HANAPEPE — A group of volunteer researchers may have discovered the location of an unmarked mass grave containing the bodies of Filipino sugar cane workers killed in a horrific labor conflict nearly a century ago.
The Hanapepe Massacre happened on Sept. 9, 1924, when violence erupted between striking workers from Makaweli Plantation and Kauai law enforcement. By the time it was over, four sheriffs and 16 Filipino laborers were dead.
A Hawaii Tribune-Herald article, published two days after the massacre, began like this:
“Fifteen rough board, rude hewn caskets, containing bodies of as many Filipino victims of Monday’s battle on Kauai were lowered yesterday afternoon into a newly dug trench on the sandy hillside overlooking alluring Hanapepe Bay, in the tragic epilogue of one of the most terrific industrial conflicts in territorial history.”
On Sunday, 95 years later, a research team from the Kauai chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society and a documentary film crew following its search for the mass grave met on a sandy hillside in the Hanapepe Filipino cemetery overlooking the bay and, using ground-penetrating-radar equipment, found what they believe to be the mass grave site once thought to be lost to time.
Kawika Wilson operated the radar on Sunday. He works for Aqua Engineers in Lawai, and said when he heard about an opportunity to help the research team find the lost grave site, he volunteered, “because I’m Filipino.”
“My grandfather was an immigrant — came to work the plantation,” Wilson said, explaining that, for him, finding the location of the mass grave was about helping the family of the massacred strikers get some kind of closure nearly a century after their deaths.
Wilson walked slowly behind the radar equipment — an apparatus about the size of a push lawn mower that he normally uses at work to locate underground utility lines — along a strip of ground between grave sites.
The search began at a site near the far west end of the cemetery, identified by several locals as the grave site. When the radar didn’t turn up any evidence of bones or caskets, the crew moved to another site, chosen, in part, because it matches descriptions of the burial site in newspaper accounts published in the wake of the massacre.
But a second clue recently discovered by the research team lies on the face of a cement marker planted atop a slope near what is now the center of the cemetery. In uneven handwriting, inscribed 95 years ago when the cement was still wet, it says, “BORN 1886 DIED SEP. 9. 1924.”
The team of researchers, who have spent the past year trying to pin down the exact location of the mass grave, accompanied by the film crew — filming for the documentary “The Hanapepe Massacre Mystery” set to air in 2023 on PBS — huddled around Wilson and his radar machine near the foot of the tombstone.
The group of about 20 people crowded under a few umbrellas, not in an attempt to avoid the few drops of light rain that sprinkled intermittently throughout the late morning, but because they needed the shade to see the tiny screen showing the radar readings in real time.
They shuffled along, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, craning to see what was underground. As they progressed up the slope toward the cement marker from 1924, an irregularity began to appear. A clearly visible delineation between the three-foot layer of top soil and a dense, rocky layer underneath suddenly began to slope downward.
The border between the earth layers dipped from three feet to a little over six, leveled out for a few yards, and rose again to its normal level.
“From what I see, there is a trench,” Wilson said, pointing on the screen to what he referred to as “voids and anomalies” in the earth below.
Wilson’s equipment is not sophisticated enough to precisely identify something as irregularly shaped and loosely defined as a century-old cluster of bones and wood, but he did make one conclusion without hesitation: “There’s a disturbance in the ground, and there’s something in it.”
For the team of researchers, the new evidence, found in a location that fits historical accounts of the site marked with a grave stone bearing the date of the massacre, was enough to convince them they had found the right spot.
“We just found a 100-year-old mass grave,” said Christopher Ballesteros, one of the leaders of the research team.
Ballesteros has spent a good portion of the past decade studying the Hanapepe Massacre. It formed the basis of his undergraduate thesis paper at Harvard University and has been a subject of fascination for him ever since. But until Sunday, his mental picture of the mass grave came only from historical documents and second-hand accounts.
“When you see it pop up in real life, it’s unreal,” he said, looking up from the radar readout. “It’s something else when you see a trench with 10 to 12 to 16 anomalies and you start thinking, ‘this is where they were buried.’”
It was also an exciting moment for Mike Miranda, a member of the research team and chair of the Filipino American National Historical Society’s Kauai chapter. For Miranda, the discovery was about “bringing closure to 95 years of unknown,” but it also represents the knowledge that there is still work to be done.
“I’m kind of excited and nervous about the daunting task ahead of us,” he said, explaining his hope that the society can someday erect a memorial in honor of the massacred Filipino workers.
The new information is by no means conclusive, and the researchers said they would like to eventually map the underground site with more sophisticated technology they believe will confirm their most recent findings. But the team is optimistic that what they found Sunday will prove to be exactly what they suspect.
“From the evidence I can see, I’m convinced it’s there,” Raymond Catania said, resting on a low concrete border behind the 1924 grave stone. He faced downhill and faced southeast, where he could see sunlight shining off the surface of Hanapepe Bay.
Catania’s grandfather came to Kauai from the Philippines on April 8, 1919, but left for Oahu soon after, when he realized how harsh working conditions were on the Westside plantation where he was assigned to work for Kekaha Sugar Company.
“The story was that he ran away from the plantation,” Catania said. “You know, work was hard in those days — brutal work, right? But when they got here, they were told this was the land of God, the land of glory, but when they got here they found out it was really tough — hard going.”
Catania said he identifies with the victims of the massacre, not only because he shares their Filipino heritage, but because they were laborers who lost their lives on behalf of a cause he has spent much of his life fighting for as well.
“For me, I find it really interesting because I’m really a labor advocate for workers’ rights,” he said, adding that one of the things that really struck him about the strike that led to the Hanapepe Massacre was the divisions among workers that their employers took advantage of.
“That’s why the Ilocanos were brought in to break the strike,” Catania explained. “And the strike-breakers were basically — they were both Filipinos but different ethnic groups, or language groups — and they took ‘em hostage. And violence ensued. And a lotta people died.”
“They were the martyrs,” he said. “They died so our lives could be better.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.