27 Hours Adrift: Surviving the 1946 April Fool's Day tsunami

Exclusive: 27 Hours Adrift
Published: Nov. 11, 2014 at 2:48 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2014 at 2:30 PM HST
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Coconut Island, Hilo in 1946. Courtesy: Ted Lusdy
Coconut Island, Hilo in 1946. Courtesy: Ted Lusdy

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - On April 1st, 1946, Herbert Nishimoto was a 16-year-old sophomore at Laupahoehoe High School. After a class picnic the day before, a few kids spent the night in an empty teacher's cottage. They woke up to the sound of their classmate, Daniel Akiona, yelling.

"Tidal wave, tidal wave" recalled Nishimoto, "I said what's a tidal wave? We don't know what that is."

Instead of heading for high ground, Herbert headed to the beach to check out the eels flopping around on the exposed reef. Soon enough, a massive surge washed in. "Fascinating and yet scary," said Nishimoto. "It's like, when is this gonna stop?"

One wave destroyed a canoe hale. The next one came up higher. "It went out real fast that time. Gee whiz how come? Can hear the rocks growling," said Nishimoto.

He began to run, but he says the waves chased him toward Daniel Akiona's house. Just as reached the railing the wave caught him, and the house collapsed on him.

"The water was churning," said Nishimoto, "I feel the lumber hitting my head, rocks hitting me too, so I put my hands over my head. All of a sudden I broke loose. It was dragging me out."

As he floated offshore Nishimoto gathered some planks and some cord and made a raft. He found a bottle of Crisco and rubbed it on his body for warmth. An apple floated by. "I took and ate it all, except the seed and the stem," he said.

Then he spotted two other boys who were barely conscious. "I seen one kid on a drum and a kid on a door," Nishimoto said, "I tell him hey Kelly come on the boat. He don't answer. I tied a rope and swam to him."

As the hours passed by all three boys huddled on that 8 foot raft, drifting toward Kohala, watching for sharks. Nishimoto remembers seeing three. "I seen the shark coming up, so I tried to get all the lumber under my stomach and my feet. I don't want to get eaten up by the shark. Then I seen the fins coming out, so I poked the shark," he said.

At about this time Hilo was reeling. The bay front was wiped out. Rescue crews searched the coastlines. Eventually a plane spotted the boys and dropped an inflatable life raft with collapsible oars which are now on display at the Pacific Tsunami Museum.

The boys were too exhausted to paddle against the current, much less climb up those steep Hamakua cliffs. By late afternoon all three boys fell asleep and drifted all the way through that still and quiet night.

When the sun came up Nishimoto began paddling for shore, but the valleys kept passing by. From Laupahoehoe they'd floated more than 40 miles, past Waipio to Niulii.

Then finally, a little girl spotted them from up on a cliff and ran to get help. Three men swam out to rescue the boys. The surf was rough and on the way in their raft flipped. The two other boys almost drowned. "I tried to walk up," said Nishimoto, "(but) I couldn't. So exhausted. The legs couldn't walk."

After two days at a plantation hospital Nishimoto's mom came to pick him up. He remembers her crying, but there was no hug. "My mom said you okay? I said yeah, I'm okay, like nothing happened you know."

The tsunami killed 159 people across Hawaii. A memorial in Laupahoehoe lists the names of 24 people who died there, including 15-year-old Daniel Akiona, the classmate who first warned Nishimoto.

"Most of the guys that I know died," he said.

68 years later Nishimoto said he's never been back to that beach, and never kept in touch with the two boys he saved. But he remembers it all like yesterday.

"I said darn it... I'm not gonna die. You know, perhaps I felt that I was stronger than them, so I'm just gonna try and save us three."

To watch the bonus section of this story, click HERE.

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