H’poko Bell tolls again

It harkens back to a tragedy 95 years ago

The Hamakuapoko community raised money to order this bell from Japan to remember five boys and men who perished during a hike up Haleakala in 1923. It will hang and be rung again today at a rededication ceremony at Makawao Hongwanji Mission. -- The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

MAKAWAO — A bell memorializing the deaths of five young Japanese-American men and boys will ring again today, nearly 95 years after they perished while hiking the slopes of Haleakala.

Known now as the “Memorial Bell” but formerly as the “H’poko Bell” (short for Hamakuapoko Bell), it was purchased by members of Hamakuapoko Hongwanji from Japan to remember the tragic deaths of the men and boys, ranging in age from 21 to 16, from their camp near Paia.

A group of 21 people, which included three women, began hiking to Haleakala Crater on March 30, 1923. Most turned back as weather conditions worsened, but others continued on. When some of the hikers didn’t return, search parties were organized and community members combed the trail, even at night with kerosene lanterns, in the days after.

The bodies of five were found by the searchers.

The bell that honors the lost hikers sat in storage at Makawao Hongwanji Mission for 36 years, but the temple recently decided to hang the bell. Nearby is a bronze plaque that includes the names of the five: Yoichi Arai, 21, Yoriyoshi Tagawa, 18, Toshio Higuchi, 17, Tokuichi Matsumoto, 17, and Kazuyuki Kawauye, 16.

A bronze plaque was recently put up on the lanai of the Makawao Hongwanji Mission near a memorial bell for five young Japanese-American men and boys from Hamakuapoko who died in 1923 while hiking up to Haleakala Crater. Shortly after the incident, the bell was ordered from Japan by Hamakuapoko Hongwanji. It contains an inscription of the incident and the boys’ names. -- The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

At 9 a.m. today, the temple will rededicate the bell, which has its own storied history. An inscription on the bell describes the tragedy and the names of the men and boys in Japanese. The bell will be rung and the names of the five read.

Glenn Coryell, a church member scheduled to speak at the rededication, said last week that out of the tragedy came something good.

“These people all came together,” he said of the Hamakuapoko community and the searchers who banded together to look for the missing. He hopes that the bell will be a symbol for the Hongwanji temples and the community to become one “like they did 95 years ago.”

“That bell represents the sangha, the family working together,” Coryell said.

Reports of the missing hikers and their deaths appeared on the front pages of the Daily Maui News (the predecessor of The Maui News) in the first days of April 1923. Even after two members of the party were found unconscious and later died, the search went on for the others with “unabated vigor,” showing how the community and searchers were intent on finding the missing hikers, the reports said.

A memorial bell for five young men and boys who died in 1923 while hiking up Haleakala was recently taken out of storage and hung at Makawao Hongwanji Mission. A rededication of the bell will take place today. At the church last week, church members Mike Nakagawa, Janet Fukuda and Galan Arakaki admired the bell. -- The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo

In a Hawaii Herald story published on Jan. 1, 1991, the now deceased Yasunari Hamai said search parties were organized and Hamakuapoko Hongwanji was turned into a command post. Teams of four to five men combed the Olinda trail but were hampered by heavy rains, cold temperatures and windy conditions. Hamai was supposed to have gone on the trip, but his family refused to give him permission. “Everybody kokua,” Hamai said in the story, written by Hawaii Herald Editor Karleen Chinen.

With the tragedy occurring nearly a century ago, there likely are no firsthand accounts to be had. But 92-year-old Yoshio Kijima, a former Hamakuapoko resident, remembers his mother, Hina, telling him about the incident. Kijima, who now lives in Kahului, was born three years after the tragedy in the plantation camp where the families of the five still lived at the time.

“So much rain,” he remembers his mother saying. She saw the water coming down the mountain, he recalled last week.

The Daily Maui News on April 3, 1923, reported that the main group of 16 hikers ran into fog and rain and turned back about 2 miles from the summit. The initial group of 21 people with supplies hiked from Hamakuapoko to Olinda on March 30 and spent the night there.

They started up the trail to the summit of Haleakala the next morning. Some of the youths got separated with no one sure how that happened. The newspaper speculated that the five who died may have fallen behind and thought they would catch up by taking a different trail, sometimes used to descend the mountain but usually regarded as too steep for ascent.

It appears the five took the trail and got lost, the Daily Maui News said.

The newspaper report said some people attributed the deaths to cold, exposure and exhaustion in the thin air of high altitude. Others speculated the poor physical condition of the five hikers led to their troubles.

Martha Mihara, now deceased, told the Hawaii Herald in 1991 that her father was among the searchers. She remembers him talking about the burnt matches found near the frozen bodies. The men also had taken off their socks and wrapped them around their necks to keep warm.

The Daily Maui News on April 4, 1923, said Arai and Tagawa were found unconscious near the summit and later died. The next day, Higuchi, Kawauye and Matsumoto were found. Their bodies were a few hundred yards from each other.

A large funeral was held for the five on April 4, 1923, at Hamakuapoko Hongwanji. Initially, the five were buried at Paia Mantokuji Mission, but those with knowledge of the graves said some were later moved to other places.

Looking back, Coryell said the men hiked the Old Haleakala Trail, the subject of recent litigation with hiking advocates seeking access. He hiked the trail himself.

“I know how hard it is,” he said. “When you get up there, it’s very, very difficult. . . . You have to be in top shape.”

Coryell said he has been at Haleakala when it snows, and it tends to be sleet, not powdered stuff.

His hiking background and affiliation with Makawao Hongwanji piqued his interest in the story, he said.

While Kijima doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the tragedy, he does have firsthand knowledge of the bell’s story. The H’poko Bell hung at Hamakuapoko Hongwanji. When the temple closed as the plantation camps were shut down, the bell was stored at the Paia Hongwanji, according to a Makawao Hongwanji newsletter.

In 1971, the Paia temple closed and the bell was taken to Makawao Hongwanji, where many of Paia’s members gravitated to, the newsletter said. When Pauwela Hongwanji’s temple bell fell and shattered, Makawao Hongwanji offered the H’poko Bell.

In 1973, the bell was stolen from Pauwela Hongwanji. Kijima, a past president of Makawao Hongwanji, and others wondered what the thieves would do with the bell. It remained a mystery for almost a decade.

Then, on Sept. 29, 1982, the bell was found during a state Department of Land and Natural Resources drug raid. Kijima learned of the find from his son-in-law, who worked at DLNR. Since it had Japanese writing on it, Kijima knew it was the missing bell.

The bell then went into storage.

More than three decades later, the bell will toll again. It will be a remembrance of a tragedy that took the lives five people too young and resonate with the unity of a community that joined hands to find their five sons and to grieve together.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.