Preserving Kona's Stories

Maile's Meanderings

Soldiers and the Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua

From the Collections of Kona Historical Society.

From the Collections of Kona Historical Society.

Memorial Day is a poignant anniversary honoring men and women who died while serving our country in time of war. It may seem as if Kona is far removed from the world's battlefields, but our district has played its part in our nation's great conflicts, as it does today. May's photos bring back memories of World War II, a time when Kona residents pitched in to help the war effort using whatever they had - blood, sweat, tears, and even ti leaves!

Our two photographs show Joseph William Gaa in front of a ti leaf thatched hut constructed on the grounds of Christ Church during World War II. In one photo, he is standing at attention, posed for the photo. In the other, he is caught off guard, pulling on his gaiters. Joe Gaa was a man of many talents. Not only did he serve as Staff Sergeant in the Infantry's Company B 298 during World War II, he worked part-time as Christ Church gardener and handy man for the resident Episcopalian minister, Rev. Kenneth O. Miller. After the war, he worked for Horseshoe One Ranch, the type of fellow who could tune up an engine, pound in gateposts and fix leaking water tanks in a snap.

It's a short walk from Kona Historical Society's headquarters to reach two graveyards where names of men who gave their lives for a greater cause can be found. In Central Kona Union's cemetery, located just makai of the intersection of Konawaena School Road and Mamalahoa Highway, an imposing white marble cross faces the street, firmly anchored on a carefully built base of hexagonal lava blocks and mortar. The monument is inscribed: In Memorium ~ Killed in action with the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Royal T. Frank, January 28, 1942. ~ Erected by their fellow residents of Kona. Listed are names of five young soldiers from Kona who died when a Japanese submarine fired three torpedoes at their transport ship as it crossed the channel between Maui and Hawaii. The final torpedo exploded on contact and the Royal T. Frank sank in less than a minute, dooming everyone below deck that early morning to an inescapable death. These young men had just finished boot camp at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and were on their way home. Out of twenty-six soldiers on board that day, all of them calling Hawaii home, seventeen were killed. News of how they died was kept a secret from their families and from everyone else for years due to Martial Law and wartime regulations.

In 1956, a bronze plaque was attached to the memorial's base to honor the twenty-two Kona men killed in action during World War II and the Korean War. Later, a second bronze plaque was added, this one listing the names of thirteen Kona boys killed in the Vietnam War 1959-1975.

Across the street and mauka of the nearby Grass Shack gift store stands Christ Church Episcopal, its spire framed by fan palms and slender cypress trees. The church has not moved a muscle since it was built in 1867, so the building looks pretty much the way it did during World War II. It's hard to imagine that during those four hectic war years, Christ Church entertained hundreds of soldiers, fed table after table of hungry officers and enlisted men, and counseled more homesick boys than it ever did, before or since. That green graveyard and sloping lawn have never been as lively again.

In 1941, the Rev. Miller, his wife Gertrude and daughter Charlotte lived in a rambling old vicarage mauka of the church. The Millers had arrived in Kona in 1937 from the East Coast and thoroughly embraced Kona's cattle ranching and coffee picking way of life. The couple had fallen in love with warm weather during Rev. Miller's first assignment in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the 1920s, so when a vacant post in the Territory of Hawaii called for a replacement, they eagerly accepted it. A graduate of Yale's Divinity School who paid his way through college as a soloist in church choirs and sang in the Yale Glee Club, Mr. Miller enjoyed music of all sorts. He started a Boy Scout Troop and recorded earthquakes using Dr. Thomas Jaggar's seismograph installed behind the minister's home. Mrs. Miller gathered young girls under her wing during Sunday School classes and master-minded dazzling decorations for Christmas Eve and Easter morning services, taking full advantage of Kona's abundance of palm fronds and fresh flowers. After being teased for "posting," Charlotte abandoned her English riding habits for a steady seat in a western saddle, adopting the relaxed style favored by her riding partners, George and Seymour Baybrook.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rev. Miller threw his considerable energy into converting a retired minister's residence built on church grounds into a warm and welcoming USO headquarters. With great care, Mr. Miller set up cozy reading nooks, chess boards, and ping pong tables. What did the boys need? Stacks of paper to write letters home, a record player to listen to popular songs, and a place to unwind. Mrs. Miller took charge of organizing lunches and teas to feed homesick G.I.s after Sunday services. When Mrs. Miller called upon church matrons to do their part for the war effort, they could not refuse her demands: a dozen elderberry pies by Sunday and nothing less! There were church socials and USO dances, afternoon picnics and silly games on the church lawn. Mr. Miller probably delivered a sermon or two at these gatherings, each one ending with a heartfelt prayer to bring "our boys home" from whatever corner in the vast Pacific they were headed off to.

No one can recall today whose idea it was to construct the "Little Grass Shack," but I'd like to give Mr. Miller credit for it. After all, he loved singing and no song had ever brought more attention to Kealakekua than My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua-Hawaii. If the "boys" were not allowed to write home and tell their parents where they were because of military censorship, a simple photo taken in Kona might "spill the beans" without breaking any rules. Mr. Miller may have acted as overseer of this light hearted project, but Joe Gaa probably knew more about thatching a "grass shack" with fresh ti-leaves, pili grass being in short supply that era, than his kindly boss. Perhaps all the servicemen took part in the fun, demanding dishes of poi for dinner, along with some attractive hula girls for entertainment. Someone clever with a paintbrush made a sign to hang near the front door and a classic photo opportunity was born!

