Survivor Narratives: 1946

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Joan Yamamoto Shaw

The day Hilo Bay emptied out in 1946

The view from the front window of Joans apartment was of beautiful tranquil Hilo
Bay, Kamehameha Ave. and the railroad tracks.

Joan Yamamoto Shaw lived in a second story apartment on Kamehameha Avenue along with her parents and siblings. Their building was next to Hilo Iron Works, putting them close to old Waiakea town. Their view out the front window was of beautiful, tranquil Hilo Bay. The double lane road, Kamehameha Avenue, had a row of coconut trees right down the median strip. The railroad tracks were across the street on the black sands of Hilo Bay.

A favorite activity for the children was to wait for the train to pass by and watch the workman who turned the cogs that swung the bridge across the river for the trains to cross, or open it up again for the scows and barges that went up the river to the Canec plant. When they heard the whistle, they knew a scow or train was on the way and they would run to the windows to watch. 

The view from the back of the apartment was of the homes in Shinmachi, a quaint village of tightly packed homes and little gardens.

Looking out the window in the back of the apartment, Joan could see the little Japanese village comprised of one-story small homes that made up the interior of Shinmachi. She remembers how crowded it was with all the houses built close to the ground with little porches fronting directly onto the roadway. Most residents had a garden.

Shinmachi children attended Waiakea Kai School. Joan fondly remembers her early years there. On weekends, their dad would take the kids to the movies; in those days, Hilo had six movie theaters. Joan has memories as a small child during the war years watching the ships dock at the small pier on Hilo Bay and troops coming ashore and camping right there on the beach. One day Joan struck up a conversation with one of them and he gave her a little decorative pin. 

There was extensive damage to buildings in Shinmachi after the 1946 tsunami. This image shows the debris in front of Quality Auto Supply on Kamhemeha Avenue in Hilo.

Joan was just eight years old and getting ready for school on the morning of April 1, 1946. Joan’s mom and the children watched in disbelief as Hilo Bay emptied out. Joan’s mom said “Come and look at the water in Hilo Bay. You will see something you will never see again for maybe another fifty years.” Joan’s mom thought that tsunami waves reached only ankle height. When the first wave came in and was up to the thighs of a man on the street, she panicked. 

There was extensive damage to buildings in Shinmachi after the 1946 tsunami. This image shows the debris in front of Quality Auto Supply on Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo. 

As the second wave came in, Joan’s mother scurried the children to the kitchen and broke out all the windows with a hammer in case they needed to escape. They all held on to each other, but Joan was a curious girl and broke away so she could go back to the front windows and see for herself what was going on. She saw the terrifying sight of the water coming, carrying huge boulders with it. 

Joan ran back to the kitchen just as the apartment’s wall collapsed. Then the third wave came in, higher than their apartment. Her foot was caught in the collapsing wall. Amazingly, she didn’t panic but instead thought to herself, “Oh, is this how it feels to die?” From her perch on a roof top, her mother reached down and pulled Joan up. They floated into the Waiakea Pond and her mom applied a tourniquet to her leg.

Rescuers from the Canec Plant and the plantation houses came in boats and barges to rescue the people floating in the river. Joan, a sister, and her mother ended up at the hospital. Two sisters and a brother found each other among those gathered at the Red Cross Station. The two youngest in the family, three-month old Clifford and three-year old Lorna were gone. They had been washed from their mother’s arms.

Joan was hospitalized for months with her injuries. Just as most of the people who suffered from the tsunami, she and her family rarely talked about it.

Joan married a Navy man and lived in various locales through the years. They came back to Hilo in 1975 to raise their family.