Print version - © COPYRIGHT 2006 The Honolulu Advertiser - Hawaii's Newspaper , a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Posted on: Monday, January 30, 2006

The fight for Kaho'olawe

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Kimo Aluli, among those who went to Kaho'olawe on Jan. 4, 1976, owns a surfboard shop in Kailua.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Supplies arrive for the "Kaho'olawe Nine." Today, the island is in the hands of an agency chaired by Emmett Aluli, Kimo's cousin and one of the "Nine."


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Kaho'olawe Nine members Gail Kawaipuna Prejean, front, and Ian Lind, spoke with reporters at the Federal Building on Jan. 5, 1976.


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A boat brought supplies Jan. 5, 1976, to activists who landed on Kaho'olawe the day before. Seven of the group's nine members were removed shortly after arrival; two remained on the island for two days.


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"It was the island that shared herself with us. It was the island that told me, 'Hey, I'm dying.' So, after that one trip, it was a total commitment not to allow that island to die."

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"When I look back in retrospect, there's some mixed emotions because of the loss of life, people going to jail and the disruption to families."

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"I never heard voices, but there were nature signs that would stop me and say, 'Eh, pay attention.' Like a cool rain when it was so hot, a cloud formation, a couple of rainbows along the way."

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Thirty years ago this month, nine people hopped onto the sand edging Kaho'olawe in an effort to stop the military bombing of the "Target Island."

The bombing continued for 14 years. The boldness of the protest, though, immediately helped set off what is now known as the Native Hawaiian movement. And today, care of the 45-square-mile island, once known as Kanaloa, is in the hands of a state agency chaired by one of the so-called "Kaho'olawe Nine."

The Hawaiian movement, up until that first activist landing, had been an offshoot of social change and civil rights activism of the 1960s, said historian and author Tom Coffman.

"It was Kaho'olawe that was the really transforming event," Coffman said. "Kaho'olawe was different, Kaho'olawe was special. It was such a desolate place, so damaged, and such a Hawaiian place beneath its surface that it became a metaphor."

Ian Lind, one of the Kaho'olawe Nine, said that while Hawaiian activists quarreled about which social and political issues to fight for, they stood together on the matter of the ailing island.

"People could all agree how outrageous it was that the bombing was still going on. It wasn't a divisive issue. It was a new issue that provided a symbolic focal point," said Lind, who today is a legislative aide at the State Capitol and a freelance writer.


On Jan. 4, 1976, shortly after daybreak, between 50 and 60 people boarded about 10 boats in Ma'alaea Harbor and headed south for a seven-mile ride to Kaho'olawe.

Talk about occupying the island had begun the previous year, said Maui-based activist Charles Maxwell Sr. He and others, with the help of knowledgeable fishermen, had made secret trips there to hide food, water and other provisions in caves. The group decided to land on the island in 1976, the bicentennial of the United States.

"We wanted to pick a date that was symbolic for America," Maxwell said.

As the flotilla crossed 'Alalakeiki Channel, between Maui and Kaho'olawe, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead and warned that proceeding further could lead to arrests and boat confiscation.

Maxwell and others decided to turn back, fearing that the boats of fishermen who had volunteered to carry the activists to the island would be taken away. But a Maui charter boat captain and a reporter who had hired him offered up their speedy vessel.

Nine climbed in: Emmett Aluli, Kimo Aluli, George Helm, Lind, Ellen Miles, Stephen Morse, Gail Kawaipuna Prejean, Walter Ritte and Karla Villalba. All but Villalba were part-Hawaiian.

Ritte was motivated by seasickness — the trip to Kaho'olawe was shorter than the ride back to Maui. He was the first to jump off the boat at the island's edge.

"It wasn't anything magical, it was self-preservation," Ritte said of his eagerness to shore, laughing as he hearkened back 30 years.


Six members of the Kaho'olawe Nine are still alive. Each has traveled a different path in life since that day.

But even today, members of the group relay the same story about how they were struck by the enormity of the island, 11 miles long and 6 miles wide, the large amount of runoff flowing into the water caused by soil erosion and the silence of the place.

It wasn't just "the rock the Navy bombs," Lind said. "It wasn't a tiny negligible piece of land."

Emmett Aluli and Ritte made their way inland to explore. Within a few hours, they watched from a high point as the Coast Guard hauled away the others who had remained near the boat. They stayed two more days before surrendering to law enforcement officials.

Ritte, a hunter and a leader of the Moloka'i activist group Huialaloa, said he then came to understand why he was there.

"It was the island that shared herself with us," he said. "It was the island that told me, 'Hey, I'm dying.' So, after that one trip, it was a total commitment not to allow that island to die."

Ritte would go on to lead a number of other illegal occupations of Kaho'olawe, eventually landing him in jail for several weeks.

Aluli, then a recent graduate from the University of Hawai'i's medical school, said he felt the tug of Hawaiian history tied to the land.

"They were attracting us, pulling us into doing something for the sites," he said. "I never heard voices, but there were nature signs that would stop me and say, 'Eh, pay attention.' Like a cool rain when it was so hot, a cloud formation, a couple of rainbows along the way."

For Aluli, a dramatic moment occurred when he stood atop Mo'a'ulaiki, one of the two highest spots on Kaho'olawe. From there, he could see the peaks of Haleakala, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, as well the ridges of Moloka'i and Lana'i.

"That's why it's referred to as the piko (navel)," Aluli said of Kaho'olawe. "Geographically, it's the center."

By the end of the year, what came to be known as the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana had formed and filed the first of a series of lawsuits against the military. Thirty years later, the group has shuttled thousands to the island to learn about its cultural and geographical history.


