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Trumans’ Hawaii vacation delighted local residents

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    Former President Harry Truman vacationed on Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay in 1953. While there he kicked back with the children of his friend, Edwin Pauley, and their guests. Clockwise from front: Bob Pauley, Susan Pauley, Steve Pauley, Doug Letterman, Dean Gargaro, Penny Winkler and Ann Morrissey.

A year ago, I wrote about how a local boy saved first lady Bess Truman from falling into the Hudson River while boarding the USS Missouri. This week, I have another story of Harry and Bess Truman, who spent a month vacationing on Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay in 1953.

The story was told to me by Robert "Gil" Johnston, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last week at the Pearl Harbor Rotary Club. Johnston is a retired Hawaii lawyer and at one time was dean of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

"In 1953, I was posted on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Walnut, a buoy tender, stationed at Sand Island," Johnston told me. A buoy tender is there to maintain the buoys in the channels and harbors and the unmanned land lights along the coastlines.

"The deck crew was mostly young men from Hawaii. The captain was a delightful man whom the crew respected and helped whenever possible. Off the ship, he was openly addressed by the crew as Uncle Eric."

The ship was working in Kaneohe Bay when the Trumans came to Coconut Island, Johnston continued. "We tied up at the Marine Corps Air Station pier while we worked the bay."

After leaving office in January 1953, Harry Truman and his wife Bess stayed on Coconut Island for a month. At the time, it was owned by oilman Edwin Pauley, who was a friend from when Truman was a U.S. senator.

In his journal, the former president wrote: "We arrived on Oahu on the morning of March 29th. It was a lovely day. Diamond Head and then Honolulu with the Pali in the background, rainbows, clouds, sunshine and a beautiful city all in one scene."

Adm. Arthur Radford, photographers, newsmen, and others met them with lei. They traveled over the Pali to Kaneohe Bay, where the admiral’s launch took them to Coconut Island.

It was "one of the most pleasant vacations we ever experienced," said the president.

A grand meal and hula dancers, and then a nap followed, Truman wrote. Afterward, we "put on vacation clothes and went to the swimming hole." Then they "spent a pleasant evening under the palm trees, and went to bed at ten o’clock."

Truman was up early and walked around the island. "I found out afterwards that there are 10,000 coconut palms, hibiscus, oleander, orchids and all sorts of beautiful flowers which bloom all year around," Truman said.

Johnston recalled, "As we sailed past the island early one morning the captain told me to steer as close as I could to the island in hopes of seeing Harry Truman on one of his well-known morning walks.

"As we neared it, there he was, wearing shorts, a loud Hawaiian shirt and straw hat. The captain told the crew the president was in sight. For a bunch of uninhibited local kids from Waianae, Kalihi and Kaaawa, seeing the president of the United States up close and personal was too much.

"Immediately the crew members swarmed to the deck and starting shouting: ‘Hey, Harry!’ The president came to the edge of the island, doffed his hat and waved it back."

The captain later received a suggestion that his crew show a little more decorum in addressing the president.

"Most of us expected we would be disciplined. … However, the captain was in a jovial mood and obviously had a tale to tell at the Coast Guard Officers’ Club at Sand Island," Johnston said.

The former president did a lot of sightseeing. He visited the Pali Lookout, then flew to Hilo, where many school kids saw his motorcade passing by. Truman then drove up to Mauna Loa and had lunch at Volcano House.

Flying home, he saw Haleakala and a pod of whales off Maui, and had a good view of the Kalaupapa Hansen’s disease colony on Molokai.

During his stay on the island, Truman set up what he called a "Coconut Cabinet." Susan Pauley was secretary of state for Coconut Affairs. Penny Winkler was secretary of Beauty. Ann (Biddy) Morrissey was secretary of Defense Against Short Sheeting. And Stephen Pauley was secretary of Mischief.

The Trumans stayed on Coconut Island until April 29. It was one of the most enchanting experiences of their lives, they later recalled.

Three other U.S. presidents would stay on Coconut Island after the Trumans: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Bob Sigall’s fourth “The Companies We Keep” book is now in print and available at most bookstores. Contact him at

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