Hide and Seek in April 1920 – Submarine Style


One of my favorite submarine memories was the first time the USS San Francisco (SSN 711) anchored off the coast of Maui.

The mission leading up to that visit was not a long one but we were going to pick up members of some of our families after the stay was over and do a dependents cruise back to our home port in Pearl Harbor. It would be the first (and only) time my First Mate would get a chance to see me at work and ride a boat under the water.


Maui has long been a favorite place for sailors of all kinds and is legendary for its beauty and hospitality. So it wasn’t a surprise to read of this unique visit from an earlier submarine group one hundred years ago.

It was even less of a surprise to read about the incident in the second half of this story.

The Maui news. (Wailuku, Maui, H.I.), 30 April 1920

Subs And Airplanes Play Hide-And-Seek

Under-Sea And Air Fighters Visit Maui Enroute To Hilo Officers Ascend Haleakala Submarines Among Best Of Their Kind

Maui people were Interest this week in the maneuvers in local waters of three of Uncle Sam’s submarines in connection with two naval seaplanes which are playing a little game of hide and seek between Honolulu and Hilo and return. The underwater boats are the R-15, R-16, and R-17. They came first into Kahului harbor late last Friday afternoon and the following Sunday ran around to Lahaina where on Tuesday morning the two Flying boats, Nos. 41 and 42 joined them, from Honolulu.

A tender vessel, the Delaware was also at Lahaina and from her the airplanes replenished their fuel supply and continued on to Hilo, the submarines being scattered along the course. Three other submarines of the flotilla and of the same class, had already proceeded to Hilo where they were to be joined by the other units of the expedition. The submarines were in command of Commander F. X. Gygax, who is head of the entire submarine division in the Islands. He and seven of his officers took time on Saturday and Sunday to make an ascent of Haleakala and report a most pleasant trip.

With the exception of an “S” class of under-water fighters which are now being built, and of which but two or three vessel have yet been finished, the “R” subs are the latest thing the United States has in this class of craft. They are about 600 tons register and according to a naval officer are highly efficient. “The more we learn about the German submarines which caused so much trouble during the war”, said this officer, “the better we feel about our own boats.” There are at present 6 of the undersea fighters with permanent station at Pearl Harbor and more will probably be added before long.

The airplanes which are maneuvering this week are in command of Lt. Commander R.D. Kirkpatrick, who is in charge of the naval flying division in the Islands. This is the first time that the navy has attempted inter-island flights, all former flying of this kind having been done in army planes. It is reported that much of this kind of practice is probable in the future.

USS R-16 (SS-93) was an R-class coastal and harbor defense submarine of the United States Navy. Her keel was laid down by the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, California, on 26 April 1917. She was launched on 15 December 1917 sponsored by Mrs. Edward R. Wilson, and commissioned on 5 August 1918 with Lieutenant Commander Cecil Y. Johnston in command.

Following commissioning, R-16 proceeded to Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, whence she conducted patrols until December. Then ordered back to California, she remained on the West Coast into June 1919. On 17 June she got underway from San Francisco, California, and on 25 June, arrived at Pearl Harbor. Given hull classification symbol SS-93 in July 1920 she operated with fleet units for the next 11 years.

Interesting note: The R-16 boat served all the way until July of 1945 before being sold for scrap. That is 27 years. Even though not all of that time was in active service, it’s still not bad for a boat that was built with some pretty rudimentary methods of the day.

Now, as Paul Harvey would say: The Rest of the Story

Also on the front page:

Okolehao Gets Submarine Men Into Serious Pilikia

Four blue jackets from the submarine R-16, which was in Kahului harbor last Saturday, succeeded in making connection with the Maul okolehao supply last Saturday night, after which they made things lively in Wailuku for an hour or two before they were run in by the police.

Before this occurred, however, they had attempted to force their way into the home or Miss Ah Choy Young and her brother, on lower Market street near the bridge. Miss Young who was alone at the time, screamed for help when the men began throwing stones through the windows and to bombard the door. Neighbors phoned for the police and the disturbers were put in the cooler for the night. On Sunday morning they were turned over to the squadron commander who has preferred charges against all four men who will be court martialed.

Pilikia means trouble

Okolehao definition is – an alcoholic liquor distilled from ti or taro roots. In Hawaii, alcohol was first made by English sailors as a beer from fermented roots of the ti plant in the 1780’s. In 1790 an escaped Australian convict brought distillation to Hawaii, using the ti root beer to produce a highly alcoholic spirit which became Hawaii’s only indigenous distilled spirit, Okolehao.

The story of okolehao’s first appearance is a bit mysterious, but Isabella Aiona Abbott, in her book La’au Hawaii: Traditional Uses of Hawaiian Plants, attributes it to English ship captain Nathaniel Portlock. Part of captain Cook’s crew in 1780, Portlock needed a way to prevent scurvy among his sailors and so, according to Abbott, he dug up the root of a ti plant and, after baking it, fermented it into a crude sort of beer.

It took about 10 years for someone to finally distill the beer into liquor. That someone, according to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, was an escaped convict named William Stevenson who had fled the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia, by stowing away on a passing ship. The ship made land in the Hawaiian islands and soon thereafter the enterprising Stevenson used two large iron pots from a whaling ship to boil his distillate. To the native Hawaiians, the two pots resembled a person’s backside, so they gave the drink the name “okolehoa,” which roughly translates to “iron bottom.”

Illegally made oke, with the addition of sugar cane and pineapple, saturated Hawaii during both prohibitions.

At first okolehao was embraced, both by sailors from the West who craved something powerful (the stuff was almost pure alcohol) and by the native people, including chiefs and even king Kamehameha I. Fearing overindulgence, the king famously banned all “strong drink” in 1818.

The ban was partially due to the influence of Protestant missionaries like Hiram Bingham from the United States. Through their urging, the Hawaiian royalty began abandoning not only alcohol, but many of their traditional practices (even the Hula). And while liquor was legal for Westerners and colonists, it was banned among native people until Kamehameha I’s prohibition was lifted in 1833 by Kamehameha III.

This was the first of two prohibitions the islands suffered (the second being imposed by the U.S. government in 1920), and the first time the islands saw moonshining and bootlegging. Illegally made oke, with the addition of other ingredients like sugar cane and pineapple, saturated Hawaii during both prohibitions and up through World War II when other spirits weren’t so easily found — but it never really found its way off the islands.

Leave it to Bubbleheads to figure out a way to have a Liberty Incident in Paradise!

I don’t know if it’s the lifestyle or the inherent danger of the submarines they ride, but the connection between submariners and alcohol has always been a pretty strong one. I think it’s like you stared death in the face and death blinked. But you know it also might have been a twitch and next time it won’t.

I spent three short tours in Hawaii and loved the people I got to know as well as some of the unique language. Of course, the big ones of Aloha and Mahalo were the ones most of us saw pretty regularly. I read today that the proper response to the word Mahalo (thank you) could be “A’ole pilikia.”

That means, no problem! I hope all of your liberties are “A’ole pilikia.”

Postscript: In the same Maui Newspaper was a retrospective of the past twenty years. Included in that look back was this small item:

Happy Submarine Month 2020

Mister Mac

3 thoughts on “Hide and Seek in April 1920 – Submarine Style

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