Operation Sailor's Hat: The tests on Kaho'olawe meant to simulate an atomic bomb

A detonation on Kaho'olawe so big it left behind a crater that's now a pond
Published: Feb. 27, 2018 at 10:55 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2018 at 3:20 PM HST
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The Sailor's Hat operation was designed to test the effects of an atomic bomb on ships. (Image:...
The Sailor's Hat operation was designed to test the effects of an atomic bomb on ships. (Image: The Central Nuclear)
Sailor's Hat crater today is one of the state's largest landlocked ponds and a home for endemic...
Sailor's Hat crater today is one of the state's largest landlocked ponds and a home for endemic shrimp. (Image: Kalei Tsuha)

Nearly five decades of military bombing on Kaho'olawe left behind tons of debris and unexploded ordnance. It also literally changed the landscape.

That's no more evident than at Sailor's Hat.

The large crater on the southwest end of the island was formed by a series of tests conducted in 1965 that were aimed at simulating the effects of an atomic bomb and determining how Navy ships could survive the attack.

"Instead of having a real atomic bomb, they put 500 tons of TNT … on top of this point of land sticking out into the ocean. And they anchored ships offshore, every 100 yards or so. And they blew up this bomb," said Mike Nahopii, executive director of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission.

After the first test, "they pushed the dirt back in, they put another 500 tons of TNT, blew it up again."

A total of three massive blasts were conducted; each could be seen for miles, by land, air and sea. Their shockwaves were powerful enough to reach the ships anchored offshore.

But what was left on the island left activists in shock.

"We came and we saw this crater and it was like, we couldn't believe our eyes that a bomb could do that," said Native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte. "I've seen other craters on the island but they were all small little craters and that was, I mean, I don't know how to explain it … except the destruction was total."

It was places like Sailor's Hat that fueled the drive for the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana to try anything they could to stop the bombing – even if it meant putting themselves in harm's way.

In 1976, Ritte and other members of the group began a series of occupations on the island, risking arrest or death as they tried to stop the bombing.

"The reason why we risked our lives and did what we did, it was because we wanted to save that island," Ritte said. "That island was dying and that crater represents the mortal blow to that island."

Today, the military is gone, but the massive crater remains.

"That crater is like the very essence of what happened to that island," Ritte said. "You're killing that island."

But as proof that nature is resilient: Sailor's Hat is now the largest anchialine or landlocked pond with an underground connection to the ocean in the state and is home to two endemic species of shrimp.

More from our series: Reclaiming Kaho'olawe

The story of Sailor's Hat – from destruction to restoration – speaks volumes, and has spurred people from around the world to come to Kaho'olawe and help heal the island.

"That's the kind of feeling that you gain when coming here. You wanna stand up more. You don't have to be Native Hawaiian to feel that feeling," said Sasha Giron, who has worked on Kaho'olawe restoration efforts as part of an internship program.

"I feel like my kupuna came here before me and that just makes me want to work harder into my genealogy to know that if I didn't come here then that gives me even more reason to keep coming back."

Kelly McHugh, of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, said the island has been through some "incredible, unspeakable moments."

But, she added, "it's really beautiful that people want to come out and be part of that healing."

And that quest for healing give hope to people like Ritte, too.

"Somehow, someway I know that island is going to survive," he said.

"All we had to do was stop the bombing. That was always our no. 1 goal. It wasn't about sovereignty, it wasn't about us developing our protocols, it wasn't about us as Hawaiians. It was about stopping the killing of an island."

In the next installment of this special series: Native Hawaiians dedicated Kaho'olawe to Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the ocean, and the island has an incredibly strong connection to Hawaiian voyaging — including its modern resurgence.

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