Writing History into Story: The 1946 Tsunami That Destroyed Hilo

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?

4006. Rules to Govern Persons who Attempt to Rescue the Drowning – 1. In removing a body from the water, whether into a boat or drawing it along along by your own efforts always keep the face upward.

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?

4006. Rules to Govern Persons who Attempt to Rescue the Drowning – 1. In removing a body from the water, whether into a boat or drawing it along along by your own efforts always keep the face upward.

Two Stories

When I was living in Hilo, Hawaii back in the 1970s, I heard two stories that have stayed with me all these years.

The first was told to me by one of my students in an adult learning class. When she was a fourth grader in the 1940s, Hilo experienced a devastating tsunami. At the time I did not fully appreciate the magnitude of this event. I only remember her telling me at the only place she had to breathe in her bedroom was a corner at the top of wall. The water had filled the room up to that corner. That was before the house exploded and she was swept away. Many of her classmates died that day.

The second story was told by my husband’s uncle when he came for our wedding. Rolf and I decided that we would get married in Liliuokalani Park, a beautiful place along the water. When Uncle Ken and Aunt Ellen arrived, he made an effort to go check out a small island just off the park. It was a place where we often went to swim or fish. Back during WW II, however, Ken said that there was an officer’s club there. He had been stationed in Hilo during the war. Of course, there was nothing there in 1974. He said that it had been washed away by a tsunami.

Writing Mysteries for #LeiCrimeKW

I love writing about history and writing historical fiction, but I must admit that I’ve been having fun writing mystery SAddle Road with KW Logo bestnovellas for Toby Neal’s Lei Crime Series at Kindle Worlds. It’s been a wonderful experience. The original group of writers are successful in their own genres, supportive and fun. The second launch of novellas occurred on July 31st. A third is planned for October. After the success of Saddle Road which launched in April, I decided to jump in again. I soon discovered that this new novella, entitled Coconut Island, would take longer because I am using the two stories told me to me to frame a mystery and a murder that happened 70 years ago.

Finding History in Hilo

1946 tsnami2The first piece of research was studying the tsunami of 1946. I had no idea how devastating it was. When I moved down to Hilo from Honolulu in 1974, people showed me how far back the waterfront was from the water. It is all beach front with town up far away from the bay. In 1946, the waterfront on Kamehameha Ave was right down near the water and busy with commerce and housing. Post-war Hilo was adjusting to returning vets (as well as internees from1946 tsunami down town Hilo internment camps on the Mainland). Most of the military personnel stationed there had left. Hilo might have been sleepy, but on April 1st, a new bus service was starting and the sugar mills were going full blast. Then the waves Hawaii Tsunamiescame. Trying to make sense of this tragic disaster and its affect on the community, took a Google search which first up the Pacific Tsunami Museum located in downtown Hilo as well as several NOAA sites. (An earthquake in the Aleutians started the tsunmai. It arrived in Hilo under 5 hours with no warning) It was the help of librarians (the Ask a Librarian button is a great research help) at the Hawaii State Library and the library at UH in Hilo that led me to books.

USO gateway to island

Credit: Mokuola’ Legend & History of Coconut Island Keliipio Ohana (1909-1960)”

The second piece was finding that recreational club for servicemen on Coconut Island Uncle Ken talked about. There were pictures of waves hitting the island and its aftermath, but nothing that showed the actual place. I had only a vague description of the place. He remembered lights lit up at night. Once again the fabulous librarians found a book with a whole chapter about the military rec center on Coconut Island. Turns out it was a USO place for all military stationed there in Hilo. After paying for the copying, the library sent me the pages. Voila! Not only the history of the island during WW II, but amazing pictures! All this helps to create the place that is crucial for the story. Thank you!

Two final things I needed. 1) Where did the bodies of the victims go after the tsunami? 2) Can 70 year old remains of a murder victim survive in the tropical setting like the Big Island of Hawaii? Once again the librarians at UH Library in Hilo led me to a publication that detailed that sad story, but it took a talk with a forensic anthropologist to help me answer that.

Luckily, one of the best lives just north of me. Garth Baldwin. Thanks to Dean Kahn of the Bellingham Herald, Garth and I were able to talk and plan how a body might fare after 70 years in the tropics.


Coconut Island is published! Big push with other #LeiCrimeKW authors on October 30th but I’m so pleased withCoconut Island_v12-2 FINAL my first review.

Through a natural disaster of epic proportions, we come to understand a great deal about island history. This is a really good book; a textured and sensitive read. I recommend it highly.

Mahalo nui loa!


3 thoughts on “Writing History into Story: The 1946 Tsunami That Destroyed Hilo

  1. I lived in Hilo and Coconut Island was a special place to me. I am sure you heard the local legends, but just in case, coconut Island is part of Maui. Maui is the son of Pele and an amazing fisherman. He went out in his canoe and hooked Coconut Island, then tried and tried to pull it back to Maui but could not so it stayed an island all its own. Check it out.

    Deb Monroe


    • Thanks. I had heard that story too. When I lived in Hilo, we often went down there to picnic. My husband snorkeled around there. We were married in Liliuokalani Park near near the tea house.

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