From the Island to the Mainland
Lois Delahaut’s transition from Honolulu, Hawaii to San Francisco, California
essay written by Alexis Delahaut
An immigrant from the U.S territory of Oahu, Hawaii, 75-year-old Lois Delahaut reveals the hardships she and her family had to overcome to adapt to life in San Francisco, California. While living in Honolulu, her family struggled during the hard economic times thrust upon them by the Great Depression and World War II. Upon moving to cosmopolitan San Francisco from a peaceful island atmosphere, Delahaut discloses her efforts to adapt to the bustling city life as a teenager.
Lois Delahaut is a 75-year-old woman living in Woodland Hills, California in a one story house that looks exactly as it had 30 years ago. Her children’s bedrooms are still the same with their old high school yearbooks taking up most of the shelf room in the house. She sits at her kitchen table where, on most nights, she is found serving up her traditional Portuguese style sticky rice. Her wrinkled face reveals years of playing unprotected in the sun as she tells of her days living on the peaceful island of Oahu, Hawaii.
Delahaut was born during the Great Depression in 1933 in Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Her father worked as a seaman who went as far as Alaska to Asia year round, for two dollars a day, and her mother stayed home to tend to her domestic duties as a wife and a mother. Both her parents were born in Hawaii, and were of Portuguese descent. Delahaut believes that her parents survived the depression because of her Grandmother’s ever-present pot of Portuguese stew; “My Grandmother was there for them with food,” she says, “She also [fed] the men [on the island] who didn’t have anything.”1 Delahaut’s mother and grandmother also baked their own breads to feed the family. “It wasn’t the convenience we have today with the markets close by, but they managed,”2 she says. The sugar cane industry, the islands’ main source of wealth, struggled immensely during the depression, making the islands just as impoverished as the United States.
Delahaut’s family lived near Diamond Head, fifteen miles from Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, she went about her daily life as a nine-year-old child, not aware that the harbor had been bombed by the Japanese. As soon as war was declared on Japan, Delahaut’s father was called down to serve at the harbor as a civilian worker, and she didn’t see him for two weeks. The chaos at Pearl Harbor eventually ceased, but Honolulu was affected significantly by the war. “It changed the whole scene there,” says Delahaut about World War II, “The whole beach area of Waikiki was barbed wire.”3 The people of Oahu had a curfew of 4:30 p.m. and were required to paint all the windows on their homes black. Islanders became used to the presence of American soldiers who waved as they walked along the beaches on their days off. To provide fresh food for their families, the island people planted Victory gardens to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. All goods and provisions were brought to the tiny islands by ship, which sometimes took days, so people did without during wartime. Many struggled because “Everyone had a rationing to buy sugar, flour, or butter,” says Delahaut, “It was very hard on [my] parents…There was only so much milk you could buy, only so much bread…”4 There was very little access to meat, as well; “Only on the big island, at the time that I can think of, was there any cattle. Other than that, there wasn’t [any] beef.”5
With fear of the harbor being attacked again, all elementary schools required students to wear gas masks inside and outside the classroom. There was an omnipresent tension after the war between Japanese-American students and the other children in Delahaut’s elementary school: “They weren’t to blame, but still you knew they were Japanese…”6 Delahaut also remembers lining up at school during the war and getting vaccinated, which was very uncommon for most of the islanders because of the poverty and lack of medical care. Like many other women, in order to make up for the absence of the men during the war, Delahaut’s mother joined the war effort. She took a job for the government working for Victory mail, reading letters sent by families to their sons or daughters in the armed services and censoring messages that could reveal anything about the war. The letters were photographed before being sent to the recipients.
Despite the wartime hardships, Delahaut’s life was very simple. She lived in a small house on Fort Ruger, an army base. Located on George Street near Diamond Head, the house was barely big enough to hold her large family of six, and she shared a bed with her three younger siblings. Now open to the public to climb, Diamond Head was a non-active volcano used to store army tanks in the late 1940’s back when she was living on the base: “You could not go up there. It was all military; all closed up with guards.”7 Although she lived close to the beach, Delahaut did not frequent it very often, and instead amused herself with playing games on the sidewalk or drawing with chalk. “You know, it was simple,”8 she says. She spent most of her Saturdays in her grandmother’s backyard, along with her cousins, playing with the turkeys, chickens, and ducks. There was also a showerhead and only one towel they had to share; “We would get so dirty,”9 she remembers. She appeared to be the typical island child, though, with her tanned skin and Hibiscus flower tucked behind her ear.
