July 12, 2016

Sacks against attacks! Kaiser cement at Pearl Harbor, 1941

Sandbagged .30 caliber machine gun emplacement with gun crew on alert, at the seaplane base near Ford Island's southern tip, soon after the Japanese attack. Note wind sock atop hangar at right, PBY patrol plane warming up by the corner of the hangar, another PBY in the center distance, and three SOC floatplanes at left with the beached battleship Nevada (BB-36) beyond. Sandbags are marked Permanente. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Permanente sandbags protecting machine gun crew, Ford Island. Detail of photo below. December 7, 1941.

History keeps revealing itself in unusual ways.

Jill Radke, a Kaiser Permanente employee in Hawaii, recently sent this email to Heritage Resources:

Don't know if you can use this little bit of history, but I thought it was too good to not share....

I do a lot of historic preservation work in my spare time. I used to work at Historic Hawaii Foundation, which is the statewide partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. One of the things I'm most proud of from my time there was preserving the strafing (bullet holes) in concrete along the runways on Ford Island — remnants that tell the story of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

One of the strafing runs that always puzzled me is near a seaplane hangar's entrance. I always wondered, "What were the Japanese pilots shooting at?"

To find out, I looked at the attached photo from the National Archives and Records Administration to see what was going on at that site on Dec 7, 1941. Sailors are manning their makeshift defensive positions constructed with sandbags. At one point during my sleuthing process, I had this image on zoom, walked away, and then saw it at a glance later and thought, "Why is a work image on my home computer?"

I've seen this photo hundreds of times, but never realized before that the sandbags say "PERMANENTE."

Yes, indeed they do. Here’s the back story.

Sandbagged .30 caliber machine gun emplacement with gun crew on alert, at the seaplane base near Ford Island's southern tip, soon after the Japanese attack. Note wind sock atop hangar at right, PBY patrol plane warming up by the corner of the hangar, another PBY in the center distance, and three SOC floatplanes at left with the beached battleship Nevada (BB-36) beyond. Sandbags are marked Permanente. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Full photo, detail above. Sandbagged .30 caliber machine gun emplacement with gun crew on alert, at the seaplane base near Ford Island's southern tip, soon after the Japanese attack. Note wind sock atop hangar at right, PBY patrol plane warming up by the corner of the hangar, another PBY in the center distance, and three SOC floatplanes at left with the beached battleship Nevada (BB-36) beyond. Sandbags are marked Permanente. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Starting in the mid-1930s the Kaiser Company engaged in joint ventures with other companies to build major projects such as Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and Bonneville Dam. As a result, Henry J. Kaiser understood the importance of a reliable and economical supply of Portland cement for the construction industry.

He took a giant step into the cement supply industry when he won the contracts to supply the cement and aggregate for construction of Shasta Dam in Northern California. The award was made even though he didn't have his own cement manufacturing capability. To meet the cement requirements of the contract, his staff of engineers and construction personnel built a two-kiln cement plant at Permanente, California, (just north of San Jose) beginning production only seven months after breaking ground. The Permanente Corporation was incorporated in 1939, and the company was known as the Permanente Cement Company. Its name was changed to Kaiser Cement and Gypsum Corporation in 1964.

The makeshift defenses in this photo would have originally been sacks of that Kaiser cement. The U.S. Navy had contracted with Kaiser to supply cement for their Hawaiian facilities. In order to keep costs down he proposed the radical idea of shipping cement in bulk form, rather than in sacks, using pneumatic pressure to move the material. It worked, and between October 1940 and the attack on Pearl more than 400,000 barrels of his cement were in sitting in silos in Honolulu. This industrial material proved essential for rebuilding U.S. defenses after the Japanese attack.

Ford Island and Pearl Harbor, 1941
Ford Island and Pearl Harbor, 1941

It appears that for local transportation and storage, the bulk cement was bagged on site — and was repurposed for the defense of Ford Island.

This humble but essential building material would continue to serve throughout the war. As author Arthur Herman noted in his excellent book Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, "Only two things stood between defeat and captivity ... on Wake Island [in the face of a Japanese attack]. One was the Marines' four surviving Wildcat fighters. The other was the two batteries of five-inch guns ... reinforced with Henry Kaiser's cement."