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Curious to learn more about the song that inspired this unique construction project, I turned to Wikipedia. If I had been a fly on a canoe hull over 80 years ago, then I could have been an eye-witness to a little song writing history.

In 1933, Kealakekua Bay was the setting for the annual Fourth of July canoe races. Eager spectators gathered at Napo`opo`o Beach, in those days a wide expanse of silky sand, to cheer their favorite teams to victory. During the festivities, a new song written in honor of the occasion was sung for the first time in public. As unfamiliar lyrics rang out over the water, smiling hula dancers swished to and fro, laughing as they imitated swimming fishes and eating two-finger poi with their nimble fingers. The crowd applauded their approval and demanded an encore performance with shouts of "Hanahou, hanahou!" I imagine that later that evening, perhaps during sunset at Kona Inn, a victorious paddler called out to the very same musicians: "Hey, why don't you play that crazy song again, the one about the humuhumunukunukuapua`a!" Happy to please, the band strummed the opening chords to the simple hapa-haole ditty, never guessing the song launched that day in Kona would soon be heard around the world.

Bill Cogswell, reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser, wrote the lyrics while traveling on Hawai`i with a party of tourists. A native of Montana, Bill's degree in journalism had not prepared him for song writing, but his catchy words were destined for a wider audience than the crowd gathered to watch Kai Opua beat Keoua. Tommy Harrison put Cogswell's lyrics to music and the song performed in Kona was their creation alone. Returning to Honolulu soon after, Harrison showed the song to Johnny Noble, a well known musician and composer, who modified the melody and sent "Little Grass Shack" off to San Francisco be published. In no time, Little Grass Shack rose to be No. 1 on the Hit Parade, a position it held for thirteen weeks! Everyone wanted to head to Hawaii, take up life in a grass shack, and hang out with their kane and wahine compatriots on the beach at Honaunau.

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You can find the Rev. Kenneth O. Miller's simple granite gravestone in the upper Ka`u section of Christ Church cemetery. He died in December of 1944 at the age of 50, never knowing the final outcome of the war. He never knew that Joe and his wife Kay would raise a fine family in Kona, bringing their children to Christ Church for Sunday School. When the war in Vietnam heated up, two young men from Christ Church joined the Army. One of them was Wayne Hedemann, proud to be following in the footsteps of his father who served in the Marine Corps during World War II. Wayne was killed in 1970 at the age of 25. According to his sister Meta, he died instantly, an anti-aircraft round through his throat. From his position in an attack helicopter, he was defending American troops on the ground. The other soldier was Joseph William Gaa, Jr., Joe Senior's only son and namesake. He died in Vietnam in 1971 at the age of 20, his death a great loss for his parents and family; in fact, for everyone who knew him. The tall flagpole at Christ Church was erected to the memory of those two fine young men, Joe and Wayne, although there is no plaque to alert a passerby to its significance.

Joe Gaa, Sr. died in 1972 and was buried on the Kohala side of the cemetery, not far from a cypress tree he may have planted as a young man. Not ten feet from his grave is that of Wayne Hedemann, flanked by his parents. It seems fitting they are so close together, both families understanding that war means sacrifice. Joe, Jr.'s white marble stone is not far from Mr. Miller's, resting under the same cluster of fan palms. Names carved in stone and bronze remind us of the high price paid for loyalty and valor. Memorial Day is a good time to walk in cemeteries and to remember the dead with gratitude and aloha.

Aloha no, e Kona.

P.S. For more stories about Christ Church and the part it has played in Kona's history, be sure to read Queen Emma's Church in Kealakekua ~ Crossroads of Culture by Nancee Pace Cline, published in 2010.

P.P.S. If you have forgotten the words to this wonderful song, here they are once again.

My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii

There's a place in Ha-wai-i that is very dear to me

I am homesick as can be

Won't you listen to my plea?

I want to go back to my little grass shack in Ke-a-la-ke-kua, Ha-wai-i.

I want to be with all the ka-nes and wa-hi-nes that I knew long a-go.

I can hear old guitars a - playing on the beach at Ho-o-nau-nau

I can hear the Ha-wai-ians saying "Ko-mo-mai no ka-u-a i-ka ha-le we-la-ka-hao"

It won't be long when my ship will be sail-ing back to Ko-na -

A grand old place that's always fair to see -

I'm just a little Hawaiian and a homesick Island boy,

I want to go back to my fish and poi,

I want to go back to my little grass shack in Ke-a-la-ke-kua, Ha-wai-i.

Where the Hu-mu-hu-mu, Nu-ku-nu-ku a pu-a-a goes swimming by.

Where the Hu-mu-hu-mu, Nu-ku-nu-ku a pu-a-a goes swimming by.

Copyright MCMXXXIII by Sherman, Clay & Co., San Francisco