1946 tsunami remembered




Tribune-Herald staff writer

The Brothers Cazimero’s version of the classic hapa-haole song “Hilo My Home Town” has the comedic line “watch for the tidal wave.”

Despite a highly destructive tsunami on Apr. 1, 1946, which killed 159 people in Hawaii, by 1960, people would flock to the Hilo Bayfront when warned of an impending tsunami — which, technically, isn’t a tidal wave — to do just that.

“Between 1948 and 1960, we actually had 17 tsunamis,” Donna Saiki, executive director of the Pacific Tsunami Museum, said Friday. “Fifteen of them were small ones like the one we just experienced (the night of Oct. 27). And two of them, in ’52 and ’57 did cause damage, but no death. In 1960, it was a very common attitude. Dozens and dozens gathered down by the river, and Suisan had a full contingent over there, watching.”

As it turned out, the tsunami of May 23, 1960, killed 59 people and caused damage in excess of $50 million — which would be almost $400 million in today’s economy. One member of the Suisan Co. contingent was a young Rex Masuno, who became the company’s president in 1967 and presided over its growth into one of the state’s top food distributors.

Masuno will be one of four speakers sharing their tsunami stories at the museum’s 11th Annual Tsunami Story Festival, Sunday, April 14, at the Hilo Honpa Hongwanji Sangha Hall, 424 Kilauea Ave. Doors open at 5 p.m.; the program starts at 6. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased by calling the museum at 935-0926 or emailing colleend@tsunami.org.

“Our theme this year is ‘Wailoa River Legends,’ said Saiki. “It’s the story of four people who grew up around the river, who came from very humble beginnings and went on to achieve great things.”

One is Yoshinobu Terada, then a young swimmer coached by the legendary Charles “Sparky” Kawamoto, whose Shinmachi Town Swimming Club used Radio Bay and Wailoa River to train its athletes, since no swimming pool was available in Hilo at that time.

“On the morning of the tsunami in ’46, he (Terada) was a young boy who his father sent down to the river to check on their boat,” Saiki said. “And when he ran back, he saw the wave coming and he got caught on the neighbor’s porch. And as the houses got swept into the river, he saw his brother’s surfboard floating by and he jumped on it and ended up in the Wailoa River.”

Terada went on to get a college swimming scholarship, which “changed his life completely,” Saiki said. As for Kawamoto, he founded the Hilo Aquatics Club and trained Yoshi Oyakawa, who won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter backstroke in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, as well as Olympians Ed Kawachika, Denise Baker, Laurence Hao and Sonny Tanabe. The county swimming pool at the Hoolulu Complex, perhaps a quarter-mile from the Wailoa River, was renamed in Kawamoto’s honor two months before his death in April 1982.

Saiki said that Terada’s story will be about “the coaching of Sparky and the spirit of Sparky.”

Another storyteller, Art Kimura, is director of Future Flight Hawaii, a K-12 educational program of the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium operating out of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His parents owned the Kimura Fish Market in Waiakea town.

“In 1960, he was a high school student when his father’s fish market was demolished. But he remembers the tsunamis that happened, running out and picking up fish,” said Saiki, noting the “same attitude” Hilo’s coastal residents had developed towards tsunamis in the years following the devastation of 1946.

Kimura was one of two Hawaii teachers nominated for the NASA Teacher in Space project announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. He went to the training camp, Saiki said. As it turned out, Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was selected for the Jan. 28, 1986, flight of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. All seven aboard were killed, including McAuliffe and Kona-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka.

Also sharing his story will be 94-year-old Takayoshi Kanda, who maintains the 12-foot-tall green clock that stands silently as a tsunami memorial in what used to be Waiakea town at the edge of the Naniloa golf course, its hands permanently frozen at 1:04 (a.m.), the time the 1960 tsunami devastated the Hilo waterfront.

“He’s the one who’s down there every week to clean and put flowers there. He’s made it his mission to maintain that site,” Saiki said.

Saiki said the evening will be dedicated to the memory of beloved Hilo historian Robert “Steamy” Chow, who died last Nov. 1 at age 90.

Chow was an original member of the museum’s board of directors, but on April 1, 1946, he was a cop on the beat in downtown Hilo. When he encountered folks shouting “tidal wave” he replied: “Yeah, April fool.” He learned they weren’t joking when he saw waves covering the Wailuku River railroad bridge and buildings washing off their foundations onto Kamehameha Avenue.

“The railroad depot was completely demolished, like a bulldozer ran through it,” Chow told the Tribune-Herald in 2008.

Saiki called Chow “an encyclopedia of Hilo.”


“Steamy loved Hilo and the people of Hilo and loved what he did,” Saiki said. “And he loved sharing. He was a very kind man who made you comfortable that you could ask him questions, and he was always willing to share anything that he knew.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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