Lessons from the World War II Bombings of the Island of Kahoʻolawe 

by Doulton-Lee Ho

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor signaled a cascade of stories that Native Hawaiian people have never forgotten. Despite the many horrors regarding this time, there were many acts of violence that are lesser known and that continued after the official end of WWII. Some people may not be aware that attacks against the islands of Hawaiʻi did not end with the war, and most definitely do not know that these attacks were from our own neighbors, the country towards which we were supposed to show gratitude for being considered a U.S. territory. As a Native Hawaiian, I am here to tell one of these stories with the intention of encouraging the Rights of Nature movement to include more indigenous voices and experiences in its genealogy.

The story of Kahoʻolawe

the shore of the island of Kaho'olawe surrounded by blue sky and dark blue sea on 3 sides

Kahoʻolawe (photograph by Bob Bangerter, Maui Magazine)​​​​​​

Kahoʻolawe, one of the eight major Hawaiian Islands named after the Hawaiian deity Kanaloa, remains a culturally and ecologically significant place for Native Hawaiians due to its unique historical, religious, environmental, and archaeological importance. Kahoʻolawe became known as “the most shot island in the world” after the relentless attacks on the islands of Hawaiʻi during and after World War II. These attacks came from the United States Armed Forces, claiming that they needed an area for target practice. The military argued that the island was one of the few areas that allowed for the combination of arms operations, such as ships, aircraft, and ground troops, permitting them to train more closely to the way they would behave in actual combat. Before this intervention, the island was referred to as “heaven come down to Earth” by Native Hawaiian people.  

Kahoʻolawe was a place where master navigators trained to assume the most important role in early Pacific migrations, and it has become a foundational place for the revitalization of Hawaiian culture.

To visualize the profound effects of war and militarization on the Kahoʻolawe, I have made a timeline of the events that occurred:

December 7, 1941 – The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States of America in World War II.

December 8, 1941 – The U.S. military declares martial law and claims Kahoʻolawe as a bombing target. The military declares that the island will be returned after the war and that all unexploded ordnances (UXO) will be removed. These live explosives included American submarine torpedoes, missiles, and any military material used for combat weapons, including ammunition and equipment. 

historical black and white image of sailor hat bombing
Sailor Hat

1945 – The official end of World War II

1953 – The U.S. military convinces President Eisenhower to transfer the title of Kahoʻolawe to the U.S. Navy.  

1965 – To simulate an atomic blast, 500 tons of TNT are detonated on the island. A crater cracks the cap rock on the island, and that portion of the island’s groundwater is lost to sea.

1967 - Kahoʻolawe is used as a testing and training range for the aerial war over Vietnam. The military claims that it needs to use the entire island as a target airfield. This leads to the construction of surface-to-air targets. Some of these bombs are accidentally dropped on the island of Maui. 

January 1976 – The Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana (PKO) movement begins protesting on the island to stop the bombing. The first young Native Hawaiians to occupy the island, known as the “Kahoʻolawe Nine,” are George Helm, Kimo Aluli, Walter Ritte, Emmett Aluli, Ian Lind, Ellen Miles, Steve Morse, Gail Kawaipuna Prejean, and Karla Villalba. George Helm, the leader of the PKO, along with other members, file a civil suit against the U.S. Navy. 

1977 – The Federal District Court requires the navy to conduct an environmental impact statement on the effects of the bombing.

1980 – The Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement between the U.S. Navy and the State of Hawaiʻi, requires the Navy to begin soil conservation, revegetation, and goat eradication programs.

1981 – Kahoʻolawe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places among the White House and the Lincoln Memorial. However, the bombing continues. The PKO signs a settlement with the Navy, declaring that the island can only be bombed for ten days every month and that the range of bombing should be constrained. The agreement also allows the PKO to visit the island with guests for scientific, archaeological, and religious purposes. 

1990 – President George Bush Sr. halts the bombing of Kahoʻolawe.

1993 – Senator Daniel K. Inouye sponsors Title X, authorizing the transfer of the island back to the State of Hawaiʻi, ending the military use of the island, and allotting $400 million for the removal of any unexploded ordnance on the island. This begins the Kahoʻolawe UXO clearance project. The purpose of this project includes describing the military operations that took place on the island, cleaning any hazardous waste that remained, and protecting any historical and religious sites. 

