Here’s Why George Patton Sent American Bombers To Attack A Hawaiian Volcano

Here’s Why George Patton Sent American Bombers To Attack A Hawaiian Volcano

Sebastien Roblin

History, Americas

A crazy plan.

Key point: 

Disaster seemed imminent: day by day, a glowing river of molten lava was creeping steadily towards Hilo, Hawaii. The town of 15,000 lay slightly over 30 miles northeast of Mauna Loa, known as the second-largest volcano on the planet.

The over 13,000-foot tall behemoth had erupted on Hawaii island on November 21. By December, Dr. Thomas Jaggar, a local volcanologist and founder of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, estimated that one of the five streams of lava issuing from Mauna Loa was advancing at a mile per minute towards Hilo, threatening to first flood the Wailuku River feeding into it.

At first, Jaggar considered dispatching mule teams laden with explosive to Mauna Loa to collapse the lava tubes feeding the lava streams—but such a project seemed likely to take far too long to avert catastrophe.

Then his colleague Guido Giacometti proposed a faster solution: why not ask the Army Air Corps if it could blast the streams from the air with a little precision bombing?

On December 23, Jaggar contacted the G-2 intelligence staff officer of the Army Hawaiian Division, a young lieutenant colonel by the name of George S. Patton. He signed off on the idea and tapped the 23rd and 72nd Bomber Squadron for the job, both based at Luke Field on Ford/Oahu island.

At the time these units flew large, fabric-covered Keystone B-3A and LB-6 twin-engine biplane bombers. The obsolete aircraft had five-man crews armed with defensive machineguns, and Wright Cyclone engines nestled in the spars between their two sets of wings. Though highly similar, the older LB-6 was distinguished by its twin vertical tail fins compared to the single fin on the B-3A.

Jaggar briefed the pilots on the geological theory behind the raid, and on December 26 the Army Air Force bombers flew the 220-mile long journey from Luke Field in Pearl Harbor to a field in Hilo.

The following morning the aviators were visited by a native Hawaiian named Harry Keliihoomalu who warned them not to attack, lest they displease the Madam Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, and thus by implication the creator of the volcanic Hawaiian archipelago itself.

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