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Kay Okino was born and raised on the idyllic island of Hawai’i. In this story she shares a personal account of the tragedy wrought by one of the most destructive tsunamis ever known. Its origin was an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands determined to be a magnitude 8.6. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
It is difficult to read this story to the class because it is very personal and sad. However, because this is a memoir class, I will share my story with you.
My sister Miyoko and my brother Bert went to Laupahoehoe High School. That is the school I also attended and graduated from. If only the school bus had been ten minutes late on the morning of April 1, 1946.
The school was located in a valley. The land extended out to a beautiful peninsula which jetted into the sea, and this is where the school stood. Half a dozen teachers’ cottages with coconut trees lined the beautiful shore.
That morning, as the bus rolled down the winding road, along a high cliff on one side and with the ocean below, the children must have seen the strange behavior of the sea. As the bus stopped, Bert and his friends, all boys, jumped off the bus and rushed to the water’s edge. The beach was empty of water. Fish and other creatures were flopping in the sand.
When I was a little girl, my mother told me of the behavior of tidal waves. She said, “Before a tidal wave strikes, the ocean will suck back the water from the shore, and the ocean will come back with a vengeance to destroy everything in its path.”
How ironic! Mother never spoke of this to my siblings; therefore, Bert never knew.
Before the boys realized what was happening, the angry ocean came roaring at them. The boys ran and climbed into the nearest building, a grandstand on the school grounds. They must have thought the high grandstand was a safe haven for them.
If only they had kept running, they might have been saved. As though the ocean had a mind of its own, it came roaring at them, engulfed the whole grandstand and the children in it. Like fish in a net, they were pulled back into the raging sea.
The teachers and their families died when their cottages were swallowed by the sea. Coconut trees were gone too. If only the waves had come a little later, children and teachers would have been in class and many lives would have been spared.
Together with other grieving parents, my parents and my sister Miyo went daily to the courthouse, the temporary morgue, to claim their children abandoned by the sea.
My sister told my parents of the conversation she had with Bert the night before he died. Bert wanted to go to Honolulu that summer and asked mother if he could. Mother said, “No.” Bert said to our sister, “That is okay. I’ll go to a better place.”
That was a strange conversation. When our parents heard that, they said, “Let’s go home. Bert will never return.” He never did.
When news of the tragedy reached me, I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where my husband was attending military training at Fort Snelling. I cried for Bert as I have never cried for anyone. That was the first death in the family. Until then, death came in an orderly fashion – to an old person, to a sick person. It gave people time to prepare and time to expect and mourn. No one was prepared for this. There was not even an alarm to warn people of the impending “tsunami” which started in Alaska.
I loved Bert. He was the sibling my mother made me look after the most. As other children came after him, he became my ward. I strapped him on my back and went outside to play. He went with me everywhere. He was a very good child, a beautiful child. That is how I remember him.
A monument was erected at the place where the people vanished. Their names and ages are engraved on it. The school has relocated to higher ground elsewhere, and the site has become a tourist attraction.
My father’s name is mentioned somewhere on the bulletin board there. He was the head of the construction crew. I believe all of the parents and friends who lost their children contributed to the monument. From time to time, this episode is shown on the Discovery Channel.
Today, because of this tragedy, Hawaii has an efficient system of warning. People are warned and evacuated if there is any ripple of waves which they think will grow into a tsunami.
Almost seventy years have passed since that fateful day. As I write this memoir, I am very sad. No one is left now. All of the parents who had lost their children and had mourned for them are gone. My mother and father are gone too. Even my sister Miyo, who was with him that morning, and his younger sister Velma have died. Time has passed.
But, dear Bert, you will always be remembered. A little museum has been built in Hilo, Hawaii. Your name, together with those of your teachers and friends who perished that day are there on the wall for everyone to gaze at and to wonder. Who knows? One day you may all become Hawaiian folklore, for that is how legends are made.
To me, Bert, you will always be 14, playing happily with your best friends, Jitsumi, and those who died with you that morning so long ago. Goodbye, Bert – Love you, Big Sister Kay.
P.S. Regarding your good friend, who was an only child – his father died of a broken heart.
Published: Aug. 28, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 20