1994 – The Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission is established. The role of the commission is to preserve the island until it can be transferred to Native Hawaiian management. Some of the commission’s goals are to restore wildlife populations and preserve cultural heritage sites on the island. 

1997-1998 – The U.S. Navy awards contracts to remove the unexploded artillery on Kahoʻolawe.

2004 – The U.S. Navy ends the Kahoʻolawe UXO Clearance Project.


By laying out this timeline, it becomes clear that the war’s impact on the island did not stop with the official end of WWII. For one, the bombings of Kahoʻolawe terminated almost fifty years after the war ended. The 1965 detonation at Sailor’s Hat caused permanent damage that changed the ecology of the island. This powerful atomic blast cracked the island’s water table, causing that portion of the island’s groundwater to be lost to sea. This source water can never be replenished or recovered. It also took the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana movement almost fourteen years of protesting and occupying the island before former President Bush announced a halt of the bombings. The U.S. military and government have not shared the same interests as the Hawaiian people or the land and water of the islands. Instead of dedicating this blog post to only point out the obvious destruction that the U.S. Navy and government caused on the island of Kahoʻolawe, it is also important to learn from these stories to understand the ways the reclamation of Kahoʻolawe can provide lessons for the broader Rights of Nature movement.

According to U.S. law, the nine Native Hawaiians who founded the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana movement illegally traveled to the island to protest. However, these protests allowed Native Hawaiians to reclaim Hawaiian land, insert Hawaiian voices into U.S. political decisions, and work towards restoring the beauty and integrity of Kahoʻolawe. The activists sacrificed their lives for the island. They risked their jobs. They were harassed by the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Navy, and other community members who did not believe in the cause. They were also imprisoned. In 1977, George Helm, president of PKO, and Kimo Mitchell, another of the original Kahoʻolawe Nine, disappeared at sea and were never found. They were not afraid to protest against an undetonated ordnance. They gave their lives to uphold and practice aloha ʻāina.

In Hawaiian culture, we have a concept or way of life known as aloha ʻāina: aloha translating to love and ʻāina translating to land. This said, the profound meaning of Hawaiian words can never be directly translated to English because the translation cannot articulate the full power involved in what these two words signify. Aloha ʻāina is a way of life, a consciousness. The protectors of Kahoʻolawe lived, breathed, and fought for this way of life. The struggle to defend Kahoʻolawe instructs us about the power of aloha ʻāina and can teach the broader Rights of Nature movement about this type of mana (power, energy) and its role in political mobilization. The restoration and reclamation of stolen or wounded land, sea, and animals lies in the ethics underpinning Native Hawaiians’ relations with Kahoʻolawe. The reclamation of the island treated Kahoʻolawe not only as a victim of war, but also as a survivor and living entity or force. The protests on Kahoʻolawe were not motivated by the fact that Hawaiian people could benefit from the natural resources of the island. Neither were they propelled by the desire of Native Hawaiians to merely achieve representation in the U.S. government. The protests defended the island in and for itself. The motivation behind recognizing the rights of nature should not rest in the selfishness of individual or collective human well-being, but rather in an everlasting love for something, someone, or somewhere both greater than, part of, and sustaining human life.

The Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana movement can also provide lessons for the Rights of Nature movement in terms of how to build alliances with people who do not necessarily feel a connection to this cause. One of the most interesting aspects of Hawaiʻi is the mixture of people and cultures that make up my home. My personal ethnicities include: Native Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan, Irish, Mexican, and Filipino. Due to the waves of immigrants that came to Hawaiʻi to work on the many plantations that U.S. businessmen established and owned, the “local” culture of Hawaiʻi embraces what each ethnic group brought to the territory. It is very rare to find a family in Hawaiʻi that is entirely one ethnicity and nearly impossible to not incorporate a mixture of cultures into our daily lives. Although this mixture of ethnicities makes up life in modern Hawaiʻi, the majority of the population of Hawaiʻi is not ethnically considered Native. For the rest of the blog, I will refer to non-ethnically Native Hawaiian people as Hawaiʻi residents. The mixture of cultures in my home is what makes Hawaiʻi beautiful, but it also increases the political, social, environmental, and economic complexities that often create conflicts or tensions between different groups. 

Hawaiʻi’s complex ethnic relations become evident when the issues of Hawaiian protest or sovereignty come up in the media. All minority groups have struggled in Hawaiʻi in their unique and specific ways. Immigrants moved to the islands looking for life opportunities. In 1893, the Hawaiian people had their land and kingdom stolen from them when a group of  United States businessmen forced the Queen to abdicate the throne. These businessmen who are known as the “Big Five,” which included Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors, and Theo H. Davies & Co., owned sugar plantations and were considered an equivalent to an oligarchy class in the territory of Hawaiʻi. Although Hawaiʻi residents are not necessarily responsible for the illegal overthrow of Hawaiʻi, it is also important to recognize that many Hawaiʻi residents do not necessarily feel a connection to Native Hawaiian issues. It is also important to note that not all Native Hawaiian people view Native issues in the same way. Many Hawaiʻi residents and Native Hawaiians did not initially support the protestors that resisted the bombing of Kahoʻolawe. They claimed that the Native Hawiian struggle against a force like the U.S. military was completely futile.

Nevertheless, PKO activists proved to their community and the broader public of the islands that the protests on Kahoʻolawe were able to gain a voice for Native Hawaiian ways of life. The PKO convinced more and more of Hawaiʻi’s residents that the protests were concerned with more than a cry for attention or a publicity stunt. One of the agreements established between the U.S. Navy and the PKO in 1981 was that the latter would be able to take people to the island to teach them about the significance of Kahoʻolawe. Many groups from diverse ethnic background on the islands began to rally to support Kahoʻolawe and the PKO’s cause. The willingness to participate in the protest and learn from the activists shows how Hawaiʻi residents not only changed their initial opinions, but also decided to support their fellow neighbors and the rights of the islands. Native Hawaiian issues like Kahoʻolawe demonstrate the importance of creating spaces of dialogue to build alliances between different groups. In other words, as much as the voices of the leaders of a particular movement must be heard, people who are not necessarily an active part of the movement can equally contribute to its success or failure.

By understanding different grassroots movements organized by Native people across the globe, the Rights of Nature movement can gain important lessons that my people fight to defend every day. The story of Kahoʻolawe serves as an example for not only Native Hawaiians, but also for the stories that the U.S. Rights of Nature movement continues to bring to public attention and tell about its trajectory and origins. Struggle to recognize the Rights of Nature have been happening among Native peoples for centuries even if not conceptualized in the same way and practiced differently. Human-nonhuman relations for the Native Hawaiian people have always been sacred and respected. The Kahoʻolawe Nine fought to defend the rights of Kahoʻolawe before the global RON movement had even begun. The story of the recognition of the Rights of Nature is neither radical nor is it new for Native peoples.

​​​​​​​Through my formal and traditional research on the story of Kahoʻolawe, I have realized how I am unable to put the gratitude I feel towards the scholars, activists, and teachers that were a part of the movement to defend the life of the island into words. The courage and sacrifice needed to embody aloha ʻāina is not an easy task. I am grateful that I am able to learn from their stories, and other ones that may be missing, but that are as equally important as those that have come to dominate the pages of U.S. history books and media representations. Native Hawaiians have a mantra, A hiki i ke aloha ʻāina hope loa, which roughly translates to, “Until the last ʻaloha ʻāina”: My people and I will fight until the last island is reclaimed, until the last river is restored, until the last mountain is free, until we die.



Cerizo, Kehaulani. “25 Years Hence, Recovery Work Continues on the Island of Kahoolawe.” Maui News, 5 May 2019.

"Kaho'olawe Aloha 'Aina," directed by Puhipau, and Joan Lander, produced by Joan Lander, et al. , Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina (Video production), 1992. Alexander Street.

Kahoʻolawe Cleanup Plan. Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve.

KAHOʻOLAWE HISTORYKahoolawe Island Reserve Commission History

MacDonald, Peter. Fixed in Time: A Brief History of Kahoolawe. Hawaiian Historical Society, 1972.