Boomers Observed as a New Star was Added to the Flag

Fifty-five years ago this week, on August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union. Alaska had been admitted at the beginning of the year, becoming the 49th state in January of 1959. Now, as the first Baby Boomers were becoming teenagers, it was Hawaii’s turn.

The idea of Statehood for Hawaii had been proposed early on. The U.S. had had a presence in Hawaii since 1898. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison submitted an annexation treaty to the U.S. Senate, but the measure failed. When the U.S.S. Maine was attacked at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, the need for a refueling spot in the Pacific drove the idea of annexation through, despite the protests of the Hawaiian people. It became an official U.S. territory in 1900.

Pan American Airways began regular commercial service to Honolulu in 1935, chopping a 5-day sea journey to a 16-hour flight from Los Angeles. Yet the average American was not able to afford air travel and wouldn’t be taking to the skies with any regularity until the 1960s. Nonetheless, U.S. companies were heavily invested in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, so the idea of Statehood was a recurring debate in the U.S. Congress.

In October of 1937, a bipartisan Congressional committee held hearings concerning the possibility of Statehood for Hawaii. The committee concluded that Hawaii had met the legal standards for becoming a state, and recommended a vote of the people be taken in the Hawaiian territory. On November 5, 1940, Hawaiians voted on the measure, and elected for Statehood by a 2 to 1 margin.

Early that year, on May 7, 1940, the U.S. established the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu and moved its Pacific Fleet headquarters there. Seven months later to the date, that base was attacked by Japanese war planes, prompting the U.S. to enter into World War II. Statehood would have to wait.

The War officially ended in August of 1945, and the idea of Statehood was back on the table. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes endorsed the idea in December of 1945. Three years later, President Harry S. Truman proposed Hawaiian Statehood in his State of the Union address in January of 1948.

Considerable opposition had built up to the idea since the war. Ethnic prejudice and worries about the loyalty of Hawaiians were raised, with one end of the spectrum thinking Hawaii was filled with Communist sleeper cells while the other end thought, with one third of Hawaii’s population being of Japanese descent, they were too “un-American” to be admitted to the Union.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, having been the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Normandy invasion in World War II, did not agree with these assertions and was a proponent of Statehood early on in his Administration. Ultimately, Congressmen who wanted Alaska to become a state held up the measure until a compromise was reached, where they agreed to vote for Hawaiian Statehood if in return Alaska would be admitted first.

Meanwhile, the Hawaiian people again voted for Statehood, this time with a 94 percent majority. Alaska was admitted in January of 1959, and on August 21, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation making Hawaii the 50th state. At the same time, a new flag was shown bearing a field of fifty stars. On July 4, 1960, the new flag was flown across the country for the first time.

Mister Boomer was quite young at the time, but recalls his teachers talking about the new states and explaining the new flag displayed in the classroom in the fall of 1960. Hawaii seemed so remote and tropical that he couldn’t even imagine what the place was like. His only connection to Hawaii was through commercials with the cartoon character Punchy asking, “How would you like a nice Hawaiian Punch?”

One year later, he would see his first real glimpses of Hawaii (in Technicolor no less) via Elvis’ Blue Hawaii. In the 1990s, Mister Boomer and his wife traveled to Hawaii for the first time. They visited one of the actual locations on the island of Hawaii where a scene from Blue Hawaii was filmed. Hawaii, once a place that could only conjure up dreams of a tropical Paradise, had become a real place to him. A real place in the United States of America.

What memories of Hawaiian Statehood do you recall, boomers?

When Boomers Welcomed New States

One historical event that occurred during the boomer years made us the last generation to witness this event up to now: that is, the addition of a new state to the Union, and it happened twice in the same year. No state had been added since our grandparents’ generation, when New Mexico and Arizona were added in 1912 to make the country the contiguous 48 states.

Alaska was the first state to be added; it was admitted on January 3, 1959, in the middle of the prime boomer years. Three months later, on March 18, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act that paved the way for statehood. A few months later, Hawaiians voted overwhelmingly, at 93%, to join the Union. On August 21, 52 years ago this week, Hawaii became the 50th state.

Like Alaska, Hawaii was not connected to another state by a common border. In fact, they were quite a distance from what became known as the Continental United States. But unlike Alaska, Hawaii could not be reached by land at all. It sat 2,390 miles from the coast of California, its nearest state neighbor. This distance, mixed with visions of an island paradise portrayed in the tales of servicemen coming home from World War II, would spark the imagination of the country and ultimately the new boomer generation. With the increased capabilities of air travel in the 1950s, the state of Hawaii was within reach for some boomer families. For others, a visit to this mysterious, far-off destination could only be a dream that would take a lifetime to fulfill.

The earliest memories of Hawaii for most boomers came from school. Teachers could latch on to information on pineapple farming, coupled with the same images of girls in grass skirts, dancing the Hula and wearing flower leis, that servicemen made famous in lamps and bobble doll souvenirs, and present them to students as the quintessential intro into the newest state. Such was the case for Mister B. No one he knew had ever been to Hawaii, or was going there any time soon. The closest he and his classmates could get were the Pan Am ads in Life and Look magazines.

One of the souvenirs brought back by servicemen lodged itself into the national psyche: the Aloha (or Hawaiian) shirt. Uniquely Hawaiian, the most prized were manufactured on the islands between the 1930s and the 1950s. Many noted celebrities from the era were fans of the garment. Elvis Presley wore vintage Hawaiian shirts in his 1961 movie, Blue Hawaii. Even John Wayne and President Harry Truman enjoyed wearing the shirts regularly.

Landing first in California along with the surfboard, the shirt was quickly adopted by the burgeoning West Coast surf culture. As the trend moved eastward across the contiguous 48 states in the 50s and 60s, imitations were made on the mainland for boomer boys and their fathers. Mister Boomer recalls his first imitation Hawaiian shirt: it was a muted yellow with island scenes of palm trees and coconuts