In wake of Pearl Harbor, Maui braced for an attack
Remembering Pearl Harbor • December 7, 1941 : Fear of Japanese invasion lingered as war raged in Pacific, Mauian recollects
Michael Castle Baldwin had just turned 7 years old in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor when his father hustled him out of bed to catch a glimpse of a Japanese submarine looming a mile offshore from their Spreckelsville home.
Standing on his father’s bed and peeking out over the window shade, Baldwin spotted an orange flash and heard a dull boom as the submarine launched shells at Kahului Harbor, about 3 miles east of the Baldwin family’s home.
“They put a cannon shell through the stack of the power plant behind the harbor, a lucky random shot as the stack could not have been visible,” Baldwin recalled. “I remember how the smoke curled out of the two holes, about two-thirds up the stack.”
Such was Baldwin’s introduction to life in a world at war. In the days and years that followed the Dec. 7, 1941, attack, the islands would experience the aftereffects of America’s entry into the worldwide conflict — bomb shelters and blackouts, sirens and gas masks, fuel rations and scrap metal collections. Naval air stations went up in Central Maui along with a training camp in Haiku for Marines.
And Baldwin, perhaps like other children his age, would go to sleep at night dreaming of a “bogeyman” with a brown uniform and a bayonet that would become “the focal point of my fears,” he recalled in a series of writings on his memories of growing up on Maui.
Fear of the unknown
The Baldwin family was planning to travel to Oahu on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese fighter planes descended on Pearl Harbor shortly before 8 a.m., leaving 21 American naval vessels damaged or sunk and 347 aircraft damaged or destroyed. Including military and civilians, 2,403 Americans were killed, and 1,178 were wounded.
Early that morning, Baldwin’s father brought their suitcases back into the house and announced that they were not going to Oahu. He explained that the Japanese were behind the devastating attack.
“You mean like Adachi san?” Baldwin asked, thinking of the family’s cook, chauffeur and majordomo.
“No — Japan Japanese,” his father replied.
That night, the family pinned blankets over the window of their den and slid a wooden panel over the door as blackouts began across the islands.
In the Baldwins’ backyard, a bulldozer dug a trench covered over with big logs and soil that would serve as a bomb shelter. They installed lighting fixtures and stocked it with jerry cans of water and self-heating cans of spaghetti that “fortunately we never had to eat,” Baldwin said.
“War fears began to be a part of life, mostly aggravated by uncertainty,” he recalled.
Residents harbored the ever-present worry of another Japanese attack and occupation — made worse by submarine incidents like the one that Baldwin witnessed on Dec. 15, 1941. That Monday night, “an enemy warcraft identified by several witnesses as a submarine fired 10 rounds of high explosive shells at the seaport of Kahului,” according to The Maui News story published Dec. 17, 1941.
Four shells landed on the property of Maui Pineapple Co. One shell completely tore through an 18-inch smokestack — likely what Baldwin saw that night — while another crashed through the roof and two landed on the front lawn. Several windows at the plant were splintered by flying fragments, and a water tank on the second floor was hit by a heavy piece of shrapnel “and was leaking badly.”
“In the front yard, one projectile landed on the Kahului Railroad tracks, sheared off one foot of solid iron and hurled it more than 200 yards into the property of American Can company,” according to The Maui News report.
At the Maui Vocational School (currently UH-Maui College), a projectile exploded on the driveway without damage, while another landed in a waste lumber pile along the Paia side of Pier 1, where it dug into the side of a concrete shed. Another projectile landed on the beach in front of William Walsh’s home, while one exploded in front of the Pacific Guano and Fertilizer plant.
The shelling was seen from Central Maui and as far away as Kula. While eyewitnesses disagreed on the exact time the first shots were fired, a power line was severed during the shelling and stopped the Maui Pine plant’s electric clock at 5:51 p.m.
On Dec. 30, a Japanese submarine shelled Hilo, then did so again the next evening at Kahului, Hilo and Nawiliwili on Kauai. U.S. forces at Kahului Harbor returned fire with 75-mm shoreline artillery, according to John R. K. Clark’s “The Beaches of Maui County.”
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who became commander in chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, following the Pearl Harbor attack, warned in a news conference after the shellings that it was “not beyond the realm of possibility” that submarines could do the same to any of Hawaii’s ports.
“I believe an attack on these islands always is possible, but we will do our utmost to prevent their falling into the enemy’s hands,” Nimitz said.
