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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 21, 2003

Group recalls dark events of Hale Mohalu

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Bernard Punikaia once called it a day of terror.

Bernard Punikaia, a Hansen's disease patient, refused to leave Hale Mohalu and had to be carried out before the complex was razed.

Advertiser library photo • Sept. 21, 1983

Twenty years ago today, armed state agents burst into a crumbling facility where Hansen's disease patients were treated in Pearl City. The agents forcibly evicted the last residents and their supporters. Then buildings were bulldozed to the ground.

The TV and newspaper images of Punikaia and fellow patient Clarence Naia being carried, stoic and peaceful, from their hospital home touched thousands of people, many of whom saw the evictions as an act of arrogance by a state bureaucracy that valued dollars over humanity.

This morning on the same site, where a senior citizen housing complex has been built through Punikaia's dogged efforts, friends will gather for a lu'au to remember the day some believe marked a defining moment for civil and Hawaiian rights in the state.

"There's going to be some tears and a lot of laughter," said Dr. Fred Dodge, one of 16 supporters who were arrested that day with Punikaia and Naia. "I'm looking forward to it because it's a story with a happy ending."

There wasn't anything happy about the story at the time.

As many as 100 patients once lived in the 11-acre facility built above Pearl Harbor on a gently sloping hill dotted with coconut trees imported from Kalaupapa. It was called Hale Mohalu, or house of relaxation.

Since the 1950s, though, state officials had let the collection of World War II barracks fall into disrepair. In 1978 they decided to transfer the remaining 13 patients to a new home at Leahi Hospital for patients of Hansen's disease, also known as leprosy.

When they refused to move, state workers cut essential services such as electricity in a dawn raid and withdrew nurses who were helping the patients. Many thought that would be the end of the dispute, but they hadn't counted on the tenacity of Naia, Punikaia and friends.

"It was a tremendous injustice," said Dodge, who occasionally worked with the patients at the hospital. "The patients loved it because it was a nice rural area, but they could walk to stores where they knew the proprietors who weren't aback by the disfigurements of the disease."

For five years the patients continued to live in Hale Mohalu, sometimes without regular electricity, running water or regular medical care. They cooked on camp stoves with food and other donations supplied by hundreds of supporters, while a series of legal battles were fought in Hawai'i and federal appeals courts on the Mainland.

"I still believe in Santa Claus," Punikaia said at the time. "I believe the good people will come out OK."

It turned out he was right and wrong.

When the legal appeals finally ran out, the bulldozers moved in. On a rainy morning, with a police helicopter overhead, state law enforcement officials acting with military precision sealed off the area, cut the chain off a locked gate and began arresting patients and supporters who wouldn't leave willingly. In all, 11 men and seven women were arrested. Eventually all but one was cleared of the charges.

By the end of the day, every building was razed.

"It was horrible," said Wally Inglis, one of the supporters and an organizer of today's anniversary celebration. "I don't think we recognized the full significance of what was happening."

At the time, state officials said they had no plans to redevelop the area, but officials later presented a proposal to build a sports complex there.

Again, they hadn't counted on the persistence of Punikaia, who vowed to see Hale Mohalu rebuilt. It took more than a decade, but he finally got his wish.

Punikaia, who was forced to live out of a car and on the streets for several years after his eviction, lobbied legislators, staged small protests, talked to friendly groups, tried his hand at fund raising, and refused to let the issue die.

Finally, the nonprofit Coalition for Specialized Housing, with the help of the Hawai'i Council of Churches, was able to build a 210-unit senior citizen housing complex that opened in 1996. Three of the buildings are named in honor of former patients who died during the struggle.

It's in that complex, still known as Hale Mohalu, that Punikaia (who recently suffered a stroke), Naia and about 300 friends and supporters will gather privately to remember the day the bulldozers came.

Dodge said the ramifications of the day go far beyond the Hale Mohalu struggle. It was an example that showed Hawaiians and others they didn't have to be pushed around in their own home. It spurred a number of other land protests and contributed to a change in the way civil rights and Hawaiian struggles have played out over the last 20 years, he said.

"These guys are heroes in my mind. What they did took an enormous amount of courage and they influenced a lot of the rest of us," he said.

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Correction: Dr. Fred Dodge was one of the people arrested at the Hale Mohalu in Pearl City in 1983. His name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.