#23 in the Moʻolelo series
Also known as Kohemalamalama o Kanaloa, Kahoʻolawe was populated by a small number of Hawaiians in ancient times. In 1793, Captain George Vancouver introduced goats to the island as a gift to King Kahekili of Maui. In the Kingdom period, the island was used first as a penal colony, then after 1852, as a ranch. According to the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), “by the late 1890s, there are 900 cattle and 15,000 sheep on the island” (kahoolawe.hawaii.gov).
In December 1941, Kahoʻolawe was seized during martial law and used as a bombing range. This use was continued after the war, even though “President Dwight D. Eisenhower transfers title of Kaho‘olawe to the U.S. Navy with the provision that it be returned in a condition for ʻsuitable habitation’ when no longer needed by the military” (KIRC). In the early 1970s, led by those involved in the struggle at Kalama Valley, a wave of Hawaiian activism swept through Hawaiʻi, mirroring to some extent radical movements occurring globally such as the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement. The Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana (PKO) included George Helm, Kimo Mitchell, Davianna McGregor, Emmett Aluli and others, who landed on the island four times protesting the bombing. (A fifth landing occurred, including Terri Kekoʻolani Raymond, which was disavowed by PKO).
Helm was a charismatic young leader who was a talented falsetto singer and well-versed in Hawaiian culture. When he and Kimo Mitchell disappeared under mysterious circumstances, they became, in a sense, martyrs of the new Hawaiian movement.
According to the PKO website:
Operation Sailor Hat was an underwater and surface high-explosive test
program conducted in 1965 by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships (BuShips) under the sponsorship of the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA). This program consisted of two series of underwater explosions, three surface explosions at San Clemente Island, California, and three surface explosions at Kaho`olawe Island, respectively. The three 500-ton Trinitrotoluene (TNT) charges were constructed on the beach above the water line on the southwest coast of Kaho`olawe. The crater resulting from the first detonation was subsequently back filled and is no longer visible. The second and third detonations were conducted at the same site; the result is the present “Sailor’s Hat” crater. Sailor’s Hat crater has formed an aquatic ecosystem which has become habitat for two endemic species of shrimp: Halocaridina rubra and Metabataeus lohena.
The KIRC website states that “litigation forced an end to the bombing,” neglecting the activism that was in concert with that litigation. PKO did indeed file suit in Aluli et. al. v. Brown in which the Federal Court enjoined the Navy to:
survey and protect historic and cultural sites on the island, clear surface ordnance from 10,000 acres, continue soil conservation and revegetation programs, eradicate the goats from the island, limit ordnance impact training to the central third of the island, and allow monthly PKO accesses to the island (protectkahoolaweohana.org).
My mother, who was an anthropologist, went on one of these accesses in 1980 – a time when visiting Kahoʻolawe was nearly unheard of. Between 1990 and 1995, a gradual process of transfer of Kahoʻolawe occurred from the Navy to the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission. This included funding in the 1994 Department of Defense Appropriations Act to provide for:
ʻclearance or removal of unexploded ordnance’ and environmental restoration of the island, to provide ʻmeaningful safe use of the island for appropriate cultural, historical, archaeological, and educational purposes, as determined by the State of Hawaii’ (protectkahoolaweohana.org.)
Over the next few years, roughly 70% of the surface and 10% of the subsurface were decontaminated.
On November 11, 2003 the access control was transferred from the US Navy to the State of Hawaii. The transfer was recognized in a commemoration ceremony a day later on November 12, 2003 on the grounds of Iolani Palace.