On Jan. 28, 1942, enemy warcraft launched another attack, this time on the Royal T. Frank, a military transport boat traveling from Honolulu to Hilo with a destroyer and ammunition boat, according to a June 20, 1986, article in the Hawaii Herald. The convoy was halfway between Maui and Hawaii island when someone spotted “something resembling a torpedo whiz by in the water,” Shigeru Ushijima, then a 23-year-old draftee, told the Herald.
Less than a minute later, another glided past, scraping the side of the transport with an audible thud. The ship began to zigzag through the water as the destroyer’s crew, realizing the ship was in trouble, began dropping anti-submarine depth charges into the water. Less than a minute after the second torpedo, a third hit the ship directly.
“That’s when I fell on my back,” Ushijima told the Herald. “In less than a minute, the boat just went up like that.”
Ushijima and other survivors leaped from the ship and clung to debris for about two or three hours until the ammunition boat they had been towing pulled them from the ocean. Unrecognizable behind a slick of black oil, they were taken to Hana, the nearest port, where the gym had been converted into a first-aid station. The men were cleaned up, given medical attention and told by military authorities not to discuss the incident with anyone, Ushijima later told the Herald.
According to the Herald and The Maui News accounts at the time, 24 were considered lost while 36 survived, including 27 crewmen and nine of the original 26 draftees. The survivors became known as “the Torpedo Gang.”
Gearing up for war
What did help ease Baldwin’s fears was the arrival of the 4th Marine Division, which set up the training and recreational grounds of Camp Maui in Haiku in August 1943. The thousands of Marines who arrived on island “looked like gods” to the young Baldwin.
The military built a visible presence on Maui, commissioning a naval air station at Puunene in January 1942 and at Kahului in March 1943, according to a U.S. Navy historical report.
Baldwin often spotted airplanes flying over his home, tanks rumbling down Maui’s roads and sentries patrolling the shoreline in steel helmets and with rifles.
His grandparents, Frank and Harriet Baldwin — “Mittie and General” — lived just outside Kahului Harbor.
“A truly giant gun was placed in their yard, probably an eight-inch shore battery,” Baldwin wrote. “They test-fired it once, and the trade winds circulated freely through all the broken windows. They put up with that because, as we hear so frequently then, ‘there’s a war on.’ ”
However, Mittie Baldwin put a stop to a second or any future tests. After that, the Army would instead “bring the giant gun barrel on a trailer, spend half the day mounting it, and then load it with bags of powder and a projectile about my size and proceed with the firing drill all the way to the call of ‘fire,’ ” the young Baldwin recalled. “I remember being half-afraid it would actually go off.”
One day, something else far more surprising ended up in Mittie and General’s yard — a lifeboat carrying the survivors of the U.S. freighter S.S. Lahaina that had been attacked by a Japanese submarine on Dec. 11, 1941. The 29 crew members and their captain had survived 10 harrowing days at sea.
“When we arrived there was a small gray boat on the beach and several men sitting on the grass,” Baldwin wrote. “They were emaciated, heavily bearded and too weak to stand.”
The freighter had been bound for San Francisco and was about 800 miles off Oahu when it was hit by a Japanese sub — first with a warning shot across the bow and then by an incendiary shell that struck the master’s cabin and caught fire, according to a Maui News story published Dec. 22, 1941. A second shell exploded against one of the two remaining lifeboats and started another fire, forcing Capt. H. O. Matthiesen to give the orders to abandon ship.
As the freighter’s crew slipped away in a lifeboat, the submarine’s crew began assembling a machine gun on deck but failed to mount it in time, which Matthiesen later said likely prevented them from taking out the survivors. The Japanese departed after driving a shell into the ship’s side into the engine room.
When Matthiesen returned to the freighter, he found it damaged beyond repair. He recovered his instruments and the crew salvaged what they could — potatoes, eggs, apples, lemons, a few carrots. The apples and lemons would later prove crucial in supplementing their limited water supply.
Crowded into a lifeboat equipped with a small sail, oars and a capacity of 17, the crew set out on the open sea. Nights were unbearably cold and water poured in over the sides, soaking the crew “from the first night until we found heaven right here in your hospital,” Matthiesen later said.
Days were monotonous as they worked the oars and instruments. Each man was rationed to one half raw potato per day, one half cup of water and a sparing use of lemons. Eggs were rationed at first but began to spoil after a few days. The water ran out on the Saturday before they beached.
The men got along for the most part, but westerly winds, scorching sun and slashing surf frayed nerves and prompted the occasional squabble.
