Monday, Sept. 13, 1999

WWII accelerated
social change here

The territory became more
cosmopolitan and residents
broadened their outlooks

By Richard Borreca


At Pearl Harbor, hundreds of search lights swept the skies as ship's whistles furiously blew. It was only fitting that the first confirmed word of the surrender of Japan came first to the ships docked at Pearl Harbor on the night of Aug. 13, 1945.

But it wasn't until the next afternoon that Honolulu's civilian population got official word that Japan had surrendered and World War II had ended.

The church bells rang, the air-raid sirens heralded peace and Hawaii, which had felt the ravages of war more than any other American community, rejoiced in its safety and peace.

That riotous celebration also sounded the beginning of an irreversibly changed Hawaii.

The place was different, things were owned by different people, and the people, too, were different. Money was flowing and the common citizen could see a little further and dream a little higher.

First, the federal government was slow in returning land it had seized, grabbed or leased during the war. Some of that land still is controlled by the military.

Fort DeRussy, for instance, was needed for the growth of Honolulu and Waikiki, but the Army refused to release the long-held property. The Navy expanded Pearl Harbor's perimeter. The military also kept control of Makua Valley and portions of Waimanalo beach front which had been used for practice of the South Pacific invasions.

At the same time, however, the territory's business leaders had already started planning Hawaii's new economy. Construction plans called for $113 million in new projects. And though Hawaii would quickly lose the thousands of temporary war workers and soldiers stationed here, there were few problems with unemployment after the war.

More than just the property and economy, what had changed in Hawaii was the consciousness of its people.

"Social changes which had been slowly developing for many years before the war were pushed ahead a generation," said historian and author Gwenfread Allen, in her book "Hawaii's War Years."

"Racial, cultural and economic barriers were lowered, and a middle class emerged," she said.

Island families had members who had traveled to the mainland and Europe and visited new and strange places. Just as important, people new and strange to Hawaii had come here to live and visit. Both visitors and residents were forced to figure out complex, new cultures.

James Wang, political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, still marvels at how the war altered Hawaii.

"It made people realize that they could create changes in their own lives," he said.

To Walter Heen, chairman of the state Democratic Party and member of a prominent Hawaiian family at the fore of political events in Hawaii's modern history, World War II was a sea change.

"In 1843, David Malo wrote to Kamehameha III, saying in effect 'A great wave has broken upon Hawaii, bringing large fish that will eat the small fish.'

"The Second World War was another such wave," Heen said. "It brought many people to Hawaii, including people with the federal government. It certainly opened up Hawaii to the mainland."

It was the fires of war far away, in Europe and the South Pacific, however, that ignited the biggest change in Hawaii.

It was the deeds of the now-legendary 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought two battles: first to win a place as Americans on the battlefields; then in combat against German and Japanese enemy troops.

These Americans of Japanese Ancestry of the 100th/442nd RCT won both battles -- and returned here from war with a new vow.

They would be in charge of, in control of, their own destiny -- the first generation in Hawaii's history to make and keep that pledge.

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