Meet the tiny island with a big presence in the history of Hawaii

Published: Feb. 26, 2018 at 10:32 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 27, 2018 at 8:39 AM HST
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Twenty-five years ago, Congress voted to end all military use of Kaho'olawe, following years of protests.

As part of HNN's series, "Reclaiming Kaho'olawe," here's a look at an island place of great wounds — and great healing — for Native Hawaiians.

The total area of the island is just shy of 29,000 acres. That's less a third of the total land area of Lanai.

The southern and eastern coastlines have steep sea cliffs, while the northern and western coasts have sloping ridges and beaches.

And because it's located in Maui's rain shadow, Kaho'olawe is dry: It gets no more than about 25 inches of rain a year.

Much of the island — about 40 percent — is below 500 feet in elevation, but the highest point extends to 1,477 feet.

Settlements on Kaho'olawe are believed to date back as far as the year 400.

Native Hawaiians dedicated the island to Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the ocean.

And over hundreds of years, the island would grow into a place where navigators for voyaging expeditions were trained and where priests carried out cultural and religious rites.

The artifacts of that rich history are still visible today, despite the destruction wrought on Kaho'olawe by the modern age, first as a penal colony, then for cattle ranching and finally as a military bombing range.

As early as 1832, according to the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, adults and youth were sentenced to a penal colony on Kaho'olawe.

"Men were sent to Kaho'olawe ... for such crimes as 'rebellion, theft, divorce, breaking marriage vows, murder, and prostitution," the commission said.

The penal colony, near Kaulana Bay, was shut down in the 1850s after the law that established it was repealed.

After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, martial law was declared in Hawaii, and that led to Kaho'olawe being designated as a military weapons testing range.

But before that, ranching had already taken a serious toll on Kaho'olawe's environment.

By the late 1890s, there were 900 cattle and 15,000 sheep on the island, the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission estimates.

But as early as 1875, many areas of the island had already seen overgrazing.

Ranching operations ended when the military took control of Kaho'olawe — and weapons testing started almost immediately with ship-to-shore bombardment and, later, with American submarines testing torpedoes by firing them at shoreline cliffs.

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, according to an after action report completed in 2004.

In March 1981, the entire island of Kaho'olawe — home to some 544 archaeological and historical sites, which include some of the state's oldest and largest heiau — was listed in the National Register for Historical Places.

Even with that designation, the military bombing continued.

Protests of the bombing started in the mid-1970s and continued until 1990, when President Bush directed the military to stop.

Three years later, Congress authorized the transfer of the island back to the state and appropriated $400 million for the clean-up of unexploded ordnance.

In 2004, the Navy officially ended the Kaho'olawe Unexploded Ordnance Clearance Project.

Over the course of the work, according to an after action report, crews had cleared or detonated more than 28,600 unexploded ordnance from the island and along the shoreline. That count included 2,773 bombs, 30 grenades, and nearly 1,600 rockets.

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.

Meanwhile, 25 percent of the island (some 6,692 acres) were left uncleared.

In areas where the island was only surface cleaned, public access is only allowed with ordnance disposal experts.

Uncleared areas, meanwhile, remain hazardous.

Read more from our special series: Reclaiming Kaho'olawe

Imagining a future for Kaho'olawe by reclaiming its past: 'Feel the mana'
PHOTOS: Kaho'olawe: The Sacred Island
PHOTOS: The Bombing of Kaho'olawe
PHOTOS: Archival images of Kaho'olawe

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