Meanwhile, for the USN the Pacific was a calm lake. And it was just as well, for the key element of the long-schemed development of a great naval base at Pearl Harbor had been a functional horror story involving everything from Congressional money-fussing to angry Hawaiian gods laying apparent curses.
The problem was not the more mundane facilities. Building in earnest began in 1909, a floating crane was authorised in 1913, and in August of that year the Commandant formally moved his headquarters from the old Honolulu Naval Station to Pearl Harbor. But the critical item was a drydock large enough to service capital ships, for without it, the envisioned great base would remain little more than a coaling stop with hula girls.
Whatever one's religious views, it usually does not pay to ignore or insult another's gods; and in retrospect, it may be seen that a shark god -- or devil, as the case may be -- was at the literal bottom of the colossal 1913 drydock disaster.
In 1908, Congress had appropriated funds for a drydock, and preliminary engineering work began in 1909. Unfortunately for the planned size, Britain's Royal Navy suddenly began building super-dreadnoughts that were markedly bigger. This meant that the USN needed larger battleships also, hence the need for a larger drydock. The threat prompted more naval and political go-round on sizes and monies available, until in 1912 Congress finally agreed to fund a drydock 110 wide x 1,008 feet long -- functional length of the new Panama Canal locks being only 1,000 feet.
Meantime, the San Francisco Bridge Company as general contractor, with the ubiquitious Hawaiian Dredging Company as a subcontractor, got to dredging mightily within what were considered strong containment pilings and caissons -- but time and again water rose, lifting huge implanted beams, destroying fresh concrete, and generally setting an ongoing need for creative innovation. Then one day, as all seemed finally to be going well, an entire huge new section 200 feet long simply blew up out of the water, caissons, ironwork, concrete and all -- 15 feet into the air, destroying not only the work but everything else from miles of timbering and scores of pumps to derricks and locomotives, all followed by a 22-month litany of investigation, recrimination, and contractual hassles.
They could not say they were
not warned. The true answer, according to native Hawaiians, was not to
be found by the haole in numbers on paper. The problem was that the area
itself was kapu -- forbidden ground. And indeed, continuing
disaster had been predicted before work began by a local fisherman, Kupuna Kanaweawe, who came to the area once a week to feed Kaapahau, the shark god, whose land home it was. Now, the old fisherman offered to fix matters; he would bring in a local woman of a certain repute from Waikiki, who would bless the work according to ancient
custom. She showed up, but after looking over the area, told officials that it would not do much good unless the shark god was given an appropriate offering by officials. This was duly done.
As the ancient blessings
and offerings were offered up and the contractors and Navy officials haggled
over details of who did what wrong, Congress appropriated more money --
$4.5 million -- this time for a drydock 1,029 feet
long, to be completed by July of 1918. Work began all over again in November of 1914, with a tedious pumpout of the wrecked and flooded area. Below the water were several feet of mud that took many days to clear. As the men
touched bottom a sort of cave opened up.
In it were the bones of a huge shark, 14'4" -- about 4.5 meters -- long.
Despite a year's slowdown
because of later wartime material shortages, the blessing and offering
apparently had worked, for engineers had no more trouble constructing the
drydock. It was ceremonially opened to flooding by
Mrs.Josephus Daniels, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, on 21 August 1919, and got its first occupant in October.
With that event, the great
naval base began to assume the reality of press notices on the mainland
-- for Pearl Harbor was now being described as the "the American Gibraltar",
and the "key to American dominion of the Pacific."