The bombing of Kaho'olawe went on for decades. The clean-up will - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

The bombing of Kaho'olawe went on for decades. The clean-up will last generations

(Image: Archives) (Image: Archives)
When the military transferred Kaho'olawe back to the state, the island was littered with tons debris and unexploded ordnance. (Image: Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission) When the military transferred Kaho'olawe back to the state, the island was littered with tons debris and unexploded ordnance. (Image: Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission)
Members of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana occupied the island for weeks at a stretch in hopes of stopping military bombing of the island. (Image: Walter Ritte) Members of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana occupied the island for weeks at a stretch in hopes of stopping military bombing of the island. (Image: Walter Ritte)
(Image: Archives) (Image: Archives)

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States declared martial law in Hawaii.

And Kaho’olawe, a place considered sacred to Native Hawaiians, was transformed into a bombing range.

Weapons testing started almost immediately with ship-to-shore bombardment and, later with American submarines testing torpedoes by firing them at shoreline cliffs.

Over the decades, the wars changed but bombing continued.

In 1965, the infamous "Sailor Hat" tests were conducted on the island: Three tests of 500 tons of TNT were detonated to simulate the blast effects of nuclear weapons on shipboard weapon systems.

The bombing wasn't just offensive to Native Hawaiians — it was heartbreaking.

“We had to save the island,” said activist Walter Ritte.  

In 1976, Ritte and other members of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana began a series of occupations on the island, risking arrest or death as they tried to stop the bombing. Two men, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, were lost at sea while returning from a trip to Kahoolawe. 

"It was a huge story,” said Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “They would take on the whole federal government, the military, the Navy. Yikes.

“And the federal government and the Navy couldn't do anything because they are willing to give up everything. They weren't compromising. And that whole statement was revolutionary for everyone that wanted to see that there was some justice to the native people in their own homeland."

Ritte said it was not only the cries for help from the Hawaiian people that drove them back to the island, but the cries from the land. 

"It was some kind of an experience, but when I was looking at this rock and the (military) helicopter went straight up and I was just fixed on that rock and then the rock became the whole island. And I felt this tingling coming into my body and … I kind of lost it, I mean, I couldn't remember too much but I knew that island was going to die,” he said.

"It changed my whole life. From that day.”

Protesters did everything they could to ensure their voices were heard.

Some traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with the president, while thousands of others wrote to local politicians and met with the media. Meanwhile, Ritte and Richard Sawyer would stay on the island for the longest occupation — 35 days..

"We had to eat coconuts from the beach and pound eels with the rock to kill the eel and eat the eel,” Ritte said. “We even had to start eating baby goats and stuff just to survive."

Military personnel were sent out to search for the two — each time finding no sign of them.

"Richard and I ducked for cover …  and the ground was shaking and bombs were dropping. Our wives kept telling them they're on the island, they're on the island,” Ritte said. “And the senators gave the OK — it's all clear start bombing. We could've been blown up.”


More from our series: Reclaiming Kaho'olawe


The Protect Kahoolawe Ohana also sued the Navy; a few years later, the bombing was ordered to stop. And in 1993, Congress voted to end all military use of Kaho'olawe and transfer the island back to the state.

But that was hardly the end of the story. After decades of bombing, Kaho'olawe was wounded — littered with debris and unexploded ordnance.

"I have never seen such destruction of land before and just waste and bombs all over the place," said Dr. Emmet Aluli, of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana. "All the bays all around Kaho'olawe were just darkened with red mud."

Since the transfer, more than 9 million pounds of unexploded ordnance and other remnants have been cleared from the island. And there is much more work to be done.

"There's probably never going to be an absolute clean-up of the island,” said Mike Nahoopii, of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission. "Once you start using a piece of property for military bombing, you're never going to remove every single bomb."

The military had a 10-year, $400 million contract for ordnance removal.

Starting in 1998, hundreds of people traveled to Kahoolawe to begin cleaning the island, using metal detectors to find and detonate or remove unexploded ordnance — bombs, grenades, rocket shells.

By the time the project officially ended in 2004, crews had cleared or detonated more than 28,600 unexploded ordnance from the island and along the shoreline.

The clean-up project "surface cleared" about 75 percent of the island. About 2,600 acres were also cleared to a depth of four feet.

Today, about 25 percent of the island is still uncleared.

Despite the dangerous conditions, thousands of volunteers continue to go to the island to help in the healing process. Although it's a job that will take generations to fulfill, hope still remains at the forefront of every step — every stone that's lifted, every seedling planted.

"There's still a lot of heavy work to be done on Kahoolawe,” Nohopii said. “It's not going to be glamorous, it's not going to be like on the front page where you get your picture in the paper everything. It's about just come, get dirty and do the work because you're healing the island.”


In the next installment of this special series: The Sailor Hat bombing on Kaho'olawe was meant to simulate an atomic bomb. Its sheer destructive force galvanized a generation of activists.


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