Remembering the Hilo Tsunami of 1946

Gabriel Manning is no longer with us… however, his son Darrel is posting memories of Gabriel and I will be  posting some of his words on my blog  this week and beyond:
gabriel manning

Gabriel Manning 1916-2008

I did not know much about tsunamis.  The only thing I knew about tsunamis was when I was a little boy about 8 years old.  We were living at Piopio Street.  My grandparents were living right across the street next to Hawaii Planning Mill Ltd.  Their names were Edward and Louise Wright.  It was not a big tidal wave, but their basement was all flooded.  My Dad had to go down to help clean out their basement.  It was not until April 1st, 1946 that I really saw a tidal wave and I knew what a tidal wave can do and I saw how powerful it is.  I was in the 1946 tsunami from the start to when it was safe to get off the building.

I use[d] to tell a few of my friends about the 1946 tsunami when they talk about it and asked about it.  It was Dr. Chalmers Hamasaki who was always encouraging me to write and tell the story about my life.  Whenever we go to visit our grandchildren they always want to know the history of our lives.

Dr. Hamasaki always used to tell me to write about the 1946 tsunami.  He told me that [it] is history and everyone should know about it.  He said don’t let it die with [you].  I finally realized that I better write the story of my life, because I am getting older and my grandchildren and many of the younger generations should know about tsunamis and its danger and to respect the sea.  I think of this guy who went down to Wailoa River bridge to watch the 1960 tsunami.  I found him the next day by Manono Street dead.  He was all covered with debris.  Only his boots were sticking out.  You can never out run a tidal wave.

I would like to tell you my story of the 1946 tsunami:

As I got to work about 6:50am on April 1st, I was walking to the machine shop when I noticed the Wailoa River was almost overflowing.  The river was only about a foot below the bank by the machine warehouse.  I thought the tide was really high.  I told someone that the tide was really high.  He told me that was no high tide.  He said that we are going to have a tidal wave and for me to go to the shop toilet and be sure everyone was out, so no one will be caught.  When I got to the toilets only Milton McNicoll was on the toilet.  I told Milton to get out because we are going to have a tidal wave.  He said, “Yeah, yeah.  April Fool.”  I told Milton I’m not kidding this is no April fool…just look at the river.  It was starting to recede.  He took off without flushing the toilet.  Milton and my Dad took off.  Milton had his family liv[ed] a block away from Coconut Island.  I later found out that Milton and my Dad pulled a guy out of the river with a garden hose.

I climbed up the machine shop crane ladder to watch the tidal wave.  I never [saw] a tidal wave so I thought it was a safe place for me to watch the tsunami.  I climbed up on the machine shop crane and watched.

The first thing I saw was the river receding.  The sampans [boat taxis] were heading out to sea.  There was also a ship that was tied up at Pier 1 that was also heading for the open ocean alongside the breakwater.  I thought the ship would be grounded since the bay was receding.  Whoever was piloting that ship sure was doing a good job.  When he turned and headed out to the open ocean I felt happy for him.  The bay did not get dry so the ship had a good chance.

The first wave that came was not too high.  “Lefty”, a blacksmith from Yasikawa Blacksmith Shop, climbed up on the roof of the blacksmith shop.  When [a] wave came in and hit [the] shop.  It hit the beams that were holding up the roof.  The beams flew out and “Lefty” fell into the water.  It was sure funny.  In fact, “Lefty” was grinning.  As soon as that wave died down, the water started to recede again.  This time it receded further out.  As the wave was receding, the bookkeeping manager of I. Kitigawa drove in and ran upstairs to the office to get some things.  He came down the stairs and jumped into his car and drove off towards Waiakea town.  [When he got to the bridge] the wave caught his car and pushed it against the bridge.  The car was like paper the way the water carried that car.  He was lucky it did not throw the car into the river over the bridge.  He got out of the car and ran.

We had a big door that lifts up and down for the trucks to come in to unload and pick up the sugar rollers and other large things that cannot be put on the railroad flat cars.  During 1944 [in the] war, we used that door for the Army to bring their 90 millimeter anti-aircraft guns to be repaired.  When the wave hit that door, it flew open and up just about touching the crane hook.

I believe that little girl about 10 or 11 years old from down by Mistuo Club, by Liloukalani Park by Nihon restaurant, came thru, she must have come through that doorway, because it is right in line where she was living.  It brought [her] right through the machine shop and down to the plate shop where she stood up and someone ran down the plate shop crane ladder, grabbed her and took her up the crane ladder to the top of the building.  It was sure a miracle she did not hit any of the rollers or equipment.