The Kaho'olawe Nine went their separate ways in the months and years following the 1976 landing. Among the most publicly visible members were Emmett Aluli, Walter Ritte and George Helm.

Aluli, 62, established his medical practice on Moloka'i. He remains the face of the Kaho'olawe movement, both as the chairman of the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission and a leader in the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana. The commission, tasked with managing the island, works closely with the 'Ohana on revegetation and culture and education programs.

Ritte, 61, also is on Moloka'i and continues to fight for Hawaiian causes. Most recently, he has been involved with those urging the University of Hawai'i to give up patents on taro genetically enhanced by crossbreeding.

Helm, and his cousin Kimo Mitchell, disappeared in 1977 during a visit to Kaho'olawe. Accounts differ on where they were last seen.

Helm was a spiritual and charismatic man who was an influential part of the movement. He is most credited with coming up with the catch phrase "Aloha 'Aina," love of the land. A rising Hawaiian falsetto talent, he was well respected and had connections on all islands, Aluli said.

Weeks after the Jan. 4, 1976 landing, each of the nine received a warning from the military stating that if they returned to the island, they would be found guilty of ignoring a warning of trespassing and would be jailed.

That ended the activist careers for some, including Kimo Aluli, Emmett Aluli's cousin and today the owner of Kimo's Surf Hut, a surfboard shop in Kailua.

"That rattled my cage a little bit," said Kimo Aluli, 51.

Kimo Aluli said he sometimes wishes he were more of a participant in the Hawaiian movement. "I was born in Hawai'i, but I was raised as an American," he said, adding that he often feels conflicted.

Stephen Morse left the Kaho'olawe movement after the 1977 disappearances of Helm and Mitchell. But for the greater part of three decades, he has worked for agencies that advocate for Hawaiians including Alu Like, the Queen Lili'uokalani Children's Center and, currently, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Morse said he sometimes wonders whether the young activists should have opted for a strategy other than occupying the island.

"When I look back in retrospect, there's some mixed emotions because of the loss of life, people going to jail and the disruption to families," said Morse, who is now 59 and has 10 grandchildren.

Morse maintains that the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana likely would have been successful without the landings by simply fighting the Navy in the courts.

In the end, the U.S. government allocated up to $400 million for the removal of ordnance and other cleanup activities on Kaho'olawe. The Navy called it the most expensive cleanup of unexploded ordnance ever.

In the initial cleanup effort, some 400 workers collected more than 10 million pounds of bombs, shells and scrap.

Emmett Aluli said the legacy of Helm, Mitchell and others linked to the Kaho'olawe Nine now serves as an inspiration for younger generations.

"Kaho'olawe will continue to be a place for ongoing cultural and traditional practices," he said. Noting that Aloha 'Aina is now entwined in the daily lives of all who call Hawai'i their homeland, he added, "Our work has become a model of organizing our communities in Native Hawaiian rights issues ... and healing."


Today, the fight between Hawaiian activists and the Army seeking to re-establish live-fire training exercises in Leeward O'ahu's Makua Valley bears a strong resemblance to the struggle over Kaho'olawe.

An Army lawyer last week warned that Schofield Barracks troops are being deployed to Iraq this summer and that casualties in the 25th Infantry Division (Light) will be higher without the training.

The attorney for Malama Makua, which is fighting the proposal, argued that the Army has other places to train troops.

William Aila Jr., a member of a different group, Hui Malama O Makua, said the fight over Kaho'olawe offers inspiration.

"The most inspiring lesson that we learned was that it could be done," Aila said. "The return of Kaho'olawe was unprecedented. ... A group of Hawaiians who felt a very spiritual call from the island was able to overcome military law and political opposition to really effect the first solid step toward sovereignty."

• • •


1820s: Kaho'olawe is established as a penal colony.

1858: First grazing lease is issued. Cattle, sheep and goats would cause significant, long-lasting soil erosion.

1910: Proclaimed a forest reserve by the Territorial Board of Agriculture. Revegetation efforts thwarted by proliferation of goats.

1918: Leased to cattle ranchers who set up Kaho'olawe Ranch.

1941: Ranch subleases a portion of the island to the U.S. Navy in May. Following the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, martial law is declared and the military takes over the entire island. The first ship-to-shore bombardment begins.

1976: Activists in January defy military orders banning civilians and begin a series of about a dozen landings and occupations to protest bombing. Some are arrested, some jailed. Later that same year, the newly formed Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana files a civil lawsuit seeking to halt bombing. Also, a federal judge drops trespassing charges against jailed Walter Ritte, an 'Ohana member.

1977: Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana members George Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappear. Accounts differ on whether they were last seen in the water clinging to a surfboard or if boaters headed to pick them up on Kaho'olawe got waved off.

1977: Federal judge orders partial summary judgment against the Navy and requires it to conduct an environmental study and survey of historic sites.

1980: Settlement requires the Navy to curtail use of the island, clear ordnance from portions, conduct soil conservation and revegetation programs, eradicate goats and begin surveying and protecting historical and cultural sites. It also requires the Navy to grant monthly access to the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana for religious and cultural purposes, as well as pursue its own revegetation and conservation efforts.

1981: Kaho'olawe is listed on the National Register for Historical Places, and is designated an archaeological district containing 544 archaeological and historical sites and more than 2,000 historical features.

1990: President George Bush directs the secretary of defense to discontinue use of Kaho'olawe for bombing and target practice.

1993: Legislature establishes Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission to manage the island.

1994: The deed to Kaho'olawe is handed over to the state, although the federal government retains the right to control access during the life of the ordnance cleanup, a period set at 10 years.

2003: U.S. relinquishes its right to control access.

2004: Navy and its contractors depart Kaho'olawe.

Sources: The Advertiser library, the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana Web site, the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission Web site.

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