In ongoing media coverage of demonstrations at the base of Maunakea, many hundreds of people can be seen standing on a black lava flow that surrounds the Puu Huluhulu Native Tree Sanctuary adjacent to the Daniel K. Inouye Highway. That same lava flow continues on the other side of the highway, which traverses the saddle between Mauna Loa and Maunakea.
The eruption that produced the lava flow started at the summit crater of Mauna Loa on Nov. 21, 1935, and quickly progressed into the volcano’s upper Northeast Rift Zone. From there, lava advanced to the west, away from Hilo, the largest city on the island.
On Nov. 27, another vent opened lower on the north flank of Mauna Loa, from which an additional lava flow quickly advanced to the north. Within 10 days, the flow had stalled at the base of Maunakea but remained active. This lava was known as the Humuula flow.
The lava flow worried residents of Hilo for a time because, after ponding and likely inflating behind Puu Huluhulu, it suddenly broke out toward the city at alarming rates of about 1.5-2 miles per day for nearly a week in late December.
Thomas Jaggar, who was director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at the time, had been warning island residents about the potential destruction by future lava flows over the past year. When it appeared that the 1935 Humuula flow was headed toward Hilo, he wanted to divert the lava by bombing the flow and requested Army airplanes from Oahu to do the job.
The bombing operation launched from the Hilo airport on Friday, Dec. 27, 1935. After the military planes dropped bombs near the eruptive vent, the flow appeared to slow. A few days later, Jaggar declared success, and most Hilo residents, relieved by his words, went back to their normal tasks.
But not everyone was happy.
On Dec. 28, an article on the front page of the Hilo Tribune Herald was titled, “Pele Angry! Old Natives express fear of bombing.” The article went on to quote several Hawaiians. “Pele should not be disturbed. This bombing is a folly. It will do more harm than good. If Pele makes up her mind to come to Hilo it is not for man to dissuade her by artificial methods. She cannot be stopped that way.”
Harry Keliihoomalu, a longtime Puna resident, went to the Hilo airfield to warn the pilots of Pele’s anger and then visited the newspaper’s office to voice his objections. “Why don’t they leave Pele alone? They shouldn’t interfere with the flow. If Pele decides to flow to Hilo, there’s nothing that they can do to stop her.”
Eben (Rawhide Ben) Low, kamaaina resident and one-time cowboy and rodeo star, agreed. “Dropping a bomb into the Mauna Loa lava flow is like throwing a peanut into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, for all the good it will do.”
Was the bombing successful? Jaggar was the only geologist to claim so.
Jaggar’s boss, Edward G. Wingate, superintendent of Hawaii National Park (as it was called then), was non-committal. Prior to the actual bombing, Wingate had been skeptical of the use of airplanes and arranged transport of the explosives to the vent by land. But after Jaggar exclaimed the bombing a success, Wingate simply deferred to Jaggar’s claim.
Contemporary geologists were unconvinced, and, in more recent times, studies of the 1935 flow show that its slowing was probably coincident with, rather than caused by, the bombing. In hindsight, one could conclude that the bombing was indeed a folly.