- Historic Sites
Long before it became a state, Hawaii enchanted Americans with a vision of tropical ease, languid music, and a steady throb of sensuality. That life disappeared on December 7, 1941, but vivid traces of it remain.
April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
One of the most enduring features of From Here to Eternity is Jones’s easy familiarity not only with military life but with the smells and sights of pre-war Hawaii. He knew about the hillside houses perched high above the city (Lorene lives there), that secret beach cove (Karen and Warden make love there), but most intimately of all, he knew Chinatown, with its noodle shops, brothels disguised as hotels, and “always and eternally everywhere, pervading everything like Fate, the smells of rotting meat and dead wilted vegetables from the open-fronted grocery stores with their folding lattice (like an old-fashioned wall phone you pulled out to use) drawn across and locked, keeping you out and not keeping in the smells that we will forever remember as the attar of Hawaii.”
Chinatown is still very much a part of Hawaii’s culture. It’s cleaner, perhaps, but on Saturday mornings when all the meat and vegetable stands are crowded with shoppers, the “attar of Hawaii” lives on. Late at night, despite the city planners, little has changed. So have a bowl of won ton soup at Wo Fat (it’s still there) and drink a toast to Private Prewitt. He might just be the most memorable character in postwar American fiction. Neil Abercrombie, a U.S. congressman from Hawaii, thinks so. From Prewitt, the congressman once said in a speech, “I learned about the meaning of integrity, honesty, and above all, what it takes to be human.”
After the Pearl Harbor attack, barbed wire went up in front of the Moana, the Royal Hawaiian, and the Halekulani. Camouflage paint shrouded Aloha Tower. Doris Duke’s recently installed mirhab was hastily taken down and put in storage. Suddenly the Nisei sons of Japanese plantation workers went off to war, distinguished themselves in battle, and came home with a new pride and new aspirations. Statehood for Hawaii was not to come for 14 years after World War II ended, but when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, an era ended.