Another miracle is this old Hawaiian lady.  This lady was about 75 years old, about 5ft. 9 inches tall.  She was too tired to go anymore.  She was just leaning on to the light pole and hanging on.  When I saw the wave coming in I said, “Oh no.”  It caught this old lady, carried her across Wailoa River on to Wailoa State Park and she got up on her feet and walked away.  I told Manuel Arruda, “Look at that.”  I never thought that I would see that woman stand up and walk away.

There were many moments also like the little children going by yelling, “Save me, save me.” And you can do nothing to save them.  Boy, we just cried.  There was also this woman living in this rooming house next to this warehouse where we were on.  We could do nothing either to bring her up to where we were.  We did not have anything to get her.  She was only 10 or 15 feet below us.  She told us she did not know where her husband and children were.

When we looked out in the bay, we saw Mitsuo club floating out in the bay next to Coconut Island and you know that guy did not know he was out there floating around until he looked out.  He was asleep and felt the house moving around.

Another sad thing to see was this Portuguese woman who lived next to the Plate Shop.  This woman was sitting by the living room window.  Her house was going up and down in the river.  Right in the center of the river.  We were hoping that one of the waves would take this woman’s house to the mango tree so she would be able to get out and climb up the mango tree.  This mango tree is across the river from the back of the Plate Shop.  This mango tree was a life saver.  Many homes were washed against the mango tree.  Whenever a house would hit the tree people scrambled out of the house onto the branches and up the tree.  There were many people up in the mango tree.

The turning railroad bridge.  This bridge is turned to let the scows and boats and sampans that would park up the river beyond the bridge.  The scows are used by Waiakea Mill to haul raw sugar to the dock to be loaded on the ships to take to the refinery in San Francisco.  That was Crocket refinery.  The wave hit this bridge and took it off the turn table and knocked it against the bank on Manono Street.

About that Portuguese woman in the house floating up and down in the river.  When the river receded for the third wave in which was the biggest of all, this house could not pass under the bridge.  It just crumbled the house.  It was so sad.

There was this new sampan hull on the dry dock flat bed just about ready to put the engine in.  The wave caught this sampan hull, took it off the flat bed cart, up the river.  When the river receded it came back down the river out into the bay and floated toward Wainaku side and out to sea and pass the breakwater and out to sea.  When that big wave came in, the sampan hull floated in with the wave.  It came over the breakwater, towards the old Hilo theater, down by the soccer field, on by Kamehameha and through Shinmachi, and in front of the dock where it was before and parked right there with the bow facing towards the ocean.  It was unbelievable.  It was sure a great surprise to me.  The hull was not even damaged.

Another amazing thing was the railroad track.  I saw this railroad track against the coconut tree.  Every time a wave would come in it would bend the railroad track a little.  I could not believe my eyes.  After all the waves had come through, the track was bent to a semi-circle.  It’s amazing.  That track is made of steel.

When the water receded for the third wave, the river was dry and the whole Hilo Bay was dry.  I could see the whole breakwater from top to the bottom.  That breakwater was about 40 feet high.  All the water receded past the breakwater, about 200 yards past the breakwater, and it built a high wall of water about 20 or 30 feet higher than the breakwater (60-70 feet total).  There was a great wall of water all the way past the banks of the Honolii side towards Puna.  It was really a scary sight with the bay dry, the breakwater all exposed and a great big black wall of ocean in the back.  When that big wall started to come towards us it went right over the breakwater like nothing.  It hit the Wainaku banks first and kept coming in.  I saw the wave just as high as the top of the railroad bridge, over Wailuku River, where the singing bridge is now.  It took that bridge off and took it up against the bank of the upper bridge.

As that big wave hit the buildings of ocean side of Hilo town it carried all those buildings across Kamehameha Avenue against the buildings across the street.  It was sure a strange sight.

Just before the wave got to us there was this woman who was living in this rooming house next to where Manuel Arruda and I were standing on the warehouse crane.  She was only 10 or 15 feet below us, but we couldn’t bring her up to where we were because we did not have anything to get her up.  She told us she did not know where her husband and children were.  When the wave hit our buildings she was gone.  We were hoping that the wave took her to the mango tree across the river, so she would be able to be safe.  As the wave came through it was high.  It came through the window.  It was a wall of water.  When I looked down into the shop I couldn’t see any machine.  It was all covered up.  The shops looked like a lake.  As it kept coming through, our building sure trembled.  I thought the building was going to fall.  I started to loosen my shoes and clothes.  I told myself if this building was going to fall, I was going to dive out.  I was making sure I was not going to be caught under the building if it fell.

I knew our building was pretty safe because each one of our beams had [four] 2 inches anchor bolts.  Plus all the steel braces.  It was sure a surprise to me that our building trembled, but this water was powerful.

