Survivor Narratives: 1946

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Who is the Boy in the Picture?

A Mystery Solved

Known as the Pacific Tsunami Museum’s (PTM) “signature picture”, this photograph, taken by a barber named Cecilio Licos on April 1, 1946, is perhaps the most famous tsunami photo in our collection. We are sometimes asked if we know the name of the individual on the right.

This is the famous image of men running in downtown Hilo at 7 a.m. on April 1, 1946. The location is where the bus station is today. note the gigantic 30 foot third wave approcachic in the background. Before this wave came in, the sea receded all the way out to the breakwater.
Photo: Cecilio Licos

PTM did not know his name until 2002, when he called the Museum to identify himself as the young man in the right foreground. What prompted him to call was seeing the picture in a documentary film. The man’s name is George Wong, who now lives on the mainland. 

Shortly after making the call, George and his family came to Hawai’i to visit the Museum, and he recounted his story on that tragic day of April 1, 1946. He said he was almost fifteen years old and had come from Honolulu to live for a year with his uncle, who owned the Kwon See Wo store on Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo, mid-way between Mamo and Ponahawai Streets. Every morning George would come to help his uncle open up the store before going on to Hilo High School. 

On the morning of April 1, 1946, when George and his uncle got to the store, they found that it had been flooded. They did not even realize that a tsunami was occurring. Because of the mess in the store, his uncle told him that he would not open up until the store was cleaned up, so George should go on to school. 

George left the store by a back door and proceeded down the alley and across to Ponahawai Street when someone shouted “Wave!” A quick look back confirmed a large wave (the third one in a series) coming in over Hilo Bay. George turned and ran, nearly knocking over the photographer as he yelled at the photographer to get out of the way.

Several days after the tsunami waves, the picture with George in it appeared in the news media. Even though his aunties teased him about making the news, George never kept a copy of the picture or newspaper clipping. 

With the end of school in June of 1946, George returned to Honolulu to his family. After high shool graduation and a stint in the service, he moved to Chicago where he met his wife, a girl from Kona. He would tell his wife about the picture in which he is running from tsunami waves, and she would just laugh as if he was telling her a big story. 

Then one evening in 2002 as they were watching television, a tsunami documentary show came on. George’s wife joked that maybe they would see the “famous” picture of George running from the third wave, and to her surprise that is exactly what happened! This prompted George to call the Museum and answer the age-old question, “Who is the boy in the picture?” 

When George and his family came to Hawai’i in 2002, it was his first trip back since June of 1946. He got to re-live his experience by telling his story, and his grandchildren were in awe that Grandpa’s picture was on so many book covers, picture post cards, posters, and in the movies. 

PTM collects survivor stories, and George Wong’s story is really one-of a-kind. It is a special story that we are happy he shared with all of us. It is truly amazing that anyone took this picture at all!