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40 years after men’s disappearance at sea, their vision for Kahoolawe has become a reality

George Helm (far left) speaks during a workshop held at Maui Community College shortly after the 1976 landing on Kahoolawe. IAN LIND photo

On March 7, 1977, an activist with a beautiful falsetto voice and a park ranger with a love for the ocean went missing off Kahoolawe.

Twenty-six-year-old George Helm and 25-year-old Kimo Mitchell had gone to look for two friends who were protesting the bombing of the island. But on the way back to Maui, Helm and Mitchell disappeared, leaving many questions but also galvanizing a cause.

Forty years later, Helm’s vision of restoring Kahoolawe to its people has become reality. Bombing of the island has ceased. The Navy has returned it to the state. Every year, people who care about the island work to restore its landscape.

“If you look across history . . . it’s pretty common to see some of our greatest contributions to humanity were people who didn’t live too long,” said Adolph Helm, George’s younger brother.

George Helm was an upfront advocate for Kahoolawe; Mitchell gave behind-the-scenes help. But with their disappearance, both men would be forever linked and elevated as symbols of aloha ‘aina in a movement that was just beginning.

As a linebacker, Kimo Mitchell helped lead Baldwin High School to the Maui Championship his senior year. He went on to play football for Coalinga Junior College and Fresno State in California, earning all-conference honors. Before he disappeared, he had hoped to start an organized sports program for Hana youth. Photo courtesy of Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana

Rooted in the land

On Molokai and Maui, Helm and Mitchell grew up around farming families.

George Jarrett Helm Jr. was born March 23, 1950, to George Jarrett Helm Sr. and Melanie Koko Helm. He was the fifth of seven children.

When George was still a baby, the family moved from Kualapuu — where it was always green and there were plenty of neighbors — to Kalamaula, which was covered in kiawe and salt flats with few houses nearby.

“We were dumbfounded how come our parents could take us there,” said older sister Stacy Helm Crivello, a Maui County Council member. “But it was our homestead.”

George Helm

George Helm Sr. took his boys and an ax and cleared 4.5 acres of kiawe. He dug a brackish water well and became known as the “Molokai miracle farmer” who successfully grew vegetables and melons in difficult, salty conditions.

“We worked the land, we played the land, and our relationship with one another was filled with games and songs and music . . . because we only had each other as siblings,” Crivello said.

George Helm Jr. was a “fun-loving kid, full of humor.” However, he also had an “intense” side.

In 1965, George Helm went to Honolulu to play basketball for St. Louis School. There, his musical talents grew under the tutelage of John and Kahauanu Lake. Helm had grown up jamming with his brothers and sisters, but his famous falsetto voice didn’t come naturally to him at first, Adolph Helm said. He had to work at it. He loved jazz and blues, which came out “even in his Hawaiian music,” Crivello said.

After he graduated in 1968, Helm started working for Hawaiian Airlines as a traveling musician. He loved his music, but a life of enticing visitors to the islands felt “plastic” to him, Crivello said. That’s when he had his turning point and started contemplating his Hawaiian roots.

Kimo Mitchell

Helm saw issues of land and sovereignty spreading throughout the islands. On Molokai, he kept tabs on the rise of Hui Alaloa, which was fighting for traditional gathering rights and land and shore access. Before he joined a cause, he wanted to make sure he was prepared.

“When he did something, he kind of went in all the way,” Adolph Helm said. “He wanted to make sure this was a kind of thing worth his time and investment, and whether he had the passion and the aloha.”

Observing the struggles of other islands “provided him with a catalyst of moving forward with the bigger issue to stop the bombing,” Adolph Helm said.

In 1976, George Helm helped form the Protect Kahoolawe ‘Ohana and became its president. He was among the famous Kahoolawe Nine, a group of seven men and two women who made the first landing on Jan. 4, 1976, in protest of the bombing, an act that would inspire many other protest occupations.

When the Nine returned, “he knew what we had to do,” said co-‘Ohana founder Dr. Noa Emmett Aluli, one of the Nine. “He figured out that this was a reconnection with the aloha ‘aina movement.”

