The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 lasted 110-minutes, from 7:55 am until 9:45 am. By 10:30 am, in co-operation with the Navy, the Army began to apply a tight censorship to prevent the transmission from Hawaiʻi of any unauthorized information about the attack or about the condition of Oʻahu’s defense forces after it was over.
Shortly after, Joseph Boyd Poindexter, Governor of the Territory of Hawaiʻi, by proclamation, invoked the powers granted him under the M-Day Act.
Titled ‘Hawaiian Defense Act 1941,’ the M-Day Act (M standing for mobilization) was first introduced in the legislature in April, 1941. It contemplated that in a maximum emergency, the Governor was authorized to declare a state of emergency in attempt to avoid the necessity of martial law. (Green)
At 11:30 am, December 7, 1941, Governor Poindexter exercised his powers and “declare(d) and proclaim(ed) a defense period to exist throughout the Territory of Hawaiʻi.”
However, at 3:30 pm of the same day, Poindexter issued a second proclamation where he placed the Territory of Hawaiʻi under martial law and authorized the “Commanding General, Hawaiian Department, during the present emergency and until the danger of invasion is removed, to exercise all the powers normally exercised by me as Governor”. He followed-up with a telegram to the President of the US.
“I have today declared martial law throughout the Territory of Hawaii and have suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. Your attention is called to section 67 of the Hawaiian Organic Act for your decision of my action.” (Governor Poindexter to President Roosevelt, December 7, 1941)
(Writ of habeas corpus (‘that you have the body’) is a process in the US system used to bring a party who has been criminally convicted in state court into federal court. Usually, writs of habeas corpus are used to review the legality of the party’s arrest, imprisonment or detention.) (Cornell Law School)
The President responded, “Your telegram of December 7th received and your action in suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus and placing the Territory of Hawaii under martial law in accordance with USC Title 48, Section 532 has my approval.” (President Roosevelt to Governor Poindexter, December 9, 1941)
The Army’s Commanding General of the Hawaiian Department (Lt General Short) became the Military Governor of Hawai’i, assuming comprehensive executive, legislative and judicial powers.
The martial law regime affected every resident of the Territory of Hawaiʻi, citizen and foreign alike. Never before or after in American history were US citizens kept under martial law in such numbers or for so long a time.
On the first day, December 7th, an advisory board was appointed consisting of informed local citizens. At 6:04 pm, the police radio broadcast: “From now on nobody allowed out of their homes.”
All saloons were closed, and a Provost Court and Military Commission were appointed for the enforcement of the orders of the Military Governor. (Green)
In his first proclamation as Military Governor on December 7, 1941, Lt General Short stated that: “I shall therefore shortly publish ordinances governing the conduct of the people of the Territory with respect to the showing of lights, circulation, meetings, censorship, possession of arms, ammunition, and explosives, the sale of intoxicating liquors and other subjects.”
“In order to assist in repelling the threatened invasion of our island home, good citizens will cheerfully obey this proclamation and the ordinances to be published; others will be required to do so. Offenders will be severely punished by military tribunals or will be held in custody until such time that the civil courts are able to function.”
Martial law suspended constitutional rights, turned the civilian courts over to the military, imposed blackout and curfew, rationing of food and gasoline, censorship of mail and news media, temporary prohibition, realigned business hours, froze wages, and regulated currency.
All civilians over six years of age were required to be fingerprinted. Except for taxes, General Orders, issued by the Military Governor, regulated every facet of civilian life, from traffic control to garbage collection. Violations were punished summarily by provost courts or military tribunals; there was no right of appeal. (Hawaiʻi Army Museum)
Under martial law, military officers assumed all legislative, executive and judicial powers.
The two houses of the Hawaiʻi legislature, as well as judges of all courts, Territorial and federal, were not on the organizational chart as part of the martial law government. Under the martial law regime, there was no room for legislation, other than decrees by the military.
While members of the legislature and many emergency committees met daily in the halls of the legislature in ʻIolani Palace, the military governor did not recognize the legislature as a source of legislative power. Likewise, since law enforcement was concentrated in the military commissions and provost courts, the local courts held no position. (Anthony)
The courts of the Territory were closed as of December 8, 1941 by order of the military. On January 27, 1942, the Military Governor stated that the courts were restored to their full jurisdiction “as agents of the Military Governor.”
On the criminal side, however, the courts could not under the order summons a grand jury; on the criminal or civil side they could not grant a jury trial, or at any time grant a writ of habeas corpus. (US District Court, 1944)
Japanese Americans were incarcerated in at least eight locations on Hawaiʻi. These sites that include Honouliuli Gulch, Sand Island, and the U.S. Immigration Station on Oahu, the Kilauea Military Camp on the Big Island, Haiku Camp and Wailuku County Jail on Maui, and the Kalaheo Stockade and Waialua County Jail on Kauaʻi.
In all, between 1,200 and 1,400 local Japanese were interned, along with about 1,000 family members. The number of Japanese in Hawai‘i who were detained was small relative to the total Japanese population here, less than 1%.
Beginning in July 1942 the powers of government were gradually restored to civilian authority, but some degree of martial law continued.
On February 8, 1943, power was restored to the Governor, the courts and the legislature. The commanding general proclaimed, “Full jurisdiction and authority are hereby relinquished by the Commanding General to the Governor and other officers of the Territory of Hawaiʻi”. (Anthony)
This did not extinguish all of the military control; the title and office of the Military Governor’ were retained. In July, 1944, the office was renamed Office of Internal Security. On October 24, 1944, President Roosevelt terminated martial law and restored the writ of habeas corpus. (Anthony)
Military Generals having control of the Islands and their terms included: Walter C Short (December 7, 1941 – December 17, 1941,) Delos C Emmons (December 17, 1941 – June 1, 1943) and Robert C Richardson, Jr (June 1, 1943 – October 24, 1944.)
This was not the first proclamation of martial law in the Islands. On January 17, 1893, martial law was declared by the Provisional Government of the Hawaiian Islands.
Then, on January 7, 1895, Republic of Hawaiʻi President Sanford B Dole declared martial law following Kaua Kūloko (Civil War 1895) when forces attempted to return Queen Liliʻuokalani to the throne following the overthrow of constitutional monarchy. Martial law, then, lasted until March 18, 1895.