Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, August 16, 1999

Salvaging Natatorium’s dignity

WERE it not for a twist of fate, we all might be talking today about the Hawaii War Memorial Auditorium instead of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium. Actually, if the memorial had been an auditorium, we probably wouldn't be talking about it at all because an auditorium is a heck of a lot cheaper and easier to maintain than a salt water swimming pool on the edge of the ocean.

In keeping with an earlier act by the Territorial Legislature, in 1925, two representatives submitted bills allotting $250,000 for the construction of a memorial to honor Hawaii's World War I veterans. Rep. Francis Brown offered a bill to "establish a swimming pool at Waikiki beach," according to a press report. Rep. Eben Low, however, proposed the memorial be "an auditorium at McKinley High School."

We all know which bill won out but it makes you wonder what would have happened if Low had been more persuasive. For instance, no one would have drowned at the auditorium, which can't be said of the natatorium. No kid would have been electrocuted after touching a light pole damaged by sea spray, as happened at the natatorium in 1947. And there probably would not have been a 70-year battle over whether the auditorium should be torn down or rehabilitated, a battle that began almost as soon as the natatorium was built.

Now that the latest chapter in the dysfunctional life of the natatorium has begun -- reconstruction of the arches and bleachers -- it's a good time to take a look back at the pathetic history of this white elephant.

The natatorium enjoyed a grand opening on Aug. 24, 1927, with future Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller putting on a swimming exhibition with Duke Kahanamoku and Buster Crabbe. Weissmuller set a new record for the 100-meter freestyle that day, 58 seconds. (How times change. A 14-year-old kid set a Hawaii record last year in the 100-meter freestyle, less than 55 seconds.)

BUT the decay of the natatorium began practically before the pool was filled for the first time. By 1929, the diving towers were rusting away. A few years later, newspaper articles noted that bathers were greeted with dirt and scum as they entered the water.

In 1947, 17-year-old Ray Yano was the first fatality at the natatorium. He was electrocuted while standing on a sea wall. In 1949, the first drowning occurred, a 12-year-old boy at a school swimming party. This was followed by the first lawsuits against the government by the parents of the dead boys.

Water quality was always a problem at the pool. Authorities knew the water was really bad in 1963 because the fish inside the pool were either "groggy or dead."

By 1965, Honolulu Mayor Neal Blaisdell was saying the natatorium should be demolished. The wrecking ball was ready to swing in September of 1973, but a judge stopped it. By 1979, the natatorium was so dangerous, the city finally padlocked it.

Since then, there have been calls for both destruction and construction. And the poor memorial simply rotted away.

One thing is clear. The memorial until now has failed to do what it was intended to do, honor Hawaii's World War I veterans. In fact, the shabby history of the place has been a long-running insult to those who gave their lives in battle. But with the arch and bleacher rehabilitation, the natatorium may finally be able to reclaim at least a shred of dignity.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

or send E-mail to or

The Honolulu Lite online archive is at:

E-mail to Features Editor

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

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin