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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 30, 2001

Hawai'i's last searchlight illuminates a bygone era

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

They were, before the creation of the atom bomb, just about the brightest man-made objects ever fashioned — capable of blasting 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit of carbon arc energy, via a 5-foot parabolic reflector, into shafts of blinding light 800 million candlepower strong.

John Weiser aims his vintage World War II searchlight toward the moon. In 1957, Weiser came up with the idea of using the old World War II-era searchlights as a promotional tool for his radio station.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The colossal columns of whiteness beamed more than 26,000 feet into the night sky and were visible for a distance of 35 miles.

Throughout World War II, these anti-aircraft searchlights, designed solely to assist in shooting down enemy planes, were occasional dramatic intruders into the darkness over blacked-out O'ahu.

For years after the war, they were employed as promotional beacons to lure Honolulu crowds to fairs, special events and film premieres. As time passed, and high-rise buildings increasingly blocked their mighty rays, military searchlights all but flickered out in Hawai'i.

Now, what could be O'ahu's last working World War II-vintage searchlight sits atop a red fire engine in Moanalua and will be used to signify memorial services. It is owned by John Weiser.

As the man who virtually invented searchlight promotion in Hawai'i in the 1950s, Weiser, who owns a discount mortuary and casket outlet in Moanalua, plays a prominent role in O'ahu's searchlight history.

But the story of Hawai'i's searchlights dates back to the time of America's entry into World War II.

Alfred Hope, who was an Army searchlight operator, vividly remembers O'ahu's day — and night — of infamy. "I was there on Dec. 7, 1941," said Hope, 82, of Milwaukee.

As panic swept over the island, military authorities were seized with the idea that the Japanese bombers might return that evening, Hope said.

"That night, they put us in a cane field over by Pearl City with our searchlight," he said. "Somebody took off in an airplane, and the other companies turned on their lights, and they shot that plane out of the air — one of our own guys."

Tragically, it was not the only American aircraft gunned down by friendly fire that night, due in no small measure to the number of searchlights illuminating the sky.

The exact number of searchlights that were operated by all branches of the military here is unclear. But Hope, who was stationed on O'ahu throughout the entire war, says the Army alone had 90.

Weiser estimates the total number of O'ahu searchlights was 200 or more. One published panoramic photo from the era, from around 1943, shows what appears to be dozens of Navy searchlights shining skyward in Pearl Harbor.

Yet for all that candlepower, there is little record of enemy aircraft ever ending up in the searchlight glare over O'ahu. This was because O'ahu was under martial law during the war and the military withheld all war-related information from the press.

However, there was at least one reported searchlight incident.

"The mighty fortress of Oahu sprang to attention to repulse an enemy aircraft before dawn Sunday morning when an unidentified plane was caught in the beam of a powerful searchlight," said an Associated Press story of Oct. 18, 1943.

The story went on to say the offending aircraft made an immediate dive, reversed course and "sped out to sea at low altitude," never to be seen again. There was no mention of shots being fired.

John Weiser, who played a prominent role in O'ahu's searchlight history, says he'll never sell Hawai'i's last World War II vintage searchlight.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The 60-inch reflector searchlights were built by two companies, General Electric and Sperry Gyroscope, to military specifications. Including a 15,000 watt generator, control station, sound locator system, spare parts, tools, accessories and the searchlight itself, the 7,000-pound outfits back then reportedly cost taxpayers $60,000 apiece.

Immediately after the war, surplus searchlights could be bought for a couple hundred bucks, the price of a used car.

In 1957, fresh out of business school on the West Coast, Weiser arrived in Honolulu with a bright idea: Start a radio station, call it KUMU and use old military searchlights to promote it at popular venues.

By the 1960s, Weiser and crew were working with a total of 10 vintage searchlights.

"I was one of the guys who ran them for Weiser," said Lowell Angell, who is with the University of Hawai'i community relations office. "They were just like giant movie projectors. When we'd change the carbon rods, sometimes we'd point them at Diamond Head, or at the mountains or someone's apartment building five miles away. It was a lot of fun."

Weiser says Honolulu police even enlisted him to use searchlights to fight crime. "A couple of times they asked me to set them up in a parking lot and flush armed robbers off rooftops," he said. "And once, in 1965, there was a sniper on the Pali shooting at tour buses with a high-powered rifle. We hit him with the beam and he just gave up."

Weiser finally sold four searchlights back to the government, for a profit, and two years ago he hawked all but one of the remainder to Jerry Wayne of San Antonio. Wayne owns Skyview, the world's largest supplier of World War II-era searchlight parts.

"I wish I could find more searchlights," said Wayne, who sells them refurbished for $18,000 to $30,000 and estimates there are only 1,500 of the vintage behemoths remaining of the thousands that were made from the mid-1930s to 1942.

But Wayne won't get Weiser's last searchlight, a 1942 beauty that Weiser imported from New Mexico because its reflector was in better condition than any of his Hawai'i searchlights. Weiser has mounted it atop a 1965 Crown fire engine. People have tried to rent it, Weiser said. No deal. This one is special. This one has a divine mission: helping to symbolically escort the dear departed to the great beyond.

"We're going to use it as a promotion for a 'Heavenly Beam' package," Weiser said. "Since this is the only searchlight left, anytime you see it, you know it's a memorial to somebody. We've gone to a new level. We're using it to send souls into the sky."

Will Hoover can be reached at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8038.