The Hilo tsunami of April 1, 1946 was a terrible tragedy. Lives were lost, people were injured, and property was destroyed. My grandmother and her whole family, incredibly, all survived. Their house was destroyed, they lost most of their possessions, but somehow they made it through with their lives intact.
A Phone Call to Grandma
I phoned my grandmother at her rest home and asked her to share her memories of the tsunami in Hilo. Though she has beginning stage Alzheimer’s, she is still incredibly sharp in some regards. This is one of them. When I asked her about the tsunami, she gave me the date off the top of her head. At first, she didn’t want to share her tsunami story with me (“All you need to know is that I was in it”). But when I pushed her for more information for this article, she began to talk freely.
A Typical April Morning
My grandmother, who had grown up in Hilo, Hawaii, was having a typical morning. She was thirteen and in middle school. Because she was the oldest child, she had to get on the school bus first. Her younger brother and sister were still in elementary school, and they would be catching the school bus later. When she walked out of the house, headed for the bus stop, she looked out towards the beach. Their home was situated between the beach and the Wailoa river. She says they called it the Black Sand Beach. Either body of water would usually be a beautiful view to walk out to in the morning. But this morning something was different. My grandmother could see a fishing boat coming towards the shore “extra fast.” It was moving too fast for her comfort, so she walked back into her house. She told her mother about the fishing boat and said that it “didn’t look right.” Her mother followed her outside. What they saw shocked them.
A Black Wall
My grandmother describes the tsunami as a “black wall” that was heading towards them. It towered over a coconut tree on the beach. Her mother immediately went back into their home, grabbed grandma’s younger brother and sister, and they all ran towards the Wailoa River. They started yelling to their neighbors that a tidal wave was coming.
Things get foggy after this, and her next clear memory is of being in the water. She doesn’t know who it was, but someone else was in the water with her. This person pushed her onto a roof. Once the mystery person had pushed her to safety, she saw that her mother and siblings were already waiting there. She looked around from on top of the roof and “everything was gone.” All she could see were tree tops with people clinging to them.
She says they weren’t on the roof long. Boats came quickly, and they were “plucked” from the roof. They were taken to a hospital and given dry clothes and shoes. Then they were taken to a Naval base and put in barracks. She recalls the base was called NAS, but she no longer remembers what it stood for. What she does remember is that it was huge. She says the camp for refugees was so large that the Naval personnel were getting lost.
She talked about the different “camps” at the base. When she mentioned a Filipino camp in the back, I asked her why the different ethnic groups were separated. She said the separation happened naturally, because people “usually moved to their own kind.” She also pointed out that things were different back then. People typically spoke their own languages, so that would explain it.
She, her mother, and her siblings were at the base overnight while her father searched for them. Her father had been safe at his job during the tsunami. He left work to go home and look for the bodies of his wife and children, because he believed they were dead. I can’t imagine the hell he must have been going through. By the time he made it back to where his home used to be, unbeknownst to him, his wife and kids were already safely in barracks. However, he was asked to help identify other bodies that were found and he did.
It was her uncle who eventually found them in the barracks. He picked them up and took them to his house. Her father met them there, and though she does not remember his reaction she imagines he must have felt relieved.
Because their home was destroyed, her father took a new job. It was in a graveyard. The reason for this is because the job came with housing. In exchange for digging graves and maintaining the premises, he and his family could live at the graveyard. This is where my grandmother spent the rest of her childhood, and she still has pictures of her own kids playing in the graveyard years later.
Luckily, she left Hilo for California before the next big tsunami.