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Part of the makeup of Downtown Hilo in 1946 was a small community called Shinmachi meaning “New Town”. Many shops, businesses and homes were located here and from the front of the community you could see the train running up and down bayfront carrying its cargo. The kids would play games and make homemade toys while the adults went about the business of the day.

Joan Shaw was a young child who lived with her family in Shinmachi at the time of the 1946 tsunami. She was only 8 years old but can recall that day well. It was just another normal morning. Most of the household was getting ready for school and eating breakfast. Her mother noticed the water began to recede, so all the children were gathered into the kitchen and huddled together for there was no time to evacuate to higher ground. Joan broke away from her family to see what had made her mother so afraid. As she ran back towards her family seeing the third wave coming in, the building began to collapse. Her foot ended up being cut and stuck in the debris before she could make it back to them, the next thing she knew she blacked out. When she woke, she was floating in the water, still among the debris of the house, and her foot was still stuck. She heard her mom call for her and answered. Her mom was able to get her foot unstuck and they were able to escape to safety. 

Adeline Neil is one of Joan Shaw’s younger siblings and during the tsunami she remembers hearing a roaring sound before the house collapsed, and the roof pinned them down. It was dark, they called for their mom and from listening to the voices and seeing a bit of light the older sister found a way to get out from the roof. They sat on top of the roof that had been washed into the river until boats came to take them to a shelter. Adeline then went looking for the rest of her siblings, she was able to find one and they started asking questions since they couldn’t find all their family members. It turned out that some had to be taken to the hospital.

Harry Yamamoto was an older brother to the 2 younger girls and remembers that morning as well. He had gone to the market earlier that day with his father and walked home, nothing was yet wrong. It was shortly after he got home that the water started moving. He looked out the front window of the house like many of the other children and all he saw were the changes that were beginning to occur. It was when he went to the back of the apartment, he really noticed something was wrong. The area behind the building was empty and was replaced by water. When he ran to the front of the house, he remembers hearing a sound similar to a bulldozer and seeing a great ball of water coming. The family moved to the back of the house, still hearing that water rushing towards them, then it hit. Harry was knocked out by a piece of debris. When he regained consciousness, it was dark and all he could see was a small pin of light. He moved towards it and climbed onto the roof with the rest of the family.

Amidst all the chaos though the family had tragically lost the two youngest siblings.

Shinmachi was forever changed after that day. Some buildings and businesses rebuilt in the area after things had been cleaned up, but it wouldn’t last long. In May 1960 another devastating tsunami hit our coastal communities, wiping out what was left of the newly built structures. It was after the devastation in 1960 that the area became what you see today, a park and memorial for those who once called this area home.