The world was entering war. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne, and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated on June 28, 1914.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Then, Germany, Russia, France and United Kingdom entered the fray; US President Woodrow Wilson announced the US would remain neutral.
US neutrality lasted until April 1, 1917, when the armed merchant ship Aztec was sunk off the northwest coast of France by U-boat 46 under the command of Leo Hillebrand.
“There are five Hawaiian boys thought to have been killed along with 16 Americans when the American steamer the Aztec was sunk.”
“This ship was sunk outside of the seas of France by the German submarine without being given prior time for the captain and his sailors to prepare themselves on the previous Sabbath.”
“Amongst the Americans who are thought to have died are some sailors of the navy which the government placed aboard the ship …. These are the first sailors of the navy to become victims of the Prussians …”
The Hawaiian boys killed on the Aztec by the Germans were: Julian R Macomber, Honolulu; Charles Pinapolo, Honolulu; Ekila Kaoki, Hawai‘i Island; Tato Davis, Hawai‘i Island and HK Price, Hawai‘i Island. (Aloha Aina, April 6, 1917)
Charles Nakao was one of the survivors – he wrote a letter that was published in the Star Bulletin, May 9, 1917. The text of that follows:
“Brooklyn, New York, April 26, 1917. … Dear Sir: I, Chas. Nakao, was one of the members of the crew of the S. S. Aztec which was the first American vessel armed with two three-inch guns.”
“Number of crew was 49, including 12 navy gunners and an officer of the U. S. S. Dolphin. We sailed from New York March 18, 1917, and were torpedoed by a submarine April 1, 1917, Sunday night, at 9:30 o’clock, off the coast of France.”
“It was very stormy weather, the seas were about 30 feet in height and the current from English channel was running about 7 miles an hour. “It were dark hail storm and were impossible to launch any lifeboat over the weather side.”
“Seven of the crew got excited and try to launch the boat No. 2, which were on the weather side they were all smashed between the life boat and the ship side one of the boys were from Honolulu, Ekela Kaohi, the other were Chinese boy from Puna Pahoa Henry Look.”
“No. 3 boat there were Hail Rice of Honolulu, Chas. Pumoku, Julian Makama of Honolulu, one from Tahiti Islands, John Davis. I were on board the No. 1 boat which I suppose to be the gunners’ boat.”
“There were 19 of the crew on board. The vessel had sunk within 15 minutes it took 9 minutes because we were away from the ship side.”
“After we were probably about 100 yards away some one gave four long blasts. Nobody knows how it happened. After four hours and a half in lifeboats on the high seas and hail storms and rain and darkness we were sighted by a French patrol boat.”
“We had signaled to the boat with flashlights. They got full speed away from us. The second one had passed by and we lighted a torch and they came and picked us up.”
“The temperature of the water was 40 degrees and I didn’t have any shoes or hat on. I was frozen and could hardly speak for about two hours after we got picked up.”
“It was 1:30 o’clock in the early Monday morning and we had looked around for about 18 hours for the other boat. There were know sign whatsoever.”
“So we landed at Brest, France, the American consul came and met us at the dock and over 6 hundred Frenchmen were treated fine.”
“I got warm and were send to Brest hospital. From Brest we were send to Bourdeaux, France, about 48 hours ride train.”
“We got on board the S. S. La Tourine, the French passenger boat from Bourdeaux, and we got back to New York safe.”
“I remain yours truly, CHAS. NAKAO, Waiakea, Hilo, Hawaii.”
“If any of boys’ family wants to get any information about the clothes or anything else please sent me your address and I will try my best to send it over. This is my address: Chas. Nakao, 324-32th street, Brooklyn, New York.”
“P. S.—Thanking our Queen for her kindly remembrance to us boys off the ill-fated S. S. Aztec. Yours sincerely, CN” (Charles Nakao, and summarized in the Kuokoa of Iune 1, 1917)
“Colonel ʻIaukea had told Lili‘uokalani of the sinking of the Aztec, resulting in the death of five Hawaiian sailors, and asked her if on that account she would like to raise the American flag over her home.”
“She replied, most emphatically: ‘Yes. Have you a flag?’ When he said, ‘No’ an army officer who happened to be present offered to procure one. On its arrival the Queen went into the yard to watch the ceremony of raising the Stars and Stripes for the first time over Washington Place.” (Kihapi‘ilani; Ola o Hawaii, June 21, 1917)
“For the first time in its long and picturesque history, Washington Place, home of Queen Liliʻuokalani, was decorated today with an American flag.”
“It was the occasion of the visit of the legislators to pay their respects to the aged queen and in view of the extraordinary crisis in international affairs and the prospect of patriotic war action by congress …”
“… the queen allowed the flag to be flown in honor of the government which years ago was responsible for her loss of a monarchy.” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 3, 1917) (Reportedly, the American flag continued to fly over Washington Place.)
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson appeared before Congress to deliver his historic war message and asked for a declaration of war against Germany.