April 1, 1946: Hawaiian Tsunami Wreaks Destruction

On April 1, 1946, an 8.6-magnitude earthquake off the Aleutian Islands triggered a tsunami that raced at 500 mph across the Pacific and roared ashore in Hawaii, killing 159 people. It was the largest wave to hit Hawaii in modern history.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin: April 1, 1946

At 2:29 a.m. local time, a large earthquake struck offshore near the Aleutian Islands, a chain of volcanic islands between Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. The quake generated a towering wave estimated to be 100 feet tall. It washed over a lighthouse on Unimak Island and continued its high-speed dash across the Pacific. Tsunami waves hit Alaska and eventually brought six-foot swells to California.

Large wave washes over lighthouse in Alaska. The Nome Nugget: April 1, 1946

About four hours after the quake, waves estimated at 45 feet arrived in Kauai. It took another hour for the waves, now 37 feet, to arrive in Hilo. Marsue McGinnis was a teacher at the Laupahoehoe school, north of Hilo. Just after 7:00 a.m., she noticed large waves hitting the beach. A group of children, also attracted by the waves, congregated on the beach. Suddenly, a giant wave thundered ashore and crashed into her cottage, sweeping her out to sea. She found a log and clung to it. All around her, children were also clinging to debris. McGinnis spent nine hours in the turbulent ocean before rescuers spotted her in 30-foot seas and launched a small rescue boat. They saved McGinnis and two children.

Tragically, other schoolchildren and teachers died. The teachers were inside their cottages preparing for the day when a wave crashed ashore and demolished the buildings. The tsunami hit, not with a single wave, but a succession. One survivor from Oahu recalled waves coming ashore about 15 minutes apart, with the third or fourth wave being the largest.

In Hilo alone, 96 people died, and the bayfront business district was nearly demolished. Stories of heroism emerged. In Hilo, firefighters learned a man was trapped by fallen timber in his store. Despite the imminent threat, with another wave approaching, they raced to the scene and freed the man. They barely escaped as the next wave crashed ashore. The tsunami caused $26 million in damage ($411 million in today’s dollars).

Following the 1946 disaster, scientists began a concerted effort to study tsunamis and develop forecasting capabilities. In 1948, the Seismic Sea Wave Warning System was established (later changing its name to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center). The early warning system used seismic data, tide gauges, and a communications network to provide early warnings for tsunami threats. If you would like to learn more about the 1946 Hawaiian tsunami, search Newspapers.com™ today.

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15 thoughts on “April 1, 1946: Hawaiian Tsunami Wreaks Destruction

    1. It did not say nothing about Northern Pacific she said it across the Pacific she never mentioned Northern Pacific or Northern nothing it says it dashed across the Pacific if I knows what area she’s talking about the story is explainatorial itself after the first few paragraphs everybody knows I’m pretty positive the area she’s refraining into I swear people got to pick out everything little thing they think is wrong with somebody’s story or was something somebody doing what a world we live in today

  1. In the 2nd paragraph I think you mean it raced across the northern Pacific, not southern. Alaska and Hawaii are both in the Northern Hemisphere.

  2. Tragic event but, sorry, what fun for me to see this. My my mom was there – visiting my father (then a LTjg in the Navy), her fiancé – and witnessed this and filed a report with her newspaper, The Chicago Times, which ran on April 3, 1946. The headline was “TIMES reporter sees terrifying tidal wave”. Mom was credited with the by line: “By Carolyn Levin” and identified as “Special TIMES Correspondence” for her two columns of copy. She was always very proud of that article which was, I think, the first of many overseas columns she filed.

    1. Gary – Thanks for the story about your mom. It’s great to hear a broader story outside the tragedy that newspapers rightly report. Perfect for a reporter that she was on the spot.

      1. Hi Ginger, You’re welcome. With WWII my dad enlisted but mom finished her degree (double major, Journalism and Home Economics) at Wisconsin (Madison) and got her first job at the Chicago Times. Before her trip to Hawaii she was doing articles on food, movie reviews, and the advice to war wives column (under somebody else’s by line). After Hawaii she was able to do more reporting, including from South America. Reporting on the tidal wave always was one of her most memoriable moments.

    2. I think my dad knew that teacher. His name was Robert Newlon. He was teaching in Hawaii at the time of the tragedy, but on the other side of the island from where the waves hit. He always told the story about a teacher friend of his who was washed out to sea by the tsunami, and how her boyfriend went out looking for her in his boat, and eventually found and rescued her. It seems like a slightly enhanced version of the story in this article. The school teachers recruited to teach in Hawaii after World War II all knew each other, and continued to correspond with each other in a round-robin letter for the rest of their lives.

  3. My parents lived in Hilo at the time and my father worked for the sugar plantation. He shared having to drive out that early morning to check on the roads and felt the need to stop. Thankfully he did a check on foot, as the road between the gulch was gone and most likely wouldn’t have survived that fall in a vehicle.

    One of my favorite places to go to was Laupahoehoe growing up. I’ve got a picture of the monument where so many sadly lost their lives. https://photos.app.goo.gl/VWgHmM9bqrkSYYd36

    1. Thank you so much for that photo! It really adds so much more context to the Laupahoehoe tragedy. Poor Peter Nakano, losing his whole family so soon after starting it.

  4. I recall in the 1950s a television dramatic series recreated this event.
    Wish could remember more than this.

  5. I was an active 1 year old and 5 months when this happened. I recall seeing a piece of straw stuck through a fence post when on an Easter Sunday tornado swept through i area where I was growing up. I wondered what force could do that. I’m 80 now and have seen the Florida Everglades swallow an airplane during Andrew. Mother Nature is so much more violate than any war that I’ve through any lived to read your relocations of April 1, 1946. Thanks for all your comments..

  6. Marsue McGinnis first met Dr. Leabert Fernandez when he rescued her from the wave. They married 3 mos. later. She lives in Kailua.

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