Kimo Mitchell (left) and George Helm are depicted in a 1984 sketch by Oahu artist Wayne Muromoto. Helm, Mitchell and Billy Mitchell left for Kahoolawe on March 5 to look for two friends who had been protesting the bombing of the island. Unable to find their friends, the three men attempted to paddle back to Maui and encountered rough seas. Billy Mitchell returned to Kahoolawe to seek help, but Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappeared. Photo courtesy of Helm family

Helm wasn’t really one to march and hold signs — he was more of a “let’s do our homework” kind of guy, Crivello said. Aluli remembered working with George Helm on a civil suit the ‘Ohana filed against the Navy in 1976. They pored over federal laws on marine protections, endangered species and indigenous rights, trying to find all the statutes the Navy had violated. They researched other places the Navy used for target practice.

“It was a first test because those laws hadn’t been tested before in Hawaii or even on the Mainland,” Aluli said. “We really set some good standards.”

And Helm, it seemed, could befriend anyone. With his articulate, respectful words, he earned the trust of activists and politicians. With his soulful music, he charmed kupuna who disapproved of the “troublemaker” with the bushy beard.

“How do you draw people to listen to you? To me it was his music,” Adolph Helm said. “He then took the opportunity to educate people. I think that’s how people were able to gravitate toward him.”

In 1976, George Helm met Kimo Mitchell, a distant cousin living on Maui.

George Helm (left) entertains the room with his guitar and his distinct voice. Performing with him at the Golden Coin restaurant is Homer Hu. Helm performed for Hawaiian Airlines, Golden Coin and hotels, and used his music to express his love for Hawaii and his kupuna. Photo courtesy of Helm family

Man of the sea

James Kimo Mitchell was born in Keanae on Feb. 15, 1952, the youngest of Harry Mitchell Sr. and Pearl Mitchell’s five children. He grew up around farmers who cultivated taro and lilikoi, wrote Rodney Morales in the book “Ho’i Ho’i Hou: A tribute to George Helm & Kimo Mitchell.”

Harry Mitchell Sr. worked for the county, and Pearl Mitchell was a stay-at-home mom who collected opihi to make a little extra money. The Mitchell kids grew up making poi, farming, hunting, swimming and fishing in the river by their home, said Pearl Pahukoa, Kimo Mitchell’s older sister.

“We all got our bamboos and dug worms as the bait,” Pahukoa recalled. “(The fish we caught) was lunch. For dinner we went to the ocean to throw net.”

Kimo Mitchell was “a smart and strong kid” who grew up fast and soon towered over older brother Harry, Pahukoa said. He was good at swimming and sports. When the family moved to town so the kids could attend Baldwin High School, Mitchell starred on the football team.

“Richie Nakashima and James Mitchell spearheaded the blitzing defense that had the Lunas’ quarterback, Gerald Lau Hee, scrambling and rushing his passes all night,” The Maui News wrote when Baldwin won the Maui championship in Mitchell’s senior year. The two were named to the Maui All-Star team.

After he graduated in 1970, Mitchell became the only one in the family to go to college, Pahukoa said. He played football at Coalinga Junior College and Fresno State in California, receiving all-conference honors. But his dad convinced him to forego a tryout for the National Football League.

“You only going against hills now,” Harry Mitchell Sr. said in Morales’ book. “In the NFL, you gotta face mountains.”

While Mitchell was at college, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and died. With her sisters on the Mainland and in Germany, Pahukoa looked out for her younger brother when he came home. In turn, he babysat her kids and pulled taro alongside her.

“He was a big man but very gentle. We were all very close,” Pahukoa said. “He was always there when I needed him, especially in the taro patch.”

Mitchell was hired by the National Park Service to work in the Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park.

“He looked as good in his green uniform as he did elsewhere,” Aluli recalled, describing him as “Hawaiian to da max. Dark, good teeth, gentle, solid. He just exuded all that love for people and land and culture.”

Caring for the land was Mitchell’s strength, Aluli said. He wasn’t a public speaker like Helm or Walter Ritte, but he lived out aloha ‘aina at his home in Keanae. He continued farming, hunting and fishing. He paddled for the Hana Canoe Club senior men’s crew. The former football star also thought about starting some sports programs for the kids in Hana, Pahukoa said.

