Cool Hand Luke: Get Your Dirt Out of My Ditch

by James Broder

Every Type of Ordinance In The NATO Catalog Has Been Deployed There…

Aging Olympic ski racers talk in hushed tones about the tragedy of Mt. Jahorina, site of the alpine events at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. During the Balkan Wars, formerly pristine and historic pastures where grandstands and TV broadcasting facilities once stood were heavily laced with land mines, and eventually turned into a massive graveyard for war victims.




The United States has its share of disgraceful environmental tragedies, such as the Hanford Site in Washington, and Love Canal near Niagara Falls. Unlike Sarajevo, however, all of them are of America’s own making. Self-inflicted, if you will. Perhaps none are as strange nor as tragic as the curious case of Kaho’olawe (kah HOE oh LAH vay), a medium-sized island in the Hawai’ian archipelago which lies dead from domestically-inflicted wounds, within sight of millions of wealthy vacationers on Maui and Lana’i. Kaho’olawe is unfit for human habitation, possibly forever; it is a Congressional Superfund site upon which billions of dollars have been spent on failed efforts to clean it up. If you have visited Maui, Moloka’i, or Lana’i, or have snorkeled Molokini Rock, you’ve seen Kaho’olawe. But you probably do not know the story behind it.






Kaho’olawe rises above the Pacific Ocean like a red-dirt flying saucer about 20 miles to the West of Maui’s tony Wailea area, 30 miles to the South of the exclusive Manele Bay Hotel on the South tip of Lana’i. Train a powerful pair of field glasses on Kaho’olawe through the mid-day haze and you will see….nothing. No houses, no hotels, no paved roads, no rivers, no wildlife, little vegetation. It’s a wasteland.

Recent History…

In 1998, workers sporting t-shirts the color of traffic cones with “UXO” in large black letters started showing up at local lunch spots in Upcountry Maui. They lunched together quietly at working-class spots like Cafe 808 and the Pukalani Country Club (which belies its fancy name, it’s actually a burger stand in a mobile trailer). Amongst the army of drywallers and carpenters taking advantage of Maui’s building boom, they seemed like average day laborers. But they were anything but average. For starters, they arrived for lunch aboard helicopters flown across the Alalākeiki (al lah lah KAY kee) Channel from Kaho’olawe. These workers were trained in the handling of UXO, military parlance for “unexploded ordinance”. UXO workers toiled for years over on Kaho’olawe under direction of the United States Congress, which had declared Kaho’olawe a SuperFund site. Ultimately, attempts to clear Kaho’olawe of UXO failed. Kaho’olawe remains too dangerous for human habitation.

How Did Kaho’olawe Become One of the Most Dangerous Wastelands on Earth?

The decline of Kaho’olawe started during King Kamehameha’s The Great’s reign over The Hawai’ian Kingdom (circa 1810). Popular legend has it that British traders seeking favor with Kamehameha brought him a small herd of goats as an offering. Having never seen goats before, the Hawai’ians released them to run free around Lahaina, Maui. The goats then did what goats do: they ate, and they reproduced. Pretty soon, there were lots of goats, and they ate everything in sight. Kamehameha ordered his Ali’i (ah LEE ee) knights to round up or kill the burgeoning herd. After Kamehameha’s goat rodeo, a few of the remaining goats were released over on Kaho’olawe, for reasons which remain unclear. Kaho’olawe was somewhat of a red-headed stepchild to the monarchy; it sits in the wind shadow of Maui’s mighty 10,000 ft Haleakala (hah lee AH kah LAH) volcano, and therefore receives very little rainfall. It has few sources of drinking water. Its flanks are rocky and steep, it has poor beaches. No humans lived there because the land was difficult to farm; even mere survival  was difficult. On Kaho’olawe the goats again multiplied, then ate all the indigenous vegetation. Seasonal rains came and, without vegetation to anchor the island’s soil, washed most of Kaho’olawe’s topsoil into the ocean. The goats then starved to death, leaving a desert wasteland more reminiscent of Moab, Utah, than Hawai’i.

After the United States took possession of (many say “stole”) the Hawai’ian Kingdom from Queen Lili’uokalani in a 1893 coup of dubious legality, a series of ranchers tried farming and ranching  Kaho’olawe, but they all failed. By 1940 the island again lay abandoned.

David Ulrich, Kamohio Bay, Kaho’olawe, Hawai’i

As WWII raged, the strategic decline of battleships and subsequent tactical shift to aircraft-based warfare forced the United States military to radically change its war preparations. Suddenly, training aviators to mount aerial assaults on small Pacific islands became a priority. US Navy units stationed at Hickam Field and Barber’s Point on O’ahu found a convenient place to stage rehearsal raids with live ordinance, and to practice bombing: Kaho’olawe. The US military took de facto possession of the island. Thousands of raids pummeled the island, day and night, for years. Echoes of exploding ordinance ricocheted up and down the Alalākeiki Channel.

In an odd chapter in naval history,  Kaho’olawe also was the site of a unique torpedo attack during WWII. Legendary submariner “Swede” Momsen (inventor of the Momsen Lung, the first rescue device capable of evacuating sailors from sunken submarines) launched an assault on  Kaho’olawe in an attempt to diagnose a defective torpedo fuse design. A complex defect in US-manufactured torpedo fuses caused a very high dud rate when the projectiles hit targets at acute angles. At oblique angles, the fuse detonated reliably. Momsen set sail from Pearl Harbor one morning in a diesel-electric sub, motoring over into the deep channel between Maui and  Kaho’olawe. He stopped the sub off  Kaho’olawe’s Southeast coast, where a vertical rock wall extends from several hundred feet above sea level down well below the ocean’s surface. He ordered a series of torpedoes to be fired at the rocks on oblique trajectories, until several of them failed. Momsen and his men then donned scuba gear, disarmed the live unexploded torpedoes lying on the ocean floor, and salvaged the fuses.The fuses were then sent off to the manufacturer, where the problem was diagnosed, and the design refined.

Use of Kaho’olawe as an ordinance piñata continued through the Korean War and well beyond. Years later, UXO workers were occasionally overheard saying, “every type of ordinance in the NATO catalog has been deployed there…except the nuclear ones”.

In 1990, President Bush The First ordered the end of live-fire exercises on Kaho’olawe, and plans were made to hand the island back to the State of Hawai’i. In 1993, WWII veteran Senator Danial Inouye sponsored a Congressional act which deeded  Kaho’olawe back to the State of Hawai’i and allocated SuperFund money for its cleanup. In July 1997, UXO work commenced.

UXO workers utilized a procedure known as “Flag and Frag”. In a perverse reprisal of the “get your dirt out of my ditch” scene from the movie Cool Hand Luke, they would start by marking an area about the size and depth of an Olympic swimming pool using surveying stakes. Utilizing heavily-armored construction equipment, they would excavate dirt to a chosen depth, extracting scrap metal and detonating unexploded ordinance. Then they’d fill the dirt back in, and move to another spot.

It didn’t work.

What UXO workers found is iron and steel UXO, far denser than the granular, volcanic Hawai’ian soil, eventually migrates up from below and contaminates cleared areas within a few years. In order to really clear Kaho’olawe of UXO, they would have to flag & frag far deeper than the 10-20 feet they used. The cost of doing that would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and would take decades.

The Superfund money Congress allocated to clean up Kaho’olawe ran out in 2003. Like sections of former WWI and WWII battlefields in Belgium and France (including parts of the Ardennes Forest), Kaho’olawe remains a dangerous, heavily contaminated, uninhabitable wasteland, and may very well remain so for centuries.



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