Feature Stories

From Kauai to Kanton: Bill Akana has always found fun & fortune on islands

Bill Akana at Lumahai 1960 for Kauai StoriesWilliam “Bill” Akana has had a lot of adventures in his life, and all of them have taken place on islands. 

From catching four-foot wide sea turtles off Kanton Island in the Republic of Kiribati during World War II, to meeting his future wife, who was a tourist when she first came to Kauai, the Hawaiian island where Bill was born and raised, everything exciting that has happened to him has taken place on an island. 

Now 91 years old, Bill recalls being drafted by the U.S. Army in 1945 to serve in World War II on Kanton Island, a 25-square-mile atoll about 1,500 miles south of Hawaii. With its 6,230–foot long airstrip, the island was used for refueling U.S. military planes during the war.

(At the time Bill was stationed there, the name of the island was spelled Canton. When Kiribati gained its independence from Britain in 1979, the new nation adopted the spelling of Kanton.)

Bill had three jobs on Kanton, all of which were a lot more fun than the average Army assignment. He ran the radio station on the island, broadcasting news to soldiers stationed as far south as Fiji. He took care of the air conditioning and refrigeration on the island, “making sure the food was nice and cold and that nobody was going to die.”

And he got to operate a 40-foot long “J-boat,” a fishing charter service for pilots who came to Kanton to refuel and lay over.

“I had a good deal with the J-boats, because when pilots would come, I’d take them fishing. I froze the fish I caught — remember, I ran the cold storage plant — and pilots would fly the fish back to Honolulu for me. I had an outlet in Honolulu that would sell my fish. It was one of my better times in the service!”

When he wasn’t working, Bill enjoyed catching some of Kanton’s immense sea turtles. “Those turtles weighted 500 to 700 pounds. Humongous turtles! The whole back was more than 4 feet wide,” he says.

“Three of us would walk into the ocean and surround a turtle so it would come toward shore. I was the biggest of the boys at 225 pounds and six-foot-three-inches tall. When the turtle got close enough for me, I’d run full speed and jump on top and turn it over.”

Bill and his friends would take each turtle they caught to the mess hall, where the cook would make turtle stew and other turtle dishes.

How does turtle steak taste? “Really fantastic,” Bill says. “One of the most delicious fish.”

But one day while Bill was in mid-jump above what he assumed was a turtle, he got an unpleasant surprise: He was about to land on a hihimanu, a huge stingray.

“I gave one yell and just flattened myself out so I didn’t land on it. I would have been all sliced up,” he says. “That was the end of fishing that day. I was scared!”

But Bill and friends returned to fishing almost immediately. One day, after making a large steel hook on a chain, hoping to catch sharks that patrolled the lagoon surrounding the island, they threw the hook about 20 feet deep into the ocean.

When they began pulling the chain up, it felt like dead weight, “like somebody had attached a ton of steel or concrete to it. It was a huge sea bass, 700 or 800 pounds,” he says. “It took about three or four of us to pull it up.”

Just like the turtles, the sea bass was destined for the mess hall, where “the Army had tons and tons of canned tomatoes,” Bill says. “I’m telling you, that fish with the tomatoes, it really was fantastic!”

While most of Bill’s fishing stories have happy endings, there was the time, shortly after he first arrived on Kanton, when he gorged himself on lobsters that the men were able to easily pluck off the reef.

“My mistake was I ate lobsters like I ate ’em here in Hawaii; we eat everything in the lobster, doesn’t bother us. But on Kanton, there’s a lot of phosphorus, which I didn’t know at the time. I woke up the next morning, my arms and legs were all swollen,” he says. “Fortunately, the doctor knew what the problem was and gave me some medication for it. But I’ll never forget that feeling. It scared the hell out of me.”

 

Sugar & Pineapple Childhood

 

Growing up on Kauai as a sugar plantation manager’s son, Bill had no inkling from his childhood that his life would become fun. As a boy of 10 years old, his father put him to work for the plantation, pulling weeds between the long rows of tall sugar cane stalks.

“My father said, ‘After school, you go to work, kid!’ I got paid by the line for weeding,” he says. “I did that for a couple years.”

When he got older, Bill attended Punahou, the school that most children of plantation owners went to in those days, located 90 miles away on the island of Oahu. He was a member of Punahou’s football team.