“Kimo had all the positive qualities George Helm had wished for in all young Hawaiians: He had pride in his culture — and no sense of inferiority — a good education, a sense of purpose and a willingness to give of himself,” Morales wrote.

Up to that point, it was mostly Harry Mitchell Sr. who’d been involved in the Kahoolawe movement, not Kimo Mitchell.

“We used to make fun of (my dad), saying if he got caught and arrested we weren’t going to bail him out,” Pahukoa said. “So I was really surprised when they said that Kimo was on the island.”

Mitchell and friend Sluggo Hahn had bought a boat for fishing. But the young men were well liked by the Protect Kahoolawe ‘Ohana members, and soon they were helping ferry protesters to and from Kahoolawe, Morales wrote.

Pahukoa said she didn’t even know her brother was involved until they were pulling taro on the Keanae peninsula in March 1977. Some guys called out to Mitchell from the lookout, saying they needed his help.

“He said he needed to go and said he’d see me later,” Pahukoa said. “I never saw him again.”

Rescue gone wrong

On Jan. 30, 1977, Hahn and Mitchell dropped off five men on Kahoolawe, including Helm. However, only Ritte and Richard Sawyer planned an extended stay, Jonathan Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio wrote in the book “A Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land and Sovereignty.”

But their presence didn’t stop the Navy from bombing. On Feb. 11, Helm was invited to address the state House of Representatives, which nonmembers had never been allowed to do before. He implored politicians to listen and said that Ritte’s and Sawyer’s lives were endangered not only by bombs, “but moreso by the negligence of the politicians,” according to his speech published in “Ho’i Ho’i Hou.”

Ritte’s and Sawyer’s wives were growing worried, and Helm also feared for his friends. Along with two excellent watermen, Kimo Mitchell and Billy Mitchell (no relation to Kimo), Helm decided to go to Kahoolawe.

A week before the men set out, Helm sat down with his family and told them he was “going to do some things politically that may impact the family,” Adolph Helm said.

“He was going to expose some people,” his brother remembered. “He felt like in order to get people to pay attention, you’ve got to get some things (that are) going on behind closed doors.”

The night that the three men left Maui “was the worst storm I can imagine coming to our islands,” Aluli said.

At around 2 a.m. March 5, Helm, Kimo Mitchell and Billy Mitchell headed toward Kahoolawe on a boat loaded with two surfboards, an inner tube and supplies, Morales wrote. They didn’t know that Ritte and Sawyer would be picked up by the military that same day, according to media and court documents at the time.

Unable to find their friends, the three men waited for Hahn to return at the agreed-upon pickup time, but he never made it back. The boat would later be found sunk off the pier in Kihei with its bilge plugs pulled. By the time another working boat was found, the men had already gone missing.

“Billy Mitchell, in one of his few statements to the press, said that when the boat failed to return and having failed to locate Ritte and Sawyer, the three men decided to paddle back to Maui,” Osorio wrote.

So, on March 7, the three men took two surfboards and jumped into the rough waters. Billy Mitchell told officials that Helm cut his head, though it was unclear what caused it. After the men struggled for some time through the high seas, Billy Mitchell decided to head back to Kahoolawe to get help. He walked for two hours but couldn’t find help until March 8, when the Marines airlifted him from Kahoolawe, the Star-Bulletin reported the next day. He told officials he’d last seen the other men around Molokini.

Adolph Helm would never forget the night before he learned his brother was missing.

“I had awoken in my sleep to find him looking over me with his papale hat and palaka shirt and beard, looking over me and comforting me,” Adolph said. “It was so vivid. When I woke up from that, he wasn’t there. That morning we got the message he disappeared.”

Pahukoa was at home when she heard on the radio that the men had disappeared.

“We didn’t believe it because he knew a lot about the ocean,” she said.

The Helm family flew to Maui, and both families took boats out to Kahoolawe to begin a fervent search. Adolph Helm jumped into the water about a mile-and-a-half away from the island and started swimming. Once on shore, he found what he thought was Ritte’s and Sawyer’s camp.