Delahaut’s parents divorced during the war, forcing her mother to get a job at the Post Exchange at Pearl Harbor, which provided goods for soldiers, “Even Hershey bars or cokes.”10 Unable to support her four children, her mother sent them to a Catholic orphanage high in the mountains of Oahu for nine months until she could afford to care for them again. Her mother often visited Delahaut and her siblings despite the long hours her mother worked. “[She] would bring us things to eat, like bananas,”11 Delahaut says. Delahaut, who was about nine years old, worked with the nuns making wafers for Holy Communion. She also washed the trays and tables after every meal.
When her mother met a retired army man named Johnny Johnson working at the Post Exchange, life changed for Delahaut and her sisters and brother. An orphan himself, Johnson was raised in upper New York state by his aunt, and later joined the military. “He was a marvelous man; everyone loved him,”12 says Delahaut of her step-father. Johnson accepted that Delahaut’s mother was divorced, and he willingly took on the responsibility of her four children. Delahaut began to live a more comfortable life in a nice house on the army base very different from the cramped quarters of the orphanage and the small house on George Street. The middle-class lifestyle with her step-father was a whole new experience for Delahaut. The new house was conveniently located near her real father’s home, and he visited often. Despite the divorce, he remained on good terms with her mother. He understood that he couldn’t provide for his children like Johnson could; “My father told me he never could have done what my step-father did [for us],”13 says Delahaut.
Despite Hawaii being a U.S territory, the islands didn’t have very much American influence. Delahaut wore her hair short instead of pin-curled and was constantly barefoot, whcih seemed appropriate to the simple island atmosphere. She attended middle school in Honolulu with a diverse student population. “[There were] Samoans, Japanese, Hawaiian, and of course Portuguese,”14 says Delahaut. But she mostly hung around with the small group of Caucasian kids who had lived all over the world with their parents who served in the military. “We called them haole,”15 she says, the Hawaiian word for “foreigner,” but it became a popular term for Caucasian people who immigrated to the Hawaiian islands in the early 1900’s. Delahaut spent her middle school years learning the traditional Hawaiian dance, the Hula, with her cousins. “We thought we were going to have to have a job so we may as well be hula dancers,” she says, “It was great.”16
The simple island life came to an end when Delahaut turned sixteen, and her step-father was transferred to the Presidio army base in San Francisco. She boarded a cramped LSD Navy ship along with her mother, two sisters and brother bound for San Francisco Bay to meet her step-father. “We went under the Golden Gate bridge after seeing the ocean for five days…… the biggest ocean in the world; a lot of water!”17 she remembers. An aunt living in Oakland helped the family out until they got settled with her step-father on the base in a beautiful brick building. Over 100 years old, the Presidio army base was used during the Spanish-American War as an assembly point for forces invading the Philippines. Delahaut’s family found it easy to adapt to the mainland. “My mother was very open-minded,” she says, “We were all very enthusiastic.”18 Despite the move to the lively city of San Francisco from the quiet island of Oahu, her family maintained two of their previous traditions. Her mother’s traditional Portuguese cooking never changed, and her family still attended Catholic Church every Sunday just as they did in Honolulu. Delahaut remembers the transition from the still, Polynesian island atmosphere: “San Francisco was totally different...It was cosmopolitan, well-dressed. Women wore gloves even.”19
Delahaut started attending George Washington High School in September of 1950, and took the street car every morning with two Italian girls at the end of her avenue. She spent most of her afternoons at the teenage club on the base with the other military kids. San Francisco, she realized, had a very culturally diverse population just as Hawaii did. She became well accustomed to San Franciscan lifestyle but struggled with her speech; “I spoke somewhat broken English because in Hawaii we [had] a kind of lazy way of saying words or sentences,” says Delahaut, “Pigeon English is what they refer to it as.”20 Despite her olive complexion and dark hair, Delahaut hung around mostly Caucasian kids, just like she had done in Hawaii. She found high school to be difficult and didn’t excel in any subjects but was very determined. “I wasn’t a good student, but I was ambitious,”21 she says. Delahaut attended high school with many celebrities popular during the 1950’s and 60’s like Johnny Mathis, a famous singer, and Lee Meriwether, who became Miss America in 1955. She also remembers going on a double date with Bill Bixby, a Hollywood actor; “He wasn’t my date, but his friend invited me and we saw Sammy Davis Jr…” she recalls. Her eyes light up as she describes the moment when she saw Davis Jr. in the hall later that night; “I couldn’t believe it.”22
Delahaut describes herself during high school as a “wallflower,”23 never having had any boyfriends. Without a date to her senior prom, she and a friend went to the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) to look for a date. Across the street from the YWCA was the Marine Corps club, and young Marines came to dance on Saturday nights. As soon as she entered the club she noticed a young man sitting at a table with two other marines; “I thought ‘oh my gosh, he’s cute!’” she remembers. She asked him to dance and at the end of the night, he drove her and her friend home. “I couldn’t remember his last name,”24 she laughs. He came into her house on the base to meet her parents. Her step-father was impressed by his Marine’s uniform, but her mother was shocked that she had brought a young man home. “[My step-father] kept talking to him in the living room… I still didn’t know his last name,”25 she comments. The young Marine’s name turned out to be Bob Delahaut, and two years later, after he came back to San Francisco as a civilian from his home in Wisconsin, he and Lois Delahaut got married and she became Mrs. Lois Delahaut. Delahaut’s days of being a “wallflower” were finally over, but she was still young and barely out of high school. This was actually quite typical though, for “In those days if you didn’t get married [before age 25] you were going to be an old maid,”26 says Delahaut.
Every day she met her new husband, who worked at the Emporium--an old department store--for lunch at Woolworth’s--a five-and-dime store--for a sandwich. Delahaut worked part time at the Joseph Magnin department store in the bridal section during her newly-wed days. She “helped sell the bridal dresses and all that went with it”27 to mostly older women. “I was invited many a times to go to their weddings to dress them. Chinese, Greek, Italian……. all types [of weddings].”28 Delahaut remembers her excitiement on the day when film star Marilyn Monroe came into the bridal shop to buy the suit she would marry Joe DiMaggio in: “We were all behind the doors watching her, we couldn’t believe it!”29
Delahaut went to San Francisco City College for a year, despite her struggles in high school. Her favorite class was home economics, where she learned to cook and do other domestic activities. She enjoyed the cooking course the most though. Sometimes, they would even “...invite the [janitors] to come and eat what [they] made.”30 She quit school and moved to Murrin County across the bay when she gave birth to her first son, Brian, in 1956. Soon after, her husband got transferred to Los Angeles, and she left the street cars and cold weather of San Francisco behind for skyscrapers and sunshine.
Today, with four children and two grandchildren, all that remains of Delahaut’s past in Honolulu are a few stained photographs and some polished conch shells she collected during her childhood on the beaches of Waikiki. She traveled back to the island of Oahu in 2005 to visit her old house and the cemetery where all her relatives, including her father, are buried. She also climbed Diamond Head and visited the Pearl Harbor memorial. The small house on George Street is no longer there--torn down and rebuilt by its new owners--as is the Fort Ruger army base. All that remain are the large stone gates at the entrance and a dusty museum. The beauty is still the same, but hotels and tourist attractions have overtaken the simple island she once knew.
Although the immigration from Hawaii to San Francisco was difficult in the beginning, Delahaut says she wouldn’t have it any other way. The struggles she had to endure to adapt to mainstream American life were worthwhile in the end, and she is fortunate to have escaped the impoverished life she once knew on the island. When looking at Delahaut, it is hard to tell she has known more than the Los Angeles suburbs. Her speech is now immaculate and her tan has faded quite a bit. But behind her chocolate brown eyes and somewhere beneath her transformed surface, the spirit and heart of an island child running in the misty hills of Honolulu still visibly exists.
1. Delahaut, Lois. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009, 10.
2. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 7.
3. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 8.
4. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 9.
5. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 8.
6. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 8.
7. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 9.
8. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 5.
9. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 9.
10. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 8.
11. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 7.
12. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 7.
13. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 6.
14. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 5.
15. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 5.
16. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 6.
17. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 7.
18. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 8.
19. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 8.
20. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 8.
21. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 9.
22. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 2.
23. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 2.
24. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 2.
25. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 2.
26. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 4.
27. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 3.
28. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 3.
29. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 4.
30. Delahaut, 24 May 2009, 5.