The Effects of War: Martial Law in Hawaii

August 18, 2017

In the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, while the rest of the United States was gearing up for the great fight against the Axis Powers, the Hawaiian Islands were still stunned by what had happened in their midst. Though not yet a state, responsibility for Hawaii’s safety went to US officials due to its status as an American territory; and their actions after the attack were were influenced by paranoia, fear, and a perceived lack of options. This is the hisstory of martial law in Hawaii.

While there was no question of who the enemy was, that actually made the situation in the islands even more difficult. At the time, approximately 37% of the population were people of Japanese descent, and although some—out of fear of insider attacks—thought it would be prudent to imprison them all and let the islands try to function as normally as possible, that course of action would have been impossible for many reasons.

Seeing no other course of action, US officials placed Hawaii under martial law and everyone, regardless of ethnicity, was forced to live under conditions that have since been called unfair and even extreme.

Martial Law in Hawaii

Even while Pearl Harbor and the surrounding airfields were still in flames, the Hawaiian Islands were placed under martial law. Believing that anyone could be an enemy, military officials took no chances, keeping an eye on all residents, though they paid extra-close attention to Japanese-Americans.

In anticipation of a second attack, residents were ordered to dig make-shift bomb shelters. Beaches were no longer just places for recreation and instead looked like military zones. Barbed wire was everywhere. Military officials tried to let residents go about their daily lives, but there was much that got in the way of that goal.

Martial law in Hawaii – Barbed wire on Waikiki Beach

Barbed wire on Waikiki Beach

At sundown, a complete black-out took effect, and a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew was enforced. Civil liberties were curtailed, and civilian courts were suspended.

For three years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, conditions in the islands were difficult. Under martial law in Hawaii, food was rationed, liquor and bars were strictly controlled, and even photography along the coasts was banned. It was a miserable time for island residents, partially due to fear of a potential threat from Japan, but mainly due to the impossible conditions in which they suddenly found themselves living.


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