He then slept overnight on the island. Not wanting to get picked up by the Navy, he donned goggles and fins and started swimming back to Maui around 4 a.m. the next morning. As he crossed the channel, two akule approached him and swam so close “I could literally touch them.”

“They never left my side until I got picked up,” Adolph Helm said. “To this day that was something that was really, really heavy. I always thought while I was swimming that that was both George and Kimo taking care of me.”

The Navy and Coast Guard called off their search after covering 7,500 square miles of ocean, the Star-Bulletin reported March 11. Aside from a 7-foot surfboard spotted about 13 miles west of Lanai, few other clues had been found. But families would continue searching for months. Maui police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the possibility of foul play, but no evidence could fully prove any of the theories swirling around.

Wanting to dispel rumors, the ‘Ohana “announced that it has disassociated itself from publicly raised allegations of foul play,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported June 23.

When asked last week if he knew what had happened to the two men, Billy Mitchell said no. He preferred not to go into details and said that he didn’t want the tragedy to overshadow their lives.

He remembers George Helm’s singing voice — “one of, if not the greatest in Hawaii, and a great heart to go with it.” He recalls Kimo Mitchell’s great physical build and love for paddling.

“I learned to love him and love George, and I want to leave it there,” he said.

On March 19, 1977, a blessing for the men was held across the islands.

“As a family, we always going to try take the high road, but at the same time, it’s always something that’s lingering in the back of us that we wish we could have some answers,” Adolph Helm said. “Hopefully, if there’s a time and if it’s meant to be, it will all reveal itself.”

Healing families and an island

Inspired by the selflessness of Helm and Kimo Mitchell, ‘Ohana members determined to finish the work of the Kahoolawe movement.

As a result of the civil suit, the Navy and the ‘Ohana signed a consent decree in 1980, according to the ‘Ohana website. The Navy agreed to take steps that included surveying historic sites, clearing ordnance, continuing soil conservation and allowing the ‘Ohana monthly access.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush halted the bombing and, in 1994, the island was transferred back to the state. Ten years later, the Navy completed a $460 million cleanup and withdrew the last of its personnel.

“George’s efforts to stop the bombing and return the land — he accomplished that,” Crivello said. “He accomplished it through the sacrifice and commitment of people like Emmett Aluli and Davianna McGregor.

“(George) would say, ‘You know, pay attention. Kahoolawe is a catalyst for us to pay attention to what’s going on on all our islands,”’ Crivello recalled. “A catalyst for us to become aware of how we can no longer allow suppression of our culture, how we can no longer turn our heads away.”

Kahoolawe helped push the tide of the Hawaiian renaissance that was led by activists, musicians, historians and cultural practitioners. From the voyages of Hokule’a to the revival of makahiki ceremonies, to access to fishing grounds and the protection of iwi kupuna, the message of aloha ‘aina stayed strong.

“The aloha ‘aina movement is going on and the next generation has incorporated that in their work,” Aluli said. “George is still kind of there as an inspiring leader and model.”

Today, the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission manages the island and works with the ‘Ohana to preserve it. Aluli said that nearly 10,000 people have traveled to the island over the last 40 years to help with restoration work. He hopes to make sure Kahoolawe will stay a cultural reserve, untouched by development.

For a long time, Pahukoa was upset with the ‘Ohana and the movement. It took her almost 20 years “to finally forgive and move on.” In 1999, she joined the Helm family for a ho’oponopono on Molokai, “and that’s where I broke, and then everybody had to forgive one another and move on with life,” she said.

“You know, I did not think till now that it was worth it for my brother to give his life for one island,” Pahukoa said. “Other people might think it was worth it. I didn’t think it was. . . . But I’m glad for what turned out. I’m glad they got the island back. I’m glad there was restoration.

“He was a good brother and I’ll miss him for a long time,” Pahukoa added. “I hope someday we’ll meet.”

Helm’s music was put into an album after his disappearance, but Crivello said it took her close to 18 years before she could listen to her brother’s voice again.

“The love among siblings lives forever,” Crivello said. “For me sometimes, the pain is so much more. And I always say, live with no regrets because you had a good life together no matter how short it was. He was beyond his time.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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