“You can’t realize how heavy a man’s head is until he tries to use you for a pillow!” Matthiesen said.
On Dec. 19, seaman Hilliard Moore went mad and had to be secured with ropes; he died later that night. Seaman Alfred Lundquist leaped overboard the night before they reached land, while oiler Concezio Del Tinto also jumped out as the lifeboat made its way through the Maui reef. Herman Freedman died about half an hour before the boat reached land.
When Matthiesen and the crew spotted Haleakala above the clouds at sunset the night before they beached, cheers rang out. Slowly they rounded Pauwela, where they were spotted by provisional police, Army and regular police, who followed their course not knowing whether they were friend or foe. At about 6 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 21, 1941, the boat ran aground at Spreckelsville outside the Baldwins’ home. The survivors were rushed to the Puunene Hospital.
“We set our course for Maui, and I’m not kidding you a bit when we decided on Maui as our first choice,” Matthiesen said. “And right here I say that we didn’t make a mistake, either from the standpoint of getting to land or from your hospitality.”
The young Baldwin would long remember that day.
“The fact that their ship had actually been sunk in an act of war made a large impression on me,” he said. “I remember feeling relief at their survival.”
Through a child’s eyes
Baldwin’s father, Asa, did not serve in the war, “as he was considered war effort essential in his position as a sugar plantation manager.” His mother, Virginia, was a “gray lady,” serving as a volunteer in the local hospitals. She once took her son with her to the Makawao School hospital where many of the war’s wounded were being treated.
“I remember clearly rows of beds with all manner of terribly injured men,” Baldwin wrote. “Burns, missing limbs, blood soaking through bandages, bad smells. I also remember the calm grace with which my mother handed out candy, books and magazines and the good cheer with which the men responded to her and to me despite their grievous condition.”
Baldwin and his friends tried to do their part to help the war effort, saving tin foil, aluminum, rubber and other war-critical materials. They got used to air raid drills and each received a gas mask “so large it almost dragged on the ground and did not fit our small faces. The inscription on mine read ‘Michael Baldwin, grade 2, Road Junction 37, Spreckelsville, Maui, T.H., Earth, the Universe.’ ”
During nightly blackouts, the kids went to bed before dark, reading comics under the covers with flashlights. One night, Baldwin went into his lighted closet, placed a towel along the doorjamb and was intently flipping through the adventures of Superman and Mickey Mouse when he heard a commotion somewhere in the house and the sound of a car. But he kept reading, “oblivious” to the noise.
“As it turned out, the cars were Civil Defense looking for a light leak they had seen at Road Junction 37 from five miles away from the top of the Paia Sugar Mill,” Baldwin said. “The light was from my closet window. I was soon back in bed, ears ringing.”
Baldwin can still remember the day the war ended in August 1945. He came home from school that day, unpacked his bag and smiled to himself.
“It was a moment of private joy of only a few minutes, but I can remember it so well, picturing how I stood straight with pride and thought, ‘We won!’ ” Baldwin wrote.
After school, he heard dull booms from the beach, and the kids raced out to find Navy Seabees throwing dynamite into a pillbox to demolish it. They tossed about 30 sticks into the thick reinforced concrete box but only succeeded in turning it a dull gray.
Only as he grew older would he fully understand the broader impacts of World War II — the atrocities occurring around the globe and the sacrifices that service members made.
“As a 7 to 11-year-old I had a limited appreciation of how our futures were affected by these events,” said Baldwin, who was later shocked to look at a map and realize “how close Midway was and how terrible the consequences had we not sunk Yamamoto’s carriers during a crucial quarter hour.”
And through marriage, he would later have family members who knew death and sorrow firsthand — a cousin’s wife who grew up in Singapore when the Japanese army marched in, rounded up civilians and bayoneted infants; his wife’s aunt who refused to eat rice after surviving the war in a Japanese camp in the Philippines.
Baldwin went on to major in English at Harvard University before coming home to work for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. as an industrial engineer. He later became an independent business consultant.
He and his wife, Priscilla, had two sons, Edward and Jamie, and after the boys went off to college around 1980, Michael and Priscilla Baldwin moved to the Mainland, finally settling in Tucson, Ariz.
Michael Baldwin turns 85 on Monday.
Only after reading his father’s writings did Edward Baldwin realize how much his father’s interest in target shooting and airplanes — to this day he still flies a Piper Cub — was influenced by his childhood.
“It’s because he was a little kid, watching World War II in his front yard,” Edward Baldwin said.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.