Few in Hawaii know of Hilo Massacre

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Aug 01 2012 07:39:07 PM HST
Updated On: Aug 02 2012 09:23:57 AM HST

Dock workers at Hilo and Kawaihae Harbors on the Big Island had the day off today. The union holiday every August 1st marks an event in Hawaii's history that few of us have heard about.

KAPOLEI, Hawaii -

The Hilo Massacre on Aug. 1, 1938 marked a turning point in Hawaii's labor movement, however, few of the state's 1.4 million residents even know it took place.

Dr. William Puette of the University of Hawaii – West Oahu, who chronicled the event in his 1988 book, The Hilo Massacre: Hawaii's Bloody Monday, said the event helped sway public opinion to the plight of organized labor.

"When that shooting took place, a lot of people felt this should never have happened," said Puette, who leads the University's Center for Labor Education and Research. "I think the union became much more sympathetic in the eyes of the general public and the community as a result of this."

Although no one died in the massacre, at least 50 protesters were shot by police and national guardsmen as they marched to Hilo Harbor in a show of solidarity with striking ILWU dock workers in Honolulu. The strike against the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co. had already stretched for several weeks, and the company was anxious to stand firm against union demands for better pay.

"A small army of about 60 officers armed to the teeth ended up throwing tear gas at them and then hosing them," said Puette.

Still, the crowd of over 200 people did not disperse, and instead, began sitting down on the pavement.

Through his research, Puette discovered that protest organizer Harry Lehua Kamoku had instructed the crowd on the practice of passive resistance.

"They coached each other about what would happen if you were hit by a billy club," said Puette. "Not to respond in kind (and) just to fall down. A lot of people think that those kinds of tactics were developed for the civil rights movement in the United States, but actually we see it at the Hilo Massacre in 1938."

Hawaii Island Sheriff Henry K. Martin eventually gave the order for officers to fire upon the peaceful gathering. Puette says the shooting began after hooligans hired by the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co. threatened to clear the crowd on their own, a common practice during the labor struggles of the 1930's.

"Employers would hire their own little armies to break-up any kind of labor disputes and strikes, so it was real common that there was a lot of shooting," said Puette.

While documents show it was Sheriff Martin that gave the order to shoot, it was his lieutenant, Charlie Warren, who was considered Martin's enforcer.

"(Martin) began by bayoneting one of the demonstrators, Kai Uratani," said Puette. "It's amazing he didn't die on the spot, because it was a very severe injury."

As Uratani lay on the ground, officers fired upon the crowd with riot guns, firing buck and bird shot indiscriminately.

During research for his book, as well as a television documentary, Puette uncovered black and white film and photographs of the massacre at the state archives.

"You can pretty much tell exactly when the shooting started because people began responding to it and falling on the ground," said Puette. "A whole bunch of other people started moving off to jump into the water for their safety."

Amazingly, the Hilo Massacre wasn't the first act of violence against union members or sympathizers in Hawaii. In 1924, 16 Filipino union members and four police officers were killed on the island of Kauai in what came to be known as the Hanapepe Massacre.

Although investigations ensued after both events, no one in a position of authority was ever charged or prosecuted.

However, the Hilo Massacre provided the impetus for a multi-cultural labor movement that involved Caucasians, Chinese, Filipinos and Japanese.

"You saw a lot of sympathy in the public suddenly generated," said Puette.

Puette’s book and documentary on the Hilo Massacre can be viewed entirely online. For the video, click here. For a link to the book, click here.

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