Remembering the Pigs from the Sea

Sep 19, 2018

A pair of pigs catch their footing aboard the USS Owen. These were just a couple of the 536 pigs that were delivered to Okinawa in September 1948 as part of a World War II recovery effort spearheaded by the local Okinawan community here in Hawai'i.
Credit Courtesy of Jon Itomura / Shinyei Shimabukuro

Community-driven recovery efforts are nothing new to Hawaiʻi. Whether it be massive flooding, a volcanic eruption or wildfires...the community finds a way to rally and rebuild. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi sheds some light on a little known recovery effort that began in Hawaiʻi 70 years ago.

Jon Itomura remembers hearing stories of his grandfather Shinyei Shimabukuro immigrating to Hawaiʻi from Ishikawa, Okinawa in 1925. He knew he owned a restaurant in downtown Honolulu and that he farmed pigs in Kuliʻouʻou. But there’s one story his grandfather successfully kept secret. 

Pigs aboard the USS Owen, en route to Okinawa.
Credit Courtesy of Jon Itomura

“He never spoke about it. Not to my grandmother. Never to any of the kids,” says Itomura, “It took my finding a box of photos in the garage.”

He found photos his grandfather took of 300-lbs. plus pigs aboard a U.S. military vessel. He soon learned his grandfather was a key player in a post-World War II recovery effort known as Pigs from the Sea.

“So Pigs from the Sea is a story of seven men from Hawai’i who transported 550 pigs that were purchased in mainland U.S. and taken by sea to Okinawa,” says Courtney Takara, President of the Hawai’i United Okinawan Association. 

Piglets were born aboard the USS Owen while en route to Okinawa.
Credit Courtesy of Jon Itomura

“The purpose was to help get the pig farming industry in Okinawa back on its feet, as well as to eventually provide addition food supply,” says Takara, “After World War II, Okinawa was completely decimated. It was the only part of Japan that saw actual food battle during the war.”

According to Okinawan government records, the pig population dropped from more than 100,000 pigs before the war to a little under 800 afterward.

“This was really a reaction to a crisis,” says Itomura.

Pigs aboard the USS Owen.
Credit Courtesy of Jon Itomura

Hawaiʻi’s Okinawan community raised nearly $50,000 to purchase the pigs. With the help of the U.S. Military, the men and pigs set sail for Okinawa on the USS Owen.They navigated more than 6,000 miles of naval mines and severe storms. They almost didn’t make it. 

“The storms literally obliterated the storage that they built on the ship,” says Itomura, “I think they lost a few pigs even in that storm. They had to come all the way back and they set sail again.”

After 28 days at sea, the seven men safely delivered the pigs to White Beach in the Okinawan city of Uruma on September 27, 1948. Over the span of four years, the pig population grew to 100,000.

The pig shipment was the first of many recovery efforts made by the local Okinawa community to help family and friends in need back in Okinawa.
Credit Courtesy of Jon Itomura

“While the pigs were the first effort, it did set the precedent for all the efforts that came after it,” says Itomura, “including the goats that went soon after, then the clothing, books, medicine, school supplies…”

The Pigs from the Sea story is memorialized in Okinawan textbooks, festivals, and even a musical.

One of the donated pigs settles into his new sty in Okinawa.
Credit Courtesy of Jon Itomura

This year, Hawaiʻi will commemorate the 70thanniversary of the Pigs from the Sea event with a proclamation ceremony in honor of this joint history between Hawaiʻi and Okinawa. 

“So I think by celebrating it, it helps to teach the next generation about what was done in the past to help support one another but also to help look at ways to continue to foster those relationships in the future,” says Takara.