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The State of Aloha

Sept. 12, 1931, was a Saturday. That meant it was “Navy Night” at the Ala Wai Inn on the edge of Waikiki. A naval officer and his wife were there. She sulked on the second floor getting drunk while he caroused with buddies downstairs.

Then an officer nicknamed Moose offended her. No one remembers what Moose did or why she slapped his face. It didn’t matter. She had enough.

She left the bar and her intoxicated husband behind around midnight. An hour later, she was badly beaten and stumbling along the road. A car slowed down to check on her. “Are you white people?” she asked. Yes, they said. “Thank God,” she exclaimed.

“Something terrible has happened,” she cried. She later told her husband and the police that “Hawaiians” picked her up, attacked her, and sexually assaulted her. Then they left her on the side of the road.

Thalia Massie’s accusation ignited a fire. What followed that September night was a sordid affair of hysteria, vigilantism and racism. Eighty-eight years later we still feel its heat.

From a forensic standpoint, the police didn’t have much. It was too dark for Massie to see their faces. She was lax on details.

That didn’t stop the police from rounding up a group of suspects. In 12 quick hours, the police arrested five friends — all of whom were in their early 20s, from working class neighborhoods, and local.

The press named them the “Ala Moana Boys”— a derisive and racist term for grown men of color. White politicians, businessmen, and the military demanded “justice.” The media tried and convicted them before a jury had been empaneled.

In those days, defense counsel was not a matter of constitutional right. If you couldn’t hire one, you weren’t getting one. Fortunately, the media storm prompted defense attorneys to take on the case for free.

They were lucky. The men had a decent alibi. They had been seen partying in a different part of town. The timeline to fit in a savage sexual assault was unlikely. In the end, the prosecutor wanted jurors to “vindicate Hawaii” and “protect your women.” The defense countered by urging jurors to be “courageous” and stand up to the public pressure by finding them not guilty.

They did neither. After 97 hours of deliberation, they were unable to reach a verdict. The men were released with the specter of a new trial looming in the future.

This was not what many in the white community wanted. Adm. Yates Stirling lamented that “under our own democratic form of government, the maintenance of white prestige had become increasingly difficult.”

One of the defendants was abducted by vigilantes. They stripped him and beat him to the point of unconsciousness. There were no arrests.

More violence followed. Massie’s high-class socialite mother, Grace Fortescue, was outraged that the jury didn’t convict. She strategized with her son-in-law, the lieutenant, to extract a confession out of one of the defendants.

Together, they devised a fake court order summoning another defendant, Joseph Kahahawai, to court. He was taken from the courthouse steps and driven to Massie’s house.

Lt. Massie and two of his fellow submariners tortured Kahahawai. When he maintained his innocence, he was shot dead. Police found his body in the back of their car as they tried to dump his body. Fortescue was the driver.

They were unapologetic about killing Kahahawai. So was the Navy. The chief of naval operations at Pearl Harbor announced that “American men will not stand for the violation of their women under any circumstances.”

The jury didn’t see it that way. They were found guilty as charged and were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. This caused another sensation. The powers that be — the military, Congress, and other white leaders — lambasted the verdict. The Navy urged Congress to strip the territory’s citizens of its civil rights because they couldn’t function their own courts and government (the military later succeeded at that after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor).

The governor — perhaps mindful of this pressure or sensitive to “white prestige” — commuted the sentences to a single hour in the governor’s mansion. Fortescue was unrepentant. “We have been through much suffering,” she said, “but I have no regrets for what happened.”

The Massies and Fortescue left the islands for good. Thalia divorced her husband and died of a drug overdose in 1963. Fortescue lived to the age of 95 in a luxurious Florida estate.

Eighty-eight years later, we are still under the shadow of the Massie affair. The military is still here. Bars and nightclubs have their equivalent to “Navy Night.” Distrust between Mainland whites and locals still runs rampant. Thalia Massie was right about one thing in the end. Something terrible has happened.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”