THE GREAT WHITE SHIP LEAVES HONOLULU
Ever since I read about the last peacetime sailing of the S.S. Lurline from Honolulu on December 5, 1941, the words “Pearl Harbor” can set her sailing in my mind.
I like the contrast: the Great White Liner of the Pacific leaving peacetime Honolulu and docking five days later, in wartime San Francisco, its passengers having traveled from peace to war. The abrupt change traumatized them. They learned about the attack when a porter brought their morning coffee in a tin pot, because the expensive silverware was already in storage, or when a crewman sloshed blackout paint across their portholes, with each stroke darkening their staterooms. They lived in that eerie twilight for two days, fully clothed and wearing life preservers, knowing there were casualties in Hawaii, but not knowing which of their loved ones were already corpses.
The Lurline’s passengers may not have been escaping an enemy occupation or certain death, but had they stayed behind they might have been among the twenty-five hundred servicemen and civilians killed on December 7. The Lurline’s last peacetime sailing is compelling because it separated people into two groups: those who would be strafed by Japanese planes, live under martial law, and see dead American soldiers and sailors; and those aboard the Lur- line who, like mainland Americans, would always remember December 7 in terms of where they were and what they were doing, much as my generation recalls the Kennedy assassination.
So imagine the S.S. Lurline, the Great White Ship of the Matson Lines, as she loaded passengers in Honolulu on December 5, 1941. First, picture her from a distance, perhaps from the observation deck of the eight-story-high Aloha Tower—The Gateway to the Pacific—that winked colored signals and was the tallest building for thousands of miles. From here, several hundred feet above the docks, there appeared to be little to distinguish this Boat Day from others marking a liner’s arrival or departure from the most isolated archipelago in the world. There were spiderwebs of streamers, blizzards of confetti, and celebrities posing for photographers. The Royal Hawaiian Band played its tearjerking melodies and hula girls danced. Local boys dived for coins thrown from the top deck, and there were flower leis everywhere.
Earlier that day, Japanese women had gathered blossoms from slopes of the saw-toothed mountains overshadowing Honolulu. Elderly Hawaiian women had sat along the sidewalks leading to the docks all morning, plucking wild ginger and plumeria from old cereal boxes and releasing clouds of perfume, as they strung the fifteen hundred leis necessary for the average Boat Day. The leis were long and full, fragrant necklaces of yellow ilima and sweet mountain maile hanging to passengers’ knees.
Seen from the Aloha Tower, the Boat Day crowds of Decem- ber 5 resembled earlier ones. So many people were dressed in white the scene appeared as if in an overexposed photograph. Women wore white-cotton dresses and carried white parasols. Naval officers were in dress whites and civilians were in linen suits. Nursemaids in white uniforms minded the scrubbed children of the kamaaina aristocracy, an elite of about one hundred Caucasian families descended from nineteenth-century New England missionaries who, as the expression goes, “Came to do good and did well.” During the last half century, these families had overthrown the Hawaiian monarchy, supported the immigration of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino laborers, and through intermarriage and interlocking directorates seized control of the land, commerce, and political life of these islands as completely as the oligarchy of any banana republic. Yet, within three days of the Lurline’s sailing, this elite would see logs rolled across its polo fields, its private schools and country clubs turned into barracks, and its political power swept away forever.
As on every Boat Day, the crowds beneath the Aloha Tower numbered in the thousands, many more than might be warranted by the departure of eight hundred passengers. But on a remote island the arrival or departure of a boat for the mainland was always an event. Large Alexander and Baldwin calendars advertising the Matson Lines schedule hung in most Honolulu kitchens and so on Boat Day office workers left their desks to see who was arriving or leaving, and young men met every liner, hoping to discover a pretty girl. Beachboys from Waikiki came to play ukulele serenades to women they had romanced. Businessmen and politicians gathered in huddles, closing deals and exchanging gossip. The leis, hula dancers, and Royal Hawaiian Band reminded everyone that they lived on an island with an exotic history and culture that had, so far, escaped the horrors of the century.
But descend from the Aloha Tower, mingle in the crowd, and you might notice that this Boat Day was unlike any other. Her passengers might not imagine that the Lurline would be dodging Japanese submarines, and officers embracing their departing wives might not imagine that in two weeks some would be carried aboard this same ship on stretchers, but there were clues.
Because of a sudden increase in boisterous young defense workers and servicemen, there were more police on the pier and more cars clogging Fort and Bishop Streets, even though traffic lights had recently replaced the Hawaiian policemen who directed traffic from beneath umbrellas. Because so many passengers were defense workers, the Matson Line had engaged two Los Angeles policemen to make the round-trip voyage on their vacation time, giving them free accommodation in exchange for keeping order on board. Because war with Japan was feared—although few believed it would start in Hawaii—and 40 percent of Hawaii’s population was Japanese, the authorities feared sabotage, and so the piers were guarded by soldiers of the Hawaii Territorial Guard, who were Japanese.
