Wartime Rails

By the late 1930s, private automobiles had taken over much of OR&L’s passenger traffic, and the line had converted a number of passenger coaches to trundle empty cans from the American Can Company to the nearby pineapple canneries. They had also built several gasoline-powered passenger cars to use for runs where the loads were not large and the hauling power of a steam loco was not needed.

That changed—along with everything else—on December 7, 1941. By the early afternoon, martial law had been declared in the Islands and a curfew and blackout were in effect. Gasoline and tire rationing soon followed, and Oahu was suddenly innundated with troops and war workers. Almost overnight, the railway’s passenger traffic rebounded and would set records throughout the war. At the peak, trains were running with five-minute headways. They lugged huge guns to hastily-erected emplacements, crates of ammo to reinforced underground hideouts, and soldiers and sailors to the bars, brothels and tattoo parlors of downtown Honolulu.

Despite severe restrictions on photography, World War II was a period of unprecedented picture-taking of OR&L. A few military men who were also railfans were permitted to take photos of OR&L at work around the Island. Coast Guardsman Kent Cochane and Navyman Mac Gaddis often worked together and were encouraged to convert a former Ladies’ Room at the Iwilei depot into a full darkroom. Other important wartime military photogs included Bill Blewitt, Victor Norton, Vitaly Uzoff, Charles Mack Wills and Bob Zinnsmeister. Two OR&L employees, General Manager Dick Gossett and engineer George Cabral, also contributed to the wartime views. Many of these men were exceptional photographers using large format cameras—often sent from home—with very sharp lenses. OR&L president Walter Dillingham was a visionary and realized that these wartime images were an important recording of history. He issued passes and gave these shutterbugs the run of the line and its facilities.

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