On Friday Dec. 5, 1941, the football team had taken a ship to Maui for a game. Unbeknownst to them, this was two days before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the United States into World War II.

“Sunday, war breaks out, and we want to get home to Kauai. There were three or four of us, we tried to hitchhike home on a ship that came into Kahului (Maui’s main harbor), but they wouldn’t take us,” Bill says.

“That turned out to be very fortunate for us and our families,” he says. “A Japanese submarine sunk that ship that night, outside of Kahului.”

The football team spent the next two weeks on Maui, helping island residents dig trenches in their yards for bomb shelters, until Hawaiian Airlines resumed flying and they could return home.

After he graduated from Punahou, Bill drove a truck for a pineapple plantation, but got in an accident on his first day.

“We tipped over, pineapple all over,” he says. “I was scared to drive again, but my boss said, ‘It wasn’t your fault. You’ve gotta get back and you’ve got to drive.’ ”

Not long after that, Bill was drafted by the U.S. Army, and his adventures on Kanton Island began.

Best Blind Date

 

Bill’s best, and most long-lasting island adventure has been his 55-year marriage to Marge, whom he met when she came to Kauai from Illinois as a tourist in 1959. Marge fell in love with the island immediately.

Bill & Marge Akana wedding Chicago for Kauai StoriesWhile on that vacation, Marge and her cousin met some young island men, one of whom took a liking to Marge’s cousin and invited her bowling. Marge agreed to accompany her cousin for safety, and Bill was recruited to be Marge’s blind date.

“When I left Kauai at the end of that trip, Bill said, ‘Here’s my business card. If you ever get back here, look me up,’ ” Marge says. “I knew I wanted to come back, but not necessarily for him. Then I did come back, got interested in him, and we had a correspondence romance until we got married and I moved to Kauai.”

Fortunately, Marge loved living on Kauai, especially the small town atmosphere that pervaded the island, back when the population was only 30,000.

“Wherever you went, they knew you, which was nice,” Marge says. “In fact, sometimes when I’d go into a store, they used to say, ‘Mrs. Akana, your husband came in looking for a gift.’ I’d say, ‘OK, next time he comes in, show him this, this and this.’ ”

Akana Insurance Agency

 

Bill Akana at 90th birthday luau for Kauai Stories

Before he met Marge, Bill had fallen into a new career, when friends who were taking an insurance course invited him to join them because he wasn’t doing anything in the evenings.

“At first I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing getting involved in this business?’ But after a very short while, I said, ‘Hey, this is kind of interesting. I think I’ve got to make a life out of this.’ ”

And so he did, working in Honolulu for two years as the vice president of First Insurance Company. After he and Marge moved back to Kauai, they opened their own office, Akana Insurance Agency, Inc. During his 30-year career, Bill received the statewide Agent of the Year honors twice, from his home on Kauai.

Now retired, Bill likes to spend his time with Marge, their dog Leilei, and playing Scrabble via the Internet with one of Marge’s best friends, Jan Rentz.

Who wins?

“She cheats! How she finds these words, beats the hell out of me,” he says of Jan, acknowledging that when he looks the words up, they are all legitimate.

One word Bill Akana definitely knows and loves is “island.”

 

Marge & Bill Akana 2015 for Kauai Stories

Photo captions, from top:

Bill Akana above Lumahai Beach in 1960. It was during Marge’s second visit to Kauai, when this picture was taken, that Bill proposed marriage to her. Photo courtesy Marge Akana

Bill and Marge Akana at their wedding in Chicago, after which Marge moved to Kauai. Someone sent a lei for Marge to wear during the ceremony. Photo courtesy Marge Akana

Bill Akana at his 90th birthday luau in January 2014. Photo courtesy Marge Akana

Marge & Bill Akana at their home in Wailua. Photo by Pamela Varma Brown

 

 

Comments

Annaleah Atkinson
October 30, 2015 @08:16 pm
What a wonderful story about a wonderful life. I was able to create some wonderful visual images from the writing.
Cathy Counts
October 30, 2015 @08:24 am
Enjoyed the adventures of Bill Akana.
Lynn Sith Henniing
October 30, 2015 @04:46 am
Extremely interesting article. Bill and Marge have been friends of mine for years.

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