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Search and Destroy

The 1935 eruption of Mauna Loa is one of my favorite lava flows. If you have driven across the Saddle Road, you have seen it. It is the smooth, shiny black pahoehoe that surrounds Puu Huluhulu at the Mauna Kea Summit Road junction. Pooled in the flats of the Humuulu saddle it is at once flat and hummocky. It is a strikingly beautiful flow. But what I really like about the flow are two dramas that played out on the lava. The first story is a classic tale of search and rescue. The second and best known event is a classic tale of man’s attempt to control nature.

Mauna Loa

Mauna Loa

On November 21, 1935 Mauna Loa began to erupt out of the upper northwest rift zone. As usual, Mauna Loa began with a spectacle-lava fountains. Then as now, eruptions were popular attractions. Soon the inter-island steamers and airplanes were crowded with visitors hoping to see the glorious red rock. At first the lava pooled around the Humuulu Saddle area, so there was brisk traffic up the Pohakuloa road to get to the easily accessible lava. One local Hilo couple, the Lucas’, joined the fray and drove up to the viewing area.

Mr. Lucas was a well known resident who worked for the YMCA. The newspaper accounts note that he was an accomplished island hiker. Mr. and Mrs. Lucas were accompanied by two friends who drove up to a spot close to the Humuulu Sheep Station. The road up from Hilo was rough and it was already 2 p.m. by the time they left the car to hike to the lava. Both the Lucas’ and their companions were careful. They took compass bearings and make a contingency plan of honking the cars horn and flashing the lights in case any of the party did not make it back to the car by dark. That, of course, is exactly what happened. For some reason the Lucas’ became separated from the other couple. The other couple made it back by dark, Mr. and Mrs. Lucas did not. Horn blowing and light flashing ensued and the ever-present saddle fog arrived. At some point the Lucas’ ran into a rough a’a flow. I can imagine being lost in the fog, on the a’a, at night, on the Saddle Road. Things could only get worse of course. It didn’t take long for the a’a to claim Mrs. Lucas’s sole. A’a is not friendly to shoes. Around midnight Mr. Lucas left Mrs. Lucas to get help.


erupting lava

Previous to this the Lucas’ friends had gone to get help at the CCC camp which was at Pohakuloa. Mr. Lucas was found at around 2 a.m. He took some food and drink and said he could find his wife within the half hour. That didn’t happen. By noon the next day he was found by his friend near the car and still had not found his wife. Mr. and Mrs. had both spent the night in the fog on the lava alone. Mr. Lucas was worried about his wife so he sent his friend back to the camp for help. On the way to the camp, the friend found Mrs. Lucas. She had decided that her husband was in trouble and, with a can lid attached to her shoe with a scarf, she went wandering until discovered by her gentlemen friend. Those two decided to return to the car. Mr. Lucas in the meantime, couldn’t stand waiting around and took off again in search of his wife. He was lost for another 3 hours until they were all finally reunited. Both of them spent nearly 24 hours out in the fog covered lava flows. It’s uncertain from the news stories if they ever got to see the active lava flow.

The second story involves bombs and science. As the 1935 flow progressed it began to head towards Hilo. With the memory of the 1881 flow’s near destruction of Hilo fresh in their minds, Island officials began to make plans. Thomas Jaggar, the long-time director of the volcano observatory was convinced that it would be simple to disrupt the flow of lava in the tube with explosions. If successful the forward progress of the lava could be halted. Jaggar asked the Army to do some nature control. On December 27, seven bombers took off from Hilo with 28 bombs totalling 12,600 pounds of TNT. The written account of the volcanologist is fascinating:

Lava Flow

Lava Flow

Amid the thunder of shattering explosions, masses of rock and sheets of glowing lava were hurled in all directions, many a great bombs, dropped from planes travelling at high speed, plunging directly into open channels through which molten lava was flowing, while others crashed upon the roofs of tunnels, blowing them open and releasing the melt imprisoned within, causing it to gush upwards and commence spreading immediately.

The bombing succeeding in displacing the lava in the tube. And by January 2, the eruption had stopped completely. Jaggar considered the bombing a smashing success as did most of the island residents, except for those that considered the action an attack on the sacred Pele. Lava flows were bombed again in 1942 and 1946 with little effect. Decades later geologists studying the blast sites concluded that the end of the 1935 eruption was mere coincidence.

Every time I drive across the 1935 flow I think of poor Mrs. Lucas walking around in near-freezing fog on the a’a with a tin lid tied for a sole. I envision the planes diving down and dropping TNT in molten lava. I’ve often wanted to hike out and find the blast scars in the flow but never have. I don’t know where they would be and I surely wouldn’t want to get lost.

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