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A Brief History of Pearl Harbor Prior to World War II

Origins of Pearl Harbor

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A Brief History of Pearl Harbor Prior to World War II

Pu'uloa - Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii

It was the native Hawaiians who originally called the Pearl Harbor area, "Wai Momi," meaning "Water of Pearl". It was also called "Puʻuloa". Pearl Harbor was the home of the shark goddess Ka'ahupahau and her brother (or son) Kahiʻuka. The gods were said to live in a cave at the entrance to Pearl Harbor and guard the waters against man-eating sharks.

Kaʻahupahau is said to have been born of human parentage but to have changed into a shark. These gods were friendly to man and it is said that the people of Ewa whom they protected would keep their backs scraped clean of barnacles. The ancients depended on Kaʻahupahau to protect the harbor's abundant fish ponds from intruders.

The harbor was teeming with pearl-producing oysters until the late 1800's. In the early days following the arrival of Captain James Cook, Pearl Harbor was not considered a suitable port due to a coral bar obstructing the Harbor entrance.

United States Obtains Exclusive Rights to Pearl Harbor

As part of the Reciprocity Treaty between the United States of America and the Hawaiian Kingdom of 1875 as Supplemented by Convention on December 6, 1884 and ratified in 1887, the United States obtained exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor as part of the agreement to allow Hawaiian sugar to enter the United States duty free.

The Spanish American War (1898) and the need for the United States to have a permanent presence in the Pacific both contributed to the decision to annex Hawaii.

Following annexation, work began to dredge the channel and improve the harbor for the use of large navy ships. Congress authorized the creation of a naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1908. By 1914 other bases housing U.S. Marines as well as Army personnel were constructed in the area around Pearl Harbor. Schofield Barracks, constructed in 1909 to house artillery, cavalry and infantry units became the largest Army post of its day.

Pearl Harbor Expands 1919 - 1941

Expansion work at Pearl Harbor was not, however, without controversy. When construction began in 1909 on a the first dry dock, many native Hawaiians were outraged.

According to legend the shark god lived in the coral caves under the site. Several collapses of the dry dock construction were attributed by the engineers to "seismic disturbances" but the native Hawaiians were sure that it was the shark god who was angry. The engineers devised a new plan and a kahuna was summoned to appease the god. Finally, after years of construction problems, the dry dock was opened in August of 1919.

In 1917 Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor was purchased for joint Army and Navy use in the development of military aviation. Over the following two decades, as Japan's presence in the world as a major industrial and military power began to grow, the United States began to keep more of its ships at Pearl Harbor.

In addition, the Army's presence was also increased. As the navy assumed full control of Ford Island, the Army was in need of a new base for its Air Corp station in the Pacific, thus construction of Hickam Field began in 1935 at the cost of over $15 million.

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