The Lurline’s sister ship, the Matsonia, was already being turned into a troopship, meaning there had been no transportation to California for the previous two weeks except a few seats on the Pan Am Clippers. Thus there was a record number of passengers on this voyage, so many that seventy were assigned cots in a main lounge once described as “the last word in maritime trimmings . . . until someone puts a keel under the Louvre and floats it.” There was also a record number of letter pouches and parcels, more American diplomats and Pan-American Airways employees than usual (evacuated from the Orient because of the danger of war), more stowaways, more people without leis, since they had not been in Hawaii long enough for anyone to make an event of their departure, more women than men, and a sizable contingent of military wives, some of whom would discover, when the Lurline docked in San Francisco, that they had become widows.
There were Japanese-Americans on the passenger list, too, including an Army officer who would soon suffer some embarrassing moments, and Japanese families sailing from a place where their incarceration in a detention camp would be unlikely to a place where it was almost certain.
The Lurline usually filled several staterooms with starlets and socialites, but that day there was only Miss Marjorie Petty, the model for her father’s drawings of the scantily clothed “Petty Girl” in Esquire. Many passengers were defense workers who had been turning Hawaii into America’s “Fist in the Pacific” and were returning home after shocking Honolulu by being the first haoles (Caucasians) seen to engage in heavy physical labor. Because these workers did not consider Hawaii home, and were glad to be leaving, you could see at that Boat Day something unthinkable even the year before, people leaving Honolulu with dry eyes.
The last prewar sailing of the Lurline seemed to indicate that everyone knew war was coming. Why else the crowding? The stowaways? The Army wives? The contingent of panicky prostitutes who were more sensitive than anyone to the military mind?
There were passengers like Mrs. P. R. Sellers, who still remembers how servicemen had been telling their wives for months that they were concerned about a war with Japan, and that her husband, then at sea on the carrier Enterprise, wanted her out of Hawaii. But she was in the minority. Most military wives were leaving because their husbands worried that a war in Asia would restrict travel to the mainland. Most kamaainas were going on vacation and business trips, confident they would be able to return to the islands whenever they wished. Bob Stroh’s father, who was a salesman for Primo beer, was taking his family along on a West Coast business trip, never imagining they would all be stuck in California for three years. Stroh recalls the sailing as a glorious occasion, with the Lurline steaming away through a cloud of confetti and streamers.
More than anything, that Boat Day reflected how confused Honoluluans were during their last week of peace. Assembled on the pier were people fleeing because they feared war, and staying for the same reason; those leaving because they believed war was remote, and remaining for the same reason.
Honolulu’s newspapers reflected this uncertainty. If you wanted to prove that everyone must have known war was imminent, you could pick out headlines like, “Kurusu Bluntly Warned Nation Ready for Battle,” “Pacific Zero Hour Near,” “U.S. Army Alerted in Manila—Singapore Mobilizing as War Tension Grows,” and “U.S. Demands Explanations of Japan; Moves Americans Prepare for Any Emergency; Navy Declared Ready.” If you wanted to prove peace was equally likely, there was, “Japan Called Still Hopeful of Making Peace with U.S.,” “Hirohito Holds Power to Stop Japanese Army,” “Further Peace Efforts Urged,” and, on December 6, “New Peace Effort Urged in Tokyo—Joint Commission to Iron Out Deadlock with U.S. Proposal.”
The Lurline passenger who best reflected the nervousness and overconfidence characteristic of December 5 was a Colonel Tetley of the Army Signal Corps, who commanded the Army’s radar system in Hawaii. Radar was only installed in mid-November, and was largely ignored or treated with contempt by military and civilian authorities on Oahu despite its importance in winning the Battle of Britain. Governor Poindexter and the National Park Service had forbidden Tetley to install his radar on mountain peaks, where it would be most effective, because they feared radar installations would ruin scenic vistas and defile mountains sacred to the Hawaiian people. The commander of the Army’s Hawaiian Department, General Walter Short, believed Tetley’s five mobile radar stations were good training tools, but not important enough to operate twenty-four hours a day. But there was great enthusiasm for radar in the lower ranks and, as Tetley told me, his radar operators were “exceptional people, the brightest young men from Signal Corps.”
Whenever Tetley’s whiz kids plotted a Japanese attack in their training exercises it was carrier-based, and hitting the island at dawn. They expected an attack at Thanksgiving. When it never materialized Tetley thought Oahu was safe until Christmas. Still, he was dumbfounded when the Army ordered both him and his anti- aircraft liaison officer to San Francisco to observe how its radar stations handled a simulated attack by carrier-based planes against its Navy Yard. He was so convinced an attack on Hawaii was imminent he had prepared his household goods for shipping and had decided to evacuate his wife and infant son to the mainland, even though the only accommodations available were expensive ones in first class. As his family waited for the Lurline to sail, his wife met Pan Am and State Department employees being evacuated from Wake and Midway Islands. She asked Tetley, “Why are they pulling people back from Asia and the islands?” He replied, “For the same reason you’re on this boat.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.