Aletho News


Hawaii under martial law was like ‘military dictatorship’ (1941-1944)

For three years Hawaiians lived under repressive Army rule and without any constitutional protections

Police State USA

HAWAII — Islanders suffered under nearly three years of martial law from 1941-1944; so oppressive that it was later described by a federal judge as a “military dictatorship.” All manner of civilian liberties were replaced by oppressive military orders enforced by American soldiers.

The dark period of Hawaiian history began on December 7, 1941, with the massive surprise attack of Japanese bombers on the U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor. The air raid successfully sunk or grounded 18 ships and killed 2,403 Americans.

As the smoke billowed from the harbor, Lieutenant General Walter Short met with Territorial Governor Joseph Poindexter to convince him to declare martial law. Being coerced through tactics discussed below, Gov. Poindexter reluctantly ceded power to the military — temporarily, or so he thought.

In declaring martial law, all forms of civilian law were suspended. An entire new system of justice and order was instituted and controlled at the absolute discretion of Lt. Gen. Short — the newly declared “Military Governor” of the islands.

The transfer of power meant that all civilian courts would be closed, and all government functions — federal, territorial, and municipal — would be placed under military control. The U.S. Constitution was suspended and civilians no longer guaranteed any individual rights or protections from the government. Civilians had no freedom of speech, self-defense, assembly, or protections from from unreasonable search and seizures, inter alia.

Lt. General Short, in his first proclamation as Military Governor on December 7th, 1941, stated that [7]:

I shall therefore shortly publish ordinances governing the conduct of the people of the Territory with respect to the showing of lights, circulation, meetings, censorship, possession of arms, ammunition, and explosives, the sale of intoxicating liquors and other subjects.

In order to assist in repelling the threatened invasion of our island home, good citizens will cheerfully obey this proclamation and the ordinances to be published; others will be required to do so. Offenders will be severely punished by military tribunals or will be held in custody until such time that the civil courts are able to function.

Poindexter relayed his decision to the mainland, which was affirmed with approval from the President of the United States [7]:

Communication between Hawaiian Civilian Governor Joseph Poindexter and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the declaration of martial law and suspension of the write of habeas corpus.  (Source: Anthony, Joseph Garner.  Hawaii Under Army Rule, p. 128)

The Military Governor’s subsequent orders were designed to “discourage concerted action of any kind.” Saloons were ordered to be closed, as well as schools, theaters — anywhere there might be a “concentration of people.” [6]

Civilians were given strict curfews. The streets were ordered to be cleared between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. under penalty of arrest. All persons of Japanese descent had to be in their homes by 8:00 p.m. [6]

Everyone over the age of six years was fingerprinted, registered, and ordered to carry around military-issued ID cards. [11] Using the extensive registration program, the military drew up intelligence reports on 450,000 Hawaiians. [8]

Stringent censorship of the media went into immediate effect. The Military Governor required that newspapers be made illegal unless they were granted a license to operate. All newspapers and radio stations were shut down for a time. Any publication not printed exclusively in English was denied a license and considered illegal. [6]

US Army M3 Stuart light tanks roll down Beretania Street in the Honolulu business district, Hawaii, 30 August 1942.

The local telephone company was taken over by the military. [6] All outgoing mail was read and censored by the military. All long-distance telephone calls to the mainland were required to be spoken in English and censored. The military government monitored the content and morale of the population this way. [11]

Travel between the islands was restricted. Use of civilian short-wave radio was restricted. Photo materials were restricted to limit photography. [6]

The newspapers that were allowed to reopen with licenses were forced to print military orders and military-controlled news. The Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin both published an order directed at every inhabitant of the island:

The Army demands the aid and assistance of every person in the Territory… If you are ordered by military personnel to obey a certain command, that order must be obeyed instantly and without question. [9]

Days after martial law had gone into effect, the United Press reported that “cases of non-cooperation” were “severely dealt with” according to military authorities [1].

Civilian ownership of firearms was prohibited except to those specially authorized [6]. Every male islander was ordered to construct a bomb shelter [9]. Approximately 300,000 acres of private land was confiscated by the military — land, farms, buildings [8]

U.S. soldiers surround the Hawaiian Iolani Palace with barbed wire during the rule of martial law in 1942. (Image: U.S. Army Museum)

Civilians were not permitted to switch jobs, and had their wages frozen. U.S. Dollars were confiscated and new money was issued — only valid in Hawaii. Citizens were not allowed to carry more than $200 on them for any reason. [11] The wages of Japanese nationals were capped at $200 per month, with the rest being forced into bank accounts, with weekly withdrawal limits of $50. [9]