To give you an idea of how powerful the tidal wave is, I saw Tony Souza riding his bike to work.  The wave caught him and took him through Shinmachi into the river and into the California grass.  I saw the wave knock the locomotive against the building and took some of the box cars on to Kamehemeha Avenue in front of Shinmachi.

We had a flat railroad car park in front of the office with 30 tons of pig iron.  The wave picked the flat car up with the iron and threw it in Wailoa River.  We also had a safe in the accounting department office that weighed 6 tons.  When the wave came through it picked up that safe, took it through the concrete wall.  The wall is about 6 inches thick.  The safe went through the foundry over Wailoa River, throught the bushes, and stopped opposite the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

When that big wave receded, the building where that woman who was just talking to us was gone.  You could see only cement floor.  Yasakawa Blacksmith shop was gone.  I. Kitigawa was gone also.  Nothing was there but cement floor.

Here is another thing of interest.  The soda water bottles that we had in the shop had sand in the bottom of every bottle.  How did the sand get in the bottles without any salt water?  Even the beer bottles that we picked up on the street had sand in it too.  We are still trying to figure that out.

We were up in the building for about 2 hours before we could come down.

Another thing of interest is how the breakwater got that big gash.  One of the waves was coming in and another wave going out.  They were right on the break water.  When everything cleared out there was a big gash in the breakwater.  One of those boulders weighed 15 tons.

When it was safe to come down we started to go to Shinmachi to see what we could do.  Manuel Arruda headed for home to see how his family was doing.  Bill Ayala and [I] headed for Shinmachi.  As we came out of the gate there was a dead baby boy about two years old.  I checked him to see if he was alive but he was dead and he was naked.  The funny thing about this wave if you are caught in it is it rips off your clothes.

As we got to the back of Shinmachi we saw this young mother standing on the sidewalk holding her young baby with a suitcase of carnation cream.  It was to make her baby’s formula.  She stood there saying nothing.  She was just frozen with fear.  I took the baby out of her arms.  Bill Ayala picked up the suit case of cream.  Toma Tasaki, who used to be my 7th grade teacher and scout master, grabbed the young mother’s hand.  Then someone yelled that the wave was coming.  We all started to run.  I saw on the street that there was too much debris, so I cut into this house to get to the other side.  When I came to the back door this six cubic foot refrigerator was right in the doorway.  I backed up a little so I could get some speed to jump over the refrigerator.  There was no doubt in my mind that I would be able to go over the fridge.  When I ran and jumped the timing was so perfect, I went up and over the fridge.  Only my left buttock and my left elbow touched the top of the fridge.  I held the baby close to me so the baby wouldn’t get hurt.  We went up and over and I landed on my feet and kept running.  As I was running she thought it was lots of fun.  She did not know that I was running for our lives.  As I was running I had to watch for bottles and canned goods.  It was canned goods that when you go to the store they tell you they did not have.  The best foods like mayonnaise that were hard to get were there on the street.  Whisky and beer bottles were all over the street.  I wanted to stop and get some of those things, but every second counted.

I heard of a guy on Mamo Street who stopped to pick up a case of whisky.  As he was running with the case of whisky, the wave was catching up with him, so he dropped the case of whisky so he could run faster.

As I got to Piopio Street by Dairy Men’s Association, I ran up Piopio Street and the wave hit on my feet as I got to the Piopio Street Bridge, but I still was on my feet and I kept running.  Bill Ayala and Toma Tasaki caught up with me and the three of us walked up towards Kilauea Avenue.  As we were walking someone handed me this 10 year old girl.  I held her hand and took her to some of her family that was on the corner of Piopio Street and Kilauea Avenue.  After I handed the girl to her family, I walked to the service station to hand the baby to her mother who was with her family.

When Toma Tasaki caught up with me he was dragging the young lady.  She was out of breath.  She was almost falling down.  He kept holding her up and dragging her along.

Another thing I want to relate to you about 3 of our company cars.  These cars were wrapped around the columns in the shop and they were smashed flat like pancakes around the column.  You could see how much power that tidal wave had.

My advice to everyone is when you hear that a tidal wave is coming; don’t run down to the sea side to see it.  Run away from it and get up to a high place and be sure your back is clear in case you have to run

No one knows how high the waves are going to be and you can never out run the waves.  The best thing is to stay as far away as possible and the most important thing is to always say your prayers and trust in the Lord.  I know, because if it wasn’t for the Lord I would not be here telling you all this.

One Response

  1. Thank you Darrel for letting Damon share this. In this case, your father’s words are more powerful than any pictures can be.

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