By Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
Frank De Caires, left, and Jo Ah Choy recall the devastating
tsunami that hit Laupahoehoe 51 years ago. The men, who were
boys at the time, are standing at the Laupahoehoe tsunami memorial.


Not an April Fool’s joke

The sea at Laupahoehoe was acting strange,
then slammed ashore,
killing 24 people

By Rod Thompson
Star-Bulletin Big Island Correspondent

LAUPAHOEHOE, Hawaii -- Fifteen-year-old Joe Ah Choy looked back over his shoulder as he ran to escape the tsunami that devastated Laupahoehoe Point on April 1, 1946.

"I saw kids getting hit. Like dominoes they were falling," he said.

Most of the present-day students at Laupahoehoe High School knew vaguely about the tsunami that killed 24 school children and teachers and wiped out their school 51 years ago tomorrow.

But they knew none of the details until Lucille Chung, community development coordinator for Queen Liliuokalani Trust, got them to interview Ah Choy and other survivors last year.

What student Elizabeth Eugenio learned made her skin crawl.

"Nobody knew about tidal waves. It had never happened in our life," said Violet Francisco, whose father had retired as caretaker of the four teachers' cottages at the point just three days before the tsunami.

Frank De Caires, 14 on that day, had just been driven to school by his father. He saw students and teachers standing where the water's edge normally was, but the water had receded several hundred yards.

Then the sea came back slowly, rolling under the teachers cottages built off the ground on posts.

Ah Choy and others thought it was fun, walking back and forth with the water as it came and went several times, talking to the water, telling it, "Come up."

The waves quit for a while, then came again, the big one.

"It came the same way; only thing, it kept on rising," Ah Choy said.

He ran.

"I don't know how deep it was because I made it (out of there)," he said.

Others were less lucky.

"You could hear them yelling and crying," he said.

Two of the teachers cottages were smashed inland. Two were washed out to sea.

Kawaihano Poy's brother had seen the bare sea floor, put her on his bike, and pedaled uphill to their house.

Poy told her father, "There's no water down at the beach. Something must be wrong."

Without questioning, he put them in his car and drove to higher ground where they watched the destruction.

"It's worse to sit up and watch and not be able to do anything," she said.

Children were bobbing in the sea, but the only man in the area who had a boat refused to loan it because the water was still rough.

Hours later, David Kailimai and two others got the boat out to sea. They saved two children and a teacher.

De Caires' hanai sister, Janet Yokoyama, 10, was among the children whose bodies were found on shore.

"After the tsunami, nobody wanted to fish there for a long time after that because of the dead bodies," said present-day student Sanoe Harrison.

And some didn't want to talk about it. Bunji Fujimoto went through it but never mentioned it to his niece Pearl Yamamoto until recently. "Oh, I didn't want to talk about it," he said.

On April 11, all of Laupahoehoe Elementary and High School, 300 students, will bus down to the point for a day of cleaning out old fishponds and planting new vegetation, Chung said.

And they'll talk.

"The main thrust is life in Laupahoehoe, getting other stories, not dwelling on this disaster," Chung said.

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