very prophetic: "If you have a girl, she’ll be just like everyone else. But if you have a boy, he’ll be famous the world over, but not a penny in his pocket." After hearing this story from Buffalo’s mother years later, his wife, Momi, would say, "Boy, did she say true words!"
Born on September 2, 1934, Richard "Buffalo" Kalolo‘okalani Keaulana became the fifth child and second son of Abraham and Mary Keaulana. In spite of the humble circumstances of Buffalo’s birth, he could trace his lineage back to King Kamehameha and the ruling ali‘i of Hawai‘i. Part of a rare and vanishing race, Buffalo and his four older siblings were pure Hawaiians and heirs to a vanished kingdom. Raised in a poor and fatherless house hold, they were forced to fend for themselves from an early age.
But they must have believed that their ancestors were watching over them and their spirits were part of the land.
During his early years, Buffalo’s family moved several times, and he went to three schools before they settled on homestead land in Nanakuli. His family had roots in this area before the streets even had names. When the construction workers were building the roads, his mother had befriended many of them and given them food, even though the Keaulanas didn’t have much to share. "To honor my dad’s family, they would name that street Keaulana Avenue," Brian says. "The nearby break in Nanakuli became known as Keaulanas."
Life was a struggle, because Buffalo’s mother had five kids to support and they needed a father figure in their lives. Unfortunately, she found a man who resented her son and was not kind to her kids. "When we first moved here, my mother remarried a Filipino guy," Buffalo says, recalling the time in his life when everything changed. "Every time I came home, he would lick [beat] my mother because he never liked me. So I would stay away from the house. I would come by only when he was away from the house."
Buffalo often slept at the houses of friends or on the beach, because he didn’t want to see his mom get hurt. "His stepfather was very, very mean to him," his wife, Momi, says. "He went from family to family at a young age and fended for himself. He had a rough childhood . . . He knows how homeless people feel and what it’s like not to have anything in your stomach." Even as a boy, he would often have to sleep on the beach and go spearfishing in the ocean for food. "I know how it is to starve," he says. "Because I didn’t have a spear, I’d get me a clothes hanger and then make the hanger into a spear. I would get my goggles and just float around on the reef and just shoot manini. I would catch ’em and make good soup out of those small fish. I always eat seafood."
With this crash course in survival, he would go on to become one of the best divers in the Islands, famous for his fishing and bodysurfing skills. He spent so much time in the ocean that his mother said he was like a "water buffalo," and the nickname stuck. It was reinforced by the fact that he had a thick frame, a large head, and a shaggy mane of light brown hair. As a restless boy with no father, Buffalo wandered among the endless sugarcane fields and camps in search of food and to make friends by helping out. But he soon found a group of men who would become like mentors to him and introduce him to his life’s calling.
Buffalo was a young boy when the first haole surfers ventured down to the Westside. Big- wave surfing pioneers John Kelly and Wally Froiseth discovered the pristine beauty of Makaha in the late thirties. They were born on the mainland, but their parents moved to Hawai‘i when John and Wally were young children. Both boys had started surfing the gently rolling waves in Waikiki on the long, square- tailed wooden boards that Hawaiians had been surfing on for hundreds of years. But as the boys grew older, they developed a hunger for bigger waves and better equipment.
Sick of sliding out on the big redwood boards that had no fins on the bottom to guide them, these two innovators cut down the backs of the boards into narrow tail sections that would hold in bigger waves. Wally said the new design could "really get you in the hot curl" of the wave, and the name stuck. The new "Hot Curl" boards would later evolve to include a narrower nose and tail and a long, sharklike fin on the bottom. This became the template for the modern surfboard and big- wave gun.
Ready to test their new equipment, Wally and John would drive out to Makaha in a beat- up old Ford with their boards strapped to the top. They would bounce down the dirt road, past the Wai‘anae Sugar Plantation until they came to the wide white beach at the end. The two muscular men would lug their heavy wooden boards down to the beach, and theirs were often the only footprints in the sand. Smiling at their good fortune, they would surf the big blue waves for hours all by themselves as local kids gathered on the beach to watch. Wally and John gradually began sharing their skills and knowledge with young Hawaiian surfers such as George Downing, who became like a son to Wally. After the war, George would go on to become a fearless big- wave rider and a mentor to many up-and-coming surfers like Buffalo.
While this new breed of surfers enjoyed their carefree days playing in the glassy waves with the local kids, fascist regimes in the East and West began to assert their racial and military superiority over the rest of the world. With the rise of Germany’s Third Reich and Japan’s Empire of the Sun, the United States began building up its military presence in the region, yet Americans were reluctant to get involved in a worldwide conflict. The sleeping giant had yet to be awakened.
As a young boy, Buffalo had lived in Honolulu for a time, but now it was just a distant world beyond the Wai‘anae Mountains, a glowing city whose lights he could see at night. And countries like Japan and Germany seemed like abstract images over the horizon. Asia and Europe were places that he had only heard about in school or from the children of plantation workers who would talk with strange accents about the distant homelands their parents had left behind. Even when war broke out in Europe, those living on the Westside were not terribly affected by the Allied forces fighting the German and Axis powers. But on the clear blue morning of December 7, 1941, the course of world history was irrevocably altered when Japanese planes bearing the symbol of the Rising Sun descended on Hawai‘i. Suddenly the most isolated chain of islands on earth became the battleground of two competing world powers.
Buffalo Keaulana was seven years old when the first planes came flying low across the central valleys of O‘ahu and began bombing Pearl Harbor and air bases on O‘ahu. The explosions shook the Island like an earthquake and created ominous clouds of black smoke that darkened the skies. Although it must have seemed like the end of the world, that "day of infamy" would be the beginning of a new era for Buffalo, Hawai‘i, and the world.
When the ships stopped burning and the air finally cleared, Pearl Harbor had become an underwater graveyard. Thousands of sailors were entombed in the sunken ships.
Six de cades later, Buffalo’s son Brian would work as a stuntman on the film Pearl Harbor, which attempted to re- create the pandemonium of that fiery morning. In one scene, Brian and other stuntmen were consumed in flames as explosions tossed them from the lurching deck of a sinking battleship. But not even Hollywood’s best special effects could capture the blood, smoke, and carnage of that attack.
Transformed by the war, Hawai‘i came under martial law, and the military took control of the government and almost every aspect of life in the Islands. The people endured years of food and fuel rationing and nightly blackouts. Many beaches were closed and cordoned off with barbed- wire fences. Government officials worried about Japanese spies and rounded up many nationals, who were later imprisoned or deported. The people of the Westside watched as federal authorities closed down the Japanese- language school in Wai‘anae and transformed it into a venue for the USO to entertain the thousands of ser vice-men training on the Wai‘anae Coast. There was talk of forming internment camps like Manzanar and others on the West Coast. But there were too many Japanese living in Hawai‘i at the time, and local legislators insisted that the Japanese were loyal to the United States.
To prove their loyalty, a large group of nisei (second generation) Japanese petitioned to join the army, and some came from the Wai‘anae Sugar Plantation. They later formed the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team and fought in the European Theater. Their motto was "Go for Broke," and the people read newspaper reports about how the 442nd charged into fierce battles, sustaining some of the heaviest losses of the war. While their own relatives were held in internment camps in the California desert, these soldiers later helped liberate the skeletal survivors held in frozen German concentration camps such as Dachau. The 442nd became one of the most decorated military units in American history.
Although Hawaiians had fought valiantly in the war, many did not like the massive military buildup on O‘ahu and the fact that their land was still being used for target practice. They resented the destructive bombing of Kaho‘olawe, the island off Maui, and the live- fire training in Makua, just west of Makaha. Native Hawaiians would always remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, but they also resented the continued bombing and destruction of their own land by the U.S. military during and after the war. The explosions left enduring scars on the land and in their hearts. Many locals witnessed American planes and helicopters dropping bombs on the neighboring valley. They could hear the explosions and smell the burning smoke from the fires that consumed the lush fields and forests where their ancestors once lived and farmed.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from all over the United States had been sent to Hawai‘i on their way to deadly battles in the Pacific Theater. Many of them stayed after the war to work at the many military bases that had been built on O‘ahu. Buffalo and his friends could only watch as the government took over Poka‘i Bay and turned what was once a school for Hawaiian culture into a beach recreation center just for soldiers. The military also seized a big part of Wai‘anae and used it as a storage facility called Lualualei, building an enormous underground ammunition depot. Next to the Wai‘anae Sugar Plantation, the U.S. military became the largest landowner on the LeewardCoast, to the frustration and anger of the locals.
After the war, the plantation shut down due to rising labor costs and the declining price of sugar. Most of the workers left for the city. Meanwhile, soldiers who had taken up surfing in Waikiki began making the trek down the coast to Makaha. When they moved back to their homes in the continental United States, many took their love of surfing with them. But like MacArthur, many vowed that they would return. The sport started to take off in California because it combined a mixture of exotic Hawaiian adventure with rugged American individualism.
