On December 7, 1941 at 7:48 a.m., the first wave of Japanese fighter planes attacked Oahu. More than 350 fighter planes would descend upon the island. The Japanese managed to destroy and damage battleships, cruisers, and hundreds of planes. A total of 2,403 people were killed—68 were civilians—in 90 minutes. The Pearl Harbor naval base wasn’t the only attack sight. Bombs dropped all over Honolulu.
When we look back on it, most note that daring raid by the Japanese as the start of America’s entry into World War Two. The phrase, “remember Pearl Harbor” became a clarion call in the United States. It was a rallying cry to mobilize American forces into a global conflict fought in two theaters on the opposite ends of the globe. We still remember Pearl Harbor with ceremonies, memorials, and speeches.
But many have forgotten that December 7, 1941 marks the start of one of the longest violations in history. Hawaii had been a U.S. territory and instead of a state constitution, the operative document was the Organic Act—an act of Congress that established and set up the territorial government of Hawaii.
Buried deep in the Act was a provision allowing the governor to suspend habeas corpus and declare martial law “in case of rebellion or invasion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it.”
The governor in 1941 was Joseph Poindexter. Hours after the attack at 3:30 p.m., Poindexter sat at his office at Iolani Palace surrounded by military brass. No one knew if the Japanese would come back. The death toll was unknown.
One of the officers in the governor’s office later wrote that Poindexter quietly walked onto a veranda and looked over onto the palace grounds. He saw two gaping craters in the lawn and wondered aloud if they were there the day before the attack. No one had an answer.
He turned to the officers and said he believed martial law was the only viable way to preserve order and keep people safe. The tone of the former federal judge, according to the officer, “was as if he were adjudging a death sentence.” After declaring martial law, the military took over the territory and wouldn’t let go.
The courts were suspended and replaced with military tribunals. The governor abdicated to a military governor whose orders were the law.
The military regulated nearly every aspect of life in the islands. It imposed a curfew and ordered a blackout to prevent night-time attacks. Civilians were ordered to turn off lights and blackout the headlights on their vehicles. Barbed wire was set up across beaches and checkpoints were a common sight in Honolulu.
The military closed public schools and Japanese language schools. Everyone over the age of six was required to be registered and fingerprinted. Money, labor, food, traffic enforcement, and even prostitution came under the aegis of military concern and regulation.
Civilian courts were suspended and replaced with a military tribunal. The tribunal presided over civilian and military violators of orders and proclamations.
Hawaii’s Japanese community became a target of exclusion and suspicion. They were closely monitored. Japanese language schools and Buddhist temples and a few Japanese Christian churches were shut down. Up to 1,400 people of Japanese descent were rounded up and held in internment camps scattered throughout the islands—including a camp in Haiku here on Maui.
This was the status quo for the territory. Hawaii had become a military dictatorship. Martial law lasted long after the threat of invasion had passed. Years after the attack on Oahu, two civilians challenged the validity of these courts during the occupation. The military authorities sentenced them to prison for violating either civilian law or an order of the military governor.
They managed to get their case to the United States Supreme Court and the court agreed that the martial law by that point was unlawful. The term “martial law” was supposed to “authorize the military to act vigorously for the maintenance of an orderly civil government and for the defense of the island against actual or threatened rebellion or invasion.” It was not supposed to supplant civil courts.
But the final word on the legality of martial law in Hawaii didn’t come down until 1946—after the war and long after the barb wire was removed from the sands of Waikiki.