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Navy bombs and the rescue of Kahoʻolawe in the 1970s

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Franco Salmoiraghi
Photographer Franco Salmoiraghi accompanied Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana members on their first legal access to the target island.

Photographs now on view in Honolulu capture the revolutionary spirit of the battle over Kahoʻolawe in the 1970s. In this report, HPR looks back on the era and the David versus Goliath battle waged over the island.

Photographer Franco Salmoiraghi, professor Davianna McGregor, and Dr. Emmett Aluli - Feb. 25, 2022
The Aloha Friday Conversation

Dr. Emmett Aluli is a primary care physician and executive director of Molokaʻi General Hospital. He was one of the Kahoʻolawe Nine — protestors who landed on the island when the Navy was bombing it for target practice.

"This was really the first time that people had stood up against the U.S. military," Aluli said.

Aluli and ethnic studies professor Dr. Davianna McGregor are members of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana, or PKO, a group formed to stop the military's bombing of Kahoʻolawe.

McGregor describes the genesis of their movement. "Around December 1975 I got a call from Charles Maxwell who was at the time the head of ALOHA Organization, Aboriginal Lands of Hawaiian Ancestry."

McGregor says Maxwell and others were inspired by recognition given to Native Americans at Wounded Knee, and to Native Alaskans. The ALOHA organization sponsored a bill to recognize Native Hawaiian rights and seek reparations.

"It was getting nowhere in Congress, so I remember Charlie saying, we're going to occupy some federal land to really draw national attention to the condition of Native Hawaiians," McGregor told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

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Franco Salmoiraghi
Photographer Franco Salmoiraghi visited Kahoʻolawe 20 times over 30 years, capturing images of both the land and the reclamation process.

McGregor cites high rates of poverty, poor health and incarceration among Native Hawaiians as indicators that something had to be done. Instructions went out to gather the night of Jan. 3, 1976, at Waikapū on Maui, and be ready to head to Kahoʻolawe the next morning.

"They were coming from every island, Big Island, Lanaʻi, Molokaʻi, mostly the Maui fishermen ready to occupy the island," Aluli said.

"But someone leaked it," McGregor continued."They made a press statement, so that morning, the Coast Guard showed up."

The Coast Guard threatened to confiscate vessels, so about 100 people and 50 boats that had gathered in the water began to disperse. Aluli says finally one boat carrying nine people made it to Kahoʻolawe. Eventually, only Walter Ritte and Emmett Aluli stayed for two days, surveying the island.

"What Walter and I saw was the devastation of an island, of the land, of the ocean. All the bays were all muddy, like bloody, muddy. You couldn't see any clean water around the island," Aluli said.

Aluli says bomb craters and unexploded ordinances were everywhere, and a population of some 40,000 goats kept any vegetation from growing.

"And so that just started the movement, 'Hey we gotta stop the bombing.' The motive, the reason was something that George Helm picked up in his research. We were there for Aloha ʻAina. Aloha ʻAina was the reason for the ending of the bombing," Aluli said.

Aloha ʻAina, love for the land, also recalls Hawaiian sovereignty movements of the 1800s.

After a series of occupations on the island, court actions, and legislation, bombing on Kahoʻolawe was halted in 1990. The federal government allotted $400 million for ordnance removal and clean-up.

In 2003, the Navy transferred Kahoʻolawe to the state of Hawaiʻi. A year later, the Navy ended its ordnance clearance efforts with about 25% of the island still uncleared. Stewardship of the island continues under the PKO.

Kahoʻolawe's story is brought to life in "I Ola Kanaloa! I Ola Kakou: Photographs of Kaho‘olawe, 1976–1987." Photographer Franco Salmoiraghi shows intimate portraits of Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana's early occupations, in a fundraiser for the PKO.

Images on view at Arts and Letters Nuʻuanu through March 6, 2022.

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Franco Salmoiraghi

Asked, why the Navy finally agreed to stop bombing Kahoʻolawe, Professor McGregor replied:

"I don't think the Navy agreed to give up the island. It was a critical convergence of key political powers that set the policy for the Navy to return the island:

1. President Bush wanted Pat Saiki to get elected to fill the Senate seat vacated by the passing of U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga. He issued the Memo for all ordnance delivery training to cease.

2. Sen. Inouye was senior in the Senate and Chair of the Military Appropriations Committee. He used this influence to help elect Congressman Akaka to the Senate to replace Sen. Matsunaga. He established the Kahoʻolawe Island Conveyance Commission to conduct two years of studies and reports and recommend the future of the island, once the bombing stopped. He insisted that the island be returned before the $400 million clean-up.

3. John Waiheʻe III was the governor - someone active in the early days of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana.

4. A Democrat, William Clinton was president.

5. It was the 100th anniversary of the illegal invasion of Hawaiʻi by U.S. naval forces and overthrow of the legal Hawaiian monarchy.

6. Aunty Frenchy DeSoto was also influential in having Gov. Waiheʻe and Sen. Inouye return the island before the cleanup

7. The Cold War had been declared over.

8. Kahoʻolawe was no longer critical to U.S. training in Hawaiʻi, although the Navy said it was.

In summary, Congress, the president, the governor of Hawaiʻi were aligned in having the island returned to the State of Hawaiʻi prior to the cleanup. If we waited til after clean-up — Navy would not have turned the island over. They said they could only affirm that they are 90% certain that they removed 85% of the ordnance from 68% of the island's surface and 9% of the island to a depth of 4 feet. In all other cases, the military held on to the former training lands or made it a bird refuge or natural sanctuary."

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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