Hearing about the growing popularity of surfing on the West Coast, Wally Froiseth, George Downing, and another big- wave pioneer named Russ Takaki sailed to California and surfed up and down the coast. The three men bonded with local surfers and told them of the extraordinary surf in Makaha. Soon California surfers such as Buzzy Trent, Woody Brown, and the Hoffman brothers moved to Hawai‘i and began making pilgrimages to the Westside.
In 1953, newspapers across the country published an Associated Press photo of Downing, Trent, and Brown streaking down the glassy face of a large Makaha wave. The grainy black- and-white image struck most Americans as strange and exotic, because surfing was still such a new sport. But for wide- eyed California surfers it captured the essence of what they loved, inspiring a small group of diehards to migrate to this remote region of O‘ahu. These daring watermen and big- wave pioneers helped introduce Makaha to the surfing world while also being an inspiration to locals like Buffalo, who studied their every move on the waves.
Wanting to capitalize on the growing popularity of surfing in Makaha and the cheap land on the Westside, an enterprising Chinese- American man named Chinn Ho formed a hui (group) of businessmen to buy the former plantation lands. Overnight he became one of the Island’s first Asian developers to break into the white power establishment. He wanted to turn the area into small communities and sell inexpensive plots of land to the former plantation workers, surfers, and Hawaiians who wanted to return and live on the Westside. While the cane fields withered, Buffalo watched as bulldozers began clearing roads and plots of land for future houses.
Under the GI Bill, many veteran Japanese- American soldiers went back to school and joined the ranks of the growing Democratic Party. War hero Dan Inouye, who lost his arm and many of his closest friends in the fighting, became one of Hawai‘i’s most powerful leaders. Inouye and other rising politicians started campaigning for statehood because they believed in the American Dream of unlimited growth and profit. Hawaiians were torn between their loyalty to the United States and its ideals of democracy and their resentment of its military, economic, and po liti cal policies in the Islands. After all, they were still the poorest segment of the population. Many locals like Buffalo had no place to call their own and camped along the coast. "I know what it means to be homeless," he says, "sleeping in a cardboard box down on the beach."
Staying with friends or living on the beach, Buffalo learned to provide his own food. "In order to survive with other families, you had to stay outside in the dark or shadows for a while," Buffalo says. "Then, your friend would help you get your foot in the door. There was lots of work to do. In the early morning, we’d gather eggs. Next, we’d go diving for fish. And the rule was, ‘Don’t come home until a whole pakini [washtub] is full.’ "
Buffalo’s reputation as a talented diver and fisherman began to grow among his peers, but his teachers thought he was just a wild child. Not having enough money for lunch, he would go fishing during recess and bring his catch back to the school cooks, who would feed him. But he was often late to class or absent for days at a time, and he didn’t like all the school rules. He once spent a week picking kiawe bean pods so he could buy decent clothes and a pair of slippers to wear to school. When he came to Waipahu High School in his new slippers, the teacher turned him away, saying he couldn’t come to class without "proper" shoes. Angry and frustrated, Buffalo says, "I had a few words for her that probably I shouldn’t have said. But that was it. I didn’t have money for shoes."
After dropping out of high school, Buffalo would spend his days fishing, diving, and surfing at Makaha. This isolated beach at the western end of O‘ahu was slowly emerging as a testing ground for some of the best surfers in Hawai‘i and California.
Chinn Ho would continue trying to develop the Westside and years later would work with the Wai‘anae Lion’s Club and the Waikiki Surf Club to sponsor an annual surfing contest that would bring crowds of surfers and spectators out to the Westside each December. With the rise of the Makaha International Surfing Championships in 1954, thousands of people began visiting this isolated beach for two weekends of surfing, concerts, and parties. Occasional conflicts arose between Hawaiian and haole surfers, but most were united in their common love of the ocean.
Though terribly shy and suspicious of haoles, Buffalo eventually became friends with many of the visiting surfers. He earned their respect by winning the Makaha International’s bodysurfing competition during the first year. In the next two decades, he would win many awards and honors as a surfer, lifeguard, and community leader. True to the prophecy of the old Hawaiian-Japanese lady, this poor high school dropout from the Westside would become famous as one of the world’s great watermen.
Years later, in 1980, he would preside over his own contest called the Buffalo Big Board Classic, where the people honored him like a high chief. Modern kahuna chanted in Hawaiian, and a herald blew the conch shell to start the royal pro cession. During the opening ceremony, young, muscular men dressed as traditional Hawaiian warriors carried him on a platform to the stage. Watching the proceedings, State Senator Fred Hemmings described Buffalo as the ka mo‘i, or king, whose face "reflects the glory and dignity of all his people." The people of the Westside had finally found a new leader.
Excerpted from Fierce Heart by Stuart Holmes Coleman.
Copyright © 2009 by Stuart Holmes Coleman.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.