Businesses were tightly controlled; they were ordered to shut down daily by 4:30 p.m. Goods on the shelves were inventoried by the military. [9]  Liquor sales were banned.  Gasoline was rationed. [6]

One of the more onerous measures was the nightly “blackout” of all civilian lights, ostensibly to mitigate the effectiveness of a potential enemy air raid. Every light bulb and every flame was ordered to be extinguished after dark. Even a lit cigarette, a kitchen stove burner, or an illuminated radio dial was grounds for an arrest. It was ordered that all residential doors and windows be covered. Car headlights were to be painted blue to dim the beams. [11]

“We couldn’t see each other nor anything on the table so we literally had to feel our way through the meal,” wrote Honolulu resident Richard Wrenshall wrote in a 1942 letter. “If you reached out for something you’d be liable to stick your finger in the butter or in somebody’s eye.” [11]

Military Governor Green reported that the Army Corps of Engineers had a roving band of armed individuals calling themselves the “vigilance committee” which frequently shot at lights wherever they could be seen and “terrorized” the public. [6]

Waikiki Beach behind barbed wire fence, during martial law.  Honolulu, Hawaii. (Image: National Archives, U.S. Navy)

Of great controversy and consequence was the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus — the common-law court doctrine requiring a party holding a prisoner to demonstrate the legal and jurisdictional basis for continuing to hold the prisoner. With all civilian due process suspended, arrestees could be held without charges or trial; without legal representation, witnesses, a defense, or a jury. [2]

Breaking the blackout order brought about stiff fines or jail time. Numerous violators were thrown before a military judge, Lt. Col. Neal D. Franklin, who swiftly sentenced them to 100 days in jail or minimum fines of $100. A Japanese person might be given as much as 1,000 days imprisonment or up to $1,000 fines. It was reported that a Shinto priest was fined $500 for not extinguishing the “eternal flame” on his temple altar. [9]

The military courts were eager to impose fines for those who broke the military governor’s general orders. However, some individuals who couldn’t pay fines were instead given a “credit” following a forced donation of their blood. The practice was jokingly referred to as being “fined a bucket of blood.” [6]

People of Japanese descent — even American citizens — were looked at with suspicion and scorn by their government and their neighbors alike. Aside from the repressive military orders used to control their lives, thousands of Hawaiian Issei were arrested and shipped off to internment camps for the duration of the war. [13]

The oppression of civil rights was so thorough that it became a main theme in the 1942 platform of one of the major political parties on the islands [7]. The platform stated:

We deplore a system of government whereby the citizens of the Territory of Hawaii can be arrested and held for investigation, without bail, for offenses that have nothing to do with the operations of the military establishment.

We deplore the exercise of public authorities who are making unlawful searches and seizures in the homes of the people of the Territory of Hawaii without a search warrant…

We deplore the continued existence of the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus…

It was evident that the continued suspension of civilian law was disconcerting to some on the mainland, including Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, who wrote on January 9th, 1943: “Civilian government has been successfully maintained and its responsibilities carried out by civilian authorities in other parts of the English-speaking world under conditions of much more severe strain than exist in Hawaii,” he wrote. “The idea that restoring the responsibility of civil government and the jurisdiction of the courts would hamper the defense of the territory by the  Army and Navy is repugnant of every concept of American democracy and reflects upon the capacity of the people of Hawaii for self-government and self-discipline.” [7]

“The Army went beyond the governor and set up that which was lawful only in conquered enemy territory… they threw the Constitution into the discard and set up a military dictatorship.”

Finally, in April 1944, Federal Judge Delbert E. Metzger overturned the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, citing that martial law “ceases and becomes unlawful as soon as the civilian government is capable and willing to resume its normal functions.” [3]

Despite the ruling, martial law was enforced for six more months. General Richardson defiantly stated after the ruling that regular blackouts would continue to be enforced as of 10 p.m. that same evening. “Violations of general orders will continue to be tried in provost courts,” he pronounced.  [3]

Richardson knew he would be free of consequence, since he had already been granted an executive pardon by President Roosevelt after Judge Metzger had held him in contempt of court on a previous case involving violations of the writ of habeas corpus. [3]

Judge Metzger argued that civilian law should be restored and was sufficient to protect the population. He said: “If present laws do not give the nation the fullest desirable protection against subversive or suspicious Japanese aliens, clearly it is the duty of the army and navy to ask a legislative curb and procedure instead of holding by force of arms an entire population under a form of helpless and unappealable subjugation called martial law.” [4]

Technically, martial law was terminated in Hawaii on October 24, 1944, in Roosevelt’s Presidential Proclamation 2627. While Roosevelt granted that “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” was restored, his declaration maintained that civilians were still thoroughly under the control of military commanders, and civilian freedoms were still heavily restricted. It was declared:

