Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, May 27, 2002

Elvin Mattson's friend Richard Whaley was killed 60 years ago in a Japanese attack on Pacific islands along the equator. Mattson posed next to a photograph of Whaley on Saturday night at the opening of a Bishop Museum exhibit recognizing the young men sent to work on those islands.

Exhibit recalls Hawaiian
colonists’ deeds

By Burl Burlingame

The last time Elvin Mattson saw his friends Richard Whaley and Joe Keliihahanui alive, they were dying.

"Shrapnel from Japanese bombs went clear through them, right through their chests," Mattson recalled, his memory of the event 60 years ago still sharp and painful. "There was a lot of blood. Their eyes were fluttering and they were murmuring. But after a few minutes, they stopped moving. It was terrible, terrible."

He looked at a near-life-size picture of Whaley, young and strong and proudly holding up an enormous fish. "I miss those boys today, especially today," Mattson said. "I wish they were here."

The event was Saturday's opening ceremonies of "Hui Panala'au: Hawaiian Colonists, American Citizens," a new Bishop Museum exhibit detailing the Robinson Crusoe-like adventures of young men from Honolulu who "colonized" far-flung islands along the Pacific equator.

Drawing mostly on recently graduated male students from Kamehameha Schools, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed the boys on the islands to study weather, collect scientific specimens, maintain radio links, build runways and -- not coincidentally -- claim the islands for the United States instead of the Empire of Japan.

'Hui Panala'au'

On view: Through June 16
Place: Bishop Museum
Admission: $14.95 general admission ($11.95 for seniors and children); kamaaina and active military rates $7.95 adult ($6.95 for seniors and children); free to members and children under 4
Call: 847-3511

The idyllic occupations turned tragic when the islands were attacked by the Japanese navy during the opening moves of the Pacific War. Two boys were killed, and the U.S. Navy quietly rushed a destroyer into harm's way to rescue the others.

"This was a significant contribution to the United States by these young men, and it needs to be recognized," noted Bishop Museum Director Bill Brown.

Museum specialist Noelle Kahanu trail-bossed the exhibit.

"There are precious few moments when one's personal and professional lives converge," she mused, "but this is surely one of them."

Her grandfather George Kahanu is one of the surviving colonists, and he proudly kissed her as she introduced him.

"They are a wonderful group of men who -- under great adversity -- came through with grace and humor," concluded Kahanu.

Victor Kim, because he had a ham radio operator's license, was stationed on Jarvis Island and daily broadcast weather reports to Fanning Island, in a day when ocean weather patterns were a mystery. "Pan Am was pioneering the Pacific, and they needed to understand what was ahead so they could fly the big Clipper aircraft safely across the ocean.

"Every day, we released a balloon and watched it fly away through the navy theodolite, trying to estimate wind speed up high.

"I recall it -- like a vacation. The climate was pleasant because there was always a breeze. It wasn't hot. We had fresh fish and lobster every day. You had to keep the canned food up in the ceiling so the hermit crabs wouldn't get it while you were sleeping.

"The only negative thing was the water. The only water came from 50-gallon barrels, and it tasted chemical. And the money was good, $3 a day. When I returned, I got it all in a lump payment and paid off my family's medical bills."

Even when hiding from Japanese bombers and submarines, Mattson ate well from canned food and cases of beer ("We weren't supposed to have that there!").

Abraham Piianaia was one of the pioneering colonists and went back several times.

"It's about time!" said daughter Ilima Piianaia. "We are all affected by it, every family with panala'au veterans. We grew up hearing the stories. They left on a secret mission in the dark of night and wound up with a great outdoors education."

East-West Center Pacific War scholar Geoff White was "astounded that such a major project was going on and that so many citizens didn't know anything about it."

"Oh yeah," said Ph.D. candidate Ty Tengan, who assisted in the research. "When I found out about the panala'au, I just went, Whaaaaat? How come we all don't know about this? Of course, there were some racist notions in recruiting Hawaiians to do this job, but you know, they all became respected men in the community. The experience shaped them, and it affected me just to hear about it."

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin