“Sorry, Bruddah, I dongo to Sand Island!”

24 06 2012

My first trip to Hawaii was in 1973. I was there for nine days awaiting transportation to my next duty station at Johnston Atoll (see earlier posts tagged Johnston Island). While there, I stayed at the Coast Guard Base on Sand Island. Sand Island is a small island situated in the mouth of Honolulu Harbor. There is a single road, cleverly named Sand Island Access Road, leading across a bridge from downtown Honolulu. I don’t know what Sand Island is like today, but in 1973 it was a rough place, somewhat industrialized with docks and stacked freight containers. There also seemed to be a hefty population of homeless people living in makeshift shanties and cardboard boxes along the beach.

You didn’t want to be outside the base gate at night. Up to and while I was there, there had been several murders on Sand Island. It seemed there was a report every night on the local news about another murder on Sand Island.

While there, I didn’t have any responsibilities. I kept busy by helping an older Hawaiian gentleman maintain palm trees on base. My workday was short and I had no one really to report to. It was almost as if I had been forgotten. Not bad duty.

“Bo, you’re one crazy dude!”

The base ran a shuttle van into town about every hour from 8:00 in the morning until around 9:00 PM. The only van driver I recall was a young Coastie who apparently, at some point in his career, had made some bad choices. We’ll call him Bo. Bo had been busted in rank, according to him, three times. He was also fond of the weed. Maybe that had something to do with the stripes missing from his sleeve. Bo would leave the base and drive across the bridge and around to Nimitz Highway which turned into Ala Moana Boulevard.  He would drop off his passengers in front of the office building of the 14th Coast Guard District Headquarters, turn around and then return to the base.

I wanted to go downtown so I caught the shuttle. As always, Bo drove down Ala Moana and was approaching his turn-around point when traffic suddenly came to a screeching halt. Perhaps you heard recently that Honolulu has been ranked as the worst city in the United States for traffic. Well, it wasn’t much better then. So here we sat in an un-air conditioned military van, stuck in traffic a mere half block away from the drop-off point.

Bo was not one to follow the rules-again as evidenced by his unadorned uniform sleeve. So he drove up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. He drove down the sidewalk the remaining distance to the corner where he was to turn around. When he got to the corner, I, along with the other passengers got out. Bo just leaned out the window, reached over and pressed the button for the pedestrian crosswalk. When the light changed and the traffic came to a stop, he simply wheeled back out into the street heading back toward the base at Sand Island.

I enjoyed my trip into town and later found a nice restaurant with live entertainment. It was a very Don Ho-ish show featuring some guy singing Hawaiian music, but not Don Ho.

Won’t Someone Take Me Home?

My day having ended, it was time to return to the base. But, I had a problem. While enjoying the music, I had let time slip away and had missed the last shuttle. So, I called a taxi from a public pay phone by the sidewalk in front of a used car lot. The driver picked me up and, of course,  asked me where I wanted to go.

“The Coast Guard Base on Sand Island.” I told him.

“Sorry, bruddah. I dongo to Sand Island.”

The well deserved reputation as a dangerous place had scared him and many other drivers away from Sand Island.

He told me he would take me as far as the bridge. I asked if it would be too far to walk from the bridge and he said, “I canletchu walk, bruddhah. Stoo dangerous.”  So, he assured me he would get me back to the base. He got on his radio and called another cab with a driver who was brave enough to go out onto Sand Island. The driver then took me as far as the bridge and waited there with me for the other taxi to show up and take me the rest of the way. All in all, an interesting day. Certainly not like any day around the house.

USCG Base Honolulu

Coast Gaurd Base Honolulu Front Gate-1973

Coast Guard Base Honolulu Main Gate-2012

Diamond Head from Waikiki-1973

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5 responses

8 10 2013
Randy

Hey Bill — really enjoyed your post about the USCG base on Sand Island. I can relate — I was there for a month in March 1983. The photo you posted from 1973 looks exactly the same as I remember it in ’83. In fact, I think I still have my photo of that same sign! I was not in the Coast Guard, but worked there for a month as part of my post-grad training.

I had no idea about any murders on the island outside of the base — thank God! I remember that shuttle bus as well. Like you, I had a “late night experience” with it once. I somehow got on the wrong bus, which went to Hickham Air Force Base, instead of the USCG base. Of course I wasn’t allowed into Hickam since I wasn’t military, and only had clearance (and an ID) for the Coast Guard. When I told the driver I made a mistake, he dropped me off alongside the road, and told me to wait there — he’d radio another bus to get me and bring me back to the USCG base. There I was, alone in the darkness — wondering if that bus would ever REALLY show up. (He reminded me of the guy you wrote about on your post — that’s why I was worried!). I imagined (and feared) I’d have to WALK the 8 miles back in the darkness to the Coast Guard base — not sure of which roads to take or where I’d be going. And they were very dark, and I didn’t have a flashlight or a map..

Of course back in 1983 there were no mobile phones, so the fact that there was no means of any communication made it even more terrifying. I’m glad I had NO CLUE about the murders you wrote about!! But after about 10 minutes of standing alongside the deserted road, I saw headlights approaching. Sure enough, it was the bus. When I began to tell the driver what happened, he reassured me immediately — “No worries, it happens all the time out here,” he said. Still, for the rest of my time in Honolulu, I NEVER ever missed that shuttle bus back to Sand Island.

9 10 2013
Bill Taylor

I know exactly what you mean about returning. I’ve learned over the years that as time passes, we develop a desire to return to those exotic places we have visited, even though the visit may not have been a wonderful experience. I read in the news just recently where they finally tore down the Malahini Hotel. I stayed there once. Cheap and right off Waikiki but a really good experience.

9 10 2013
Randy

Just a follow-up on my previous reply. Thanks again for posting your story and photos. It was great to go back to that place in my mind, despite my rather unpleasant late night bus experience. Thinking about it more, maybe things had changed between 1973 and 1983. I can’t believe that driver would have left me out on that deserted road if the area was really dangerous (but, then again, who knows!). Also, when I was there, the USCG shuttle did not go all the way into downtown Honolulu — it just stopped at the nearest Honolulu City Public Bus-stop (still in a fairly “seedy” area), where you would have to catch a city bus into town. It was at that bus stop, on the way back, where I mistakenly got onto the Hickam shuttle.

Have you been back since? I vowed to get back to HI, but never did. Might possibly go next year. It was cool to see the current photos of the base that you posted…. but I may not make it back to Sand Island to see it in person. Some things are better left in the past!

9 10 2013
Bill Taylor

I wish you well in your hopes to return to Hono. Yes, I’ve been back several times since then but never made it back to Sand Island. Good luck my friend.

10 10 2013
Randy

FYI, I’m now enjoying reading of your experiences on Johnston Atoll/Island as well (at first I was confused — not realizing that there was a Sand Island next to JI as well). When I was at the USCG base in Hono in ’83, I met a guy who was stationed on Kure Island (now Kure Atoll) — the western most place in the State of Hawaii, almost 1400 miles from Hono. Talk about remote! He had flown in for the weekend and a sampling of “city life”.

There used to be a USCG LORAN station there, as well as a runway. All of that has been closed down and unmaintained. Kinda sad, in a weird way. Sometimes those remote areas can really be fascinating. I know I’ll enjoy reading more of your experiences on Johnston.

Thanks again for your blog — all the best to you!

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