The military commander will have authority to establish blackouts and curfew periods, organize air raid precautions, regulate the conduct of enemy aliens, take anti-espionage precautions in the military area, control the possession and use of weapons, set up ports and harbors protections, regulate travel and regulate the publication of newspapers “published in a foreign language or in duel languages.” In addition he will have authority to regulate or prohibit the possession or use of radio transmission sets between the military area and points away from it. The authority conferred in the executive order will expire 30 days after the end of war with Japan. [5]

After the war, federal district court magistrate Judge J. Frank McLaughlin condemned the conduct of martial law, saying, “Gov. Poindexter declared lawfully martial law but the Army went beyond the governor and set up that which was lawful only in conquered enemy territory namely, military government which is not bound by the Constitution. And they… threw the Constitution into the discard and set up a military dictatorship.” [12]

Judge McLaughlin, said in a speech that “[Maj. Gen. Short] set up an unconstitutional provost court system to try, without constitutional safeguards, anybody for anything — and they did it, too.”

Evidence explained by Judge McLaughlin revealed that there were some dubious efforts on the part of the military to influence the “civilian” decision to declare martial law. The military’s treachery was described in Hawaii Under Army Rule [7]:

Judge McLaughlin outlined how it was done, pointing out that the proclamation of martial law was prepared by the Army months in advance of December 7, 1941, and noted that the proclamation “was in the hands of the publishers for printing that afternoon some substantial period of time before the governor’s proclamation was signed and received for publication.” Commenting on Secretary Patterson’s letter to Representative Andrews and a public statement by General Richardson on the same subject, Judge McLaughlin said:

“…They did not, of course, mention that the Army went back on its word to the Hawaiian legislature. They did not tell you that it had said one thing while preparing to do another thing. They did not tell you that they prepared Governor Poindexter’s proclamation for him and induced him to sign it, reluctantly. They did not tell you either that he finally agreed to do as they asked with the understanding that the effect of the proclamation would be for maybe 30 days…”

Judge McLaughlin concluded:

“Yes ‘they did it.’ They did it intentionally. They did it with design aforethought. They did it knowing disregard of the Constitution. They did it because Hawaii is not a State. They did it because they did not have faith that Americanism transcends race, class, and creed.”

This period of events marked the longest period that Americans had ever been subjected to military rule, and as many commentators have pointed out, the conditions were more repressive than many actual combat zones.

Japanese Americans, including community leaders and even Buddhist monks, were among those detained at the Honouliuli internment camp on Oahu, Hawaii.  Picture taken in 1945. (Image: R.H. Lodge / Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii)

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1. Tremaine, Frank. “Martial Law Proclaimed For Hawaii.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania] 11 Dec. 1941: 2. Web. [,5301386]

2. Anthony, Joseph Garner. “Martial Law in Hawaii.” California Law Review, Vol. 30. May 1942. Web. []

3. Associated Press. “Judge Invalidates Martial Law in Hawaiian Islands.” The Evening Independent [St. Petersburg, Florida] 14 April 1944: 9. Web. [,6259680]

4. Johnston, Richard W. “Army Defies Ban On Hawaii Martial Law.”  San Jose Evening News [San Jose, California] 14 April 1944: 7. Web. [,1109323]

5. Associated Press.  “Martial Law Ends in Hawaii.  The Deseret News [Salt Lake City, Utah] 24 Oct. 1944: 1.  Web. [,5465917]

6. Green, Major General Thomas H. “Martial Law in Hawaii, December 7, 1941–April 4, 1943.” Unpublished manuscript. Library of Congress [Washington, D.C.]. Web. []

7. Anthony, Joseph Garner. Hawaii Under Army Rule. Stanford University Press [Stanford, California] 1947. []

8. Polmar, Norman. “World War II: The Enclyclopedia of the War Years, 1941-1945.” Random House [New York] 1996. []

9. Dunford, Bruce. “Blackout, Martial Law After Japanese Attack.” The Observer-Reporter [Greene County, Pennsylvania] 9 Dec. 1996: A6. Web. [,1190314]

10. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.  “Personal Justice Denied.” 1997.  Web.  []

11. Borreca, Richard. “Martial Law Held Sway in Isles for Three Years.” The Star Bulletin [Honolulu, Hawaii] 13 Sept. 1999. Web. []

12. Borreca, Richard. “Christmas 1941 in Hawaii Was Not a Time to Rejoice.” The Star Bulletin [Honolulu, Hawaii] 13 Sept. 1999. Web. []

13. Soga, Keiho. “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.” University of Hawaii Press {Honolulu, Hawaii] 31 Oct. 2007. []

December 10, 2014 - Posted by | Civil Liberties, Militarism, Timeless or most popular | , ,

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