Sign Up for Our Monthly Hawaii Newsletter
It’s 1941 and downtown Honolulu is swarming with wide-eyed servicemen reveling in rowdy honky tonks, tattoo parlors and shooting arcades. Street corner photographers lure soldiers to pose with sultry hula girls while barefoot boys hawk shoeshines for 25 cents.
On any given day, up to 30,000 men eagerly fork out $3 to visit a registered house in downtown’s red light district. Life is a carnival compared to the grind they left behind, but these enlistees are keenly aware that they could soon be heading into battle.
“Everyone knows what happened after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor,” said Jean Navarra, director of business development for E Noa Tours/Waikiki Trolley. “But what’s also interesting is life in Honolulu leading up to it.”
Navarra is the mastermind of the Waikiki Trolley’s Honolulu 1941 tour that chronicles life on Oahu before the U.S. was swept into World War II. A complimentary stroll-the-streets option for Waikiki Trolley Red Line passengers, the hour-long Honolulu 1941 tour reveals how war preparations altered the island’s social structure.
Navarra noted that the buzz around town wasn’t whether the U.S. would be drawn into the war. It was when and where an attack would occur. She adds that civilians played a critical role in prepping Oahu for the impending conflict.
“Curfews and blackouts fell into place really quickly after the bombing,” said Navarra. “Since it was the tallest structure at the time, Aloha Tower was painted in camouflage, and Iolani Palace became the seat of government for martial law.”
While en route, we paused at some two-dozen spots where Navarra verbally painted the scene in colorful 1941 glory. While most WWII-era haunts (and all brothels) have changed their tunes with the times, kitschy Smith’s Union Bar on Hotel Street has remained true to its 1935 roots. A few doors down at the former Club Hubba Hubba, the brick façade of the current nightspot and gallery Thirtyninehotel still bears a “Flat Rate to Base” taxi sign where GIs queued up for the return ride to their home base.
Another highlight is Ruby’s Bakery and Restaurant on Hotel Street in Chinatown, the site of the former New Senator Hotel that was portrayed as the New Congress Hotel in the film “From Here To Eternity.”
Also on that famous block is the building that once housed Wo Fat Restaurant, a bustling eatery that honored free meal coupons presented by servicemen for decades after the war ended.
“This was Hawaii’s oldest restaurant until it closed in 2005,” said Navarro.
Even Honolulu’s Maunakea Street lei makers contributed to the war effort. As tourism plummeted after the Pearl Harbor attack, the lei sellers association went to work for the U.S. Army, weaving camouflage nets in a secret facility on the grounds of Kamehameha School.
Now a daycare center, the Japanese-owned Yokohama Specie Bank on Merchant Street was confiscated by the U.S. Army and used as a 250-person cellblock where military personnel could sleep it off after a night of debauchery. With each stop, Navarra explained how private businesses and civilians were deeply invested in the war effort and how the war transformed Honolulu’s complexion.
“Time and Hollywood have removed the personal aspect from the events that led up to the attack on Pearl Harbor,” said Navarra. “This tour truly takes visitors back in time with stories about real peoples’ lives for a unique perspective of 1941 Honolulu.”
E Noa Tourswww.enoa.com
The Stroll the Streets Tour: Honolulu 1941 takes place Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Price: Free with Red Line trolley pass purchase ranging from $25 for a one-day pass to $59 for a seven-day pass. Rates start at $13 for children ages 4-11. Commission: Up to 25 percent.