Remember the Aztec! Remember Hawaii’s Role in World War I

One hundred years ago this week, World War I had been raging for nearly three years. One hundred years ago this week, the United States entered the conflict, declaring war on Germany.

“Lafayette, Nous Voilà”

Just two summers later, America was sending 10,000 soldiers a day to Europe. A few months after that, it was over. The Allies, with America’s help, had won the gargantuan, horrific, and horribly misnamed War to End All Wars.

One of the events that precipitated the U.S. declaration of war on April 6, 1917, was the torpedoing just days earlier of a U.S. cargo vessel, S.S. Aztec, by a German U-boat off the coast of France.

Flag officers salute at Sunday's ceremony at Aloha Tower marking the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I.

The centennial-opening ceremony at Aloha Tower. (Credit: Hawaii DOD Public Affairs)

The Aztec, with a crew including a number of Hawaii residents, was one of five U.S. merchant vessels sunk after Germany declared unrestricted warfare on neutral shipping. Survivor Charles Nakao told the story of the attack in a letter home to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Six of Nakao’s Aztec shipmates — sailors from Hawaii — were the first from the then-territory to die in the Great War. By the time the conflict ended, there were more than 100 Hawaii dead. More than 10,000 from the islands – a huge number, given Hawaii’s population at the time – had volunteered to serve.

100 Years Later: “Chicken-skin Moments”

The Hawaii World War I Centennial Task Force has launched 19 months of commemoration of Hawaii’s role in the war. It began Sunday, April 2, with a ceremony at Aloha Tower at Honolulu Harbor (Flickr photo album here), followed by the laying of flowers on the water from a flotilla offshore.

Attendees toss flowers into the sea to honor those lost in the 1917 sinking of the S.S. Aztec. (Credit: Donna L. Ching)

Attendees toss flowers into the sea to honor those lost in the 1917 sinking of the S.S. Aztec. (Credit: Donna L. Ching)


Someone on one of the vessels sent back this moving account: “Chicken-skin moments when the Coast Guard Cutter Ahi was approached first by a very large turtle, and then was tailed by a large shark, and finally was approached by a school of dolphins. It was as if the Aztec mariners and all of the Hawaii WWI vets were sending their aumakua to accompany us.”

More to Come

The elected leaders of Hawaii and of the city and county of Honolulu issued proclamations to mark the launch of 19 months of anniversary observances. Mahalo to them!

The Friends of the Natatorium are supporting the state task force’s activities throughout the centennial period. We will keep you apprised of upcoming events; follow our Facebook page for the latest updates.

We especially invite you to mark Nov. 11, 2018, on your calendars now. On that Veterans Day – known as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in much of the world – Hawaii will mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that brought World War I combat to an end. The task force is planning a very special ceremony. We hope it will be held at the War Memorial Natatorium in Waikiki, Hawaii’s official memorial to those who served in the Great War.

Categories: Elected officials, Friends of the Natatorium, History, and Veterans.

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