The Honolulu Museum of Art has opened a small exhibit tucked away in the back of a second floor gallery that brings to life a story of World War II largely forgotten today.
“Camouflage Rhythms,” features artwork by Juliette May Fraser depicting life at a top-secret factory in Kalihi where, after the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, the Army recruited Hawaiian lei sellers to make camouflage.
Their work was vital. Fear was widespread that the Japanese bombers would launch another, even more brutal attack. The military wanted to be ready this time.
There was a scramble to produce as much camouflage as possible to hide planes and installations considered obvious targets for enemy bombers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headed the effort.
“The work brought people together who in more ordinary times would have had nothing in common,” says Honolulu Museum of Art curator Healoha Johnston.
Camouflage workers included soldiers, lei makers, artists and fishing net weavers, each group with skills to contribute to the challenge of hiding military equipment from the enemy.
Even Hawaiian language scholar Mary Kawena Pukui was hired to be a part of the camouflage work.
The Army figured lei sellers with their nimble fingers and understanding of texture and shape already had the needed skills for weaving scraps of fabric into camouflage nets.
Fish net makers joined in to make the netting on which the lei makers wove dyed burlap strips.
The army hired artist Fraser as a color specialist, along with another artist, Juanita Vitousek.
Fraser, working in faded jeans and a palaka shirt, bent over 50-gallon drums of dye as she figured out how to create colors that mirrored Hawaii’s environment.
The Punahou graduate was born in Hawaii in 1887 when Kalakaua was king. She knew the landscape as intimately as the Hawaiian lei makers did from their forays into the mountains to gather maile.
In an oral history, Fraser said of the lei makers: “They had good color sense and knew the sections of the island so they could help determining the colors to use for camouflaging different areas.”
A feisty Hawaiian woman named Agnes Makaiwi was the boss of the lei makers at the camouflage factory in the dairy building on the grounds of Kamehameha Schools.
In an oral history, Makaiwi’s daughter, Martina Macalino, said of her mother: “She is very aggressive. I have never seen a mother like her in all my life.”
Makaiwi was the president of the Hawaii Lei Sellers Association, which was formed in 1937 when more and more women were crowding the Honolulu Harbor, all vying to be first in line to sell leis to tourists arriving on ships.
City officials were concerned that things were getting out of hand. The women were shoving each other to get the tourists’ attention, sometimes getting into fistfights. It was making a bad impression.
At the urging of the police and city officials, the women created their own governing board, drafting their own rules. Makaiwi became skilled at lobbying politicians as she stuck up for the lei sellers’ rights.
“She was a force to be reckoned with, “ says Sarah Razee, who teaches history at Kamehameha Schools. Razee helped to provide historical background for the exhibit.
Her students, Sierra Wong, Carly Kajiwara, Ilima Peterson and Maile Spenser, completed research projects recently, as well as a documentary on the lei sellers’ camouflage efforts.
When the Army approached lei maker Makaiwi to do camouflage work, she negotiated fair salaries for her colleagues. And she persuaded the Army to hire as many of the lei makers as possible, even some quite elderly women who ordinarily might have been overlooked.
“She never let anyone push her around, she was a business woman. She was a real advocate for the lei sellers,” says Razee.
Fraser’s prints and paintings depict some of the unexpected hardship of camouflage work, such as the hot and cumbersome gloves the workers hated wearing.
Fraser wrote in her book, “Ke Anuenue”: “The rubber gloves worn to protect the hands of the worker in dye vats became the symbol of camouflage work. Discarded on the slightest pretext, they menaced from the poles of drying racks, yearned from wheelbarrow handles, or waved salutes from trees and fences.”
Art curator Johnston says that people talk about the patriotism of the lei makers and the fishing net makers, but after Pearl Harbor the camouflage work “was really out of economic necessity.”
The lei makers, known popularly as “boat girls,” were struggling to support their families. Tourists had stopped coming to Hawaii. The waterfront was surging instead with ships bringing in troops and war material.
The fish net makers were also desperate for money because everyday fishing had come to a halt with intensified military shoreline patrols.
“Originally, it might have been about being able to make a living,” Razee says. “But as the camouflage makers worked side by side, they were drawn together in a larger common purpose to protect their families and their homeland.”
They sang Hawaiian songs as they toiled in the hot and dusty Kalihi factory and taught each other hula.
Johnston says the Army bosses originally didn’t like the singing. “They told them this is serious business. We are at war,” she says.
But as time went on, the bosses stopped heckling the women when they saw how productive they were. Eventually the factory made more than enough camouflage netting for Hawaii and started sending its surplus camouflage to U.S. military installations in other parts of the Pacific.
“When people talk about World War II, they generally bring up the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the internment of Japanese citizens,” Razee says. “Stories of lei makers and how Hawaii’s civilians joined together to help in the war effort tend to be forgotten. But they are the stories that make history come alive.”
“That is my mission, to urge my students to research stories that people may not know about,” Razee says.
Her students are still gathering information about the lei makers and would like anyone related to one of the camouflage workers or who has more information about the factory to call her at Kamehameha Schools.
“Camouflage Rhythms: Artwork by Juliette May Fraser” will be on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art until Sept. 7. Below are additional images from the exhibit: