The State of Aloha

“Remember Pearl Harbor!”

Those were the words that became the rallying cry for this country to enter the largest world conflict in human history. Of course, the refrain refers to the attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy on the military base stationed along the southern shores of Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941.

It didn’t take long after that for President Franklin Roosevelt and thousands of his countrymen to mobilize, declare war against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and launch the United States into a war with its allies. The flashpoint to the start of this momentous war is the bombing of Pearl Harbor — a far western outpost in the Pacific Ocean for the United States and the farthest reach of the Japanese war machine.

Last week Thursday marked the 76th anniversary of that attack. And while the Pearl Harbor attack is notable in the history of the United States, Dec. 7, 1941, is a vital turning point in the history of the Hawaiian Islands.

Many consider the attack and the war that followed as the start of modern Hawaii as we know it. For those who lived through it, the catastrophic attack and the death of 2,300 Americans was a milestone — there were the times before the war and life afterward.

But while we must remember Pearl Harbor, let us also remember what Pearl Harbor was before it was Pearl Harbor.

When you look at the area from far above, the entire region meets the ocean at a narrow point. From there, the waters branch outward into three lochs: the west, middle and east.

The area surrounding the lochs was called Pu’uloa, and legends tell of Ka’ahupahau, the shark goddess, and her brother, Kahi’uka, who called these waters home. The siblings were friends with local inhabitants and decreed that they were off-limits for other sharks in the bay and protected them when they ventured in waters offshore from other sharks.

And as for the name for the shallow, placid bay and the brackish delta, it was known as wai momi; a literal translation of the phrase means “pearl waters.” The Hawaiians named it after the pearl-bearing oysters that were found there.

It’s believed that wai momi was much more shallow back then. Eighteenth- and 19th-century explorers attempted to enter with their large ships into the lagoon, but found it much too shallow for surveying and exploring. English and American captains had remarked throughout the early 1800s that the waters of Pearl Harbor would make a fine place to keep naval ships (once they safely are navigated inside).

The United States finally got its wish and acquired it as a military base in 1875, during the years of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The acquisition of Pearl Harbor was part of the infamous Reciprocity Treaty brokered between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii during the reign of King David Kalakaua. Not only did the nations agree to free trade of a wide variety of goods, but it was amended in 1887 granting the United States “the exclusive right to enter the harbor of Pearl River, in the Island of Oahu, and to establish and maintain there a coaling and repair station for the use of vessels of the US and to that end the US may improve the entrance to said harbor and do all things useful to the purpose aforesaid.”

It didn’t take long for the U.S. Navy to convert its “coaling and repair station” to a fully functional naval base. By the time we get to the “date which will live in infamy,” the Navy had taken over most of Pearl Harbor. The oysters and the friendly sharks had left by then.

All that remains of wai momi are the names of nearby places like Pearl City and Pearlridge mall. But that is not the end of our story — at least not for the oysters.

Local bivalves are making a comeback in the islands. At a recent meeting (on Dec. 7 of all days), the Maui Nui Resource Council recommended two species of oysters to be used as natural water filters in harbors and bays throughout the islands. Citing research from the University of Hawaii, the council announced that oysters could take in 50 to 100 gallons of water and naturally filter out pollutants and silt per day. (The animal’s irritation with the pollutants results in a pearl). The council wants to experiment with the oysters and see if it will clean up the waters of Maalaea Harbor. Perhaps we can get the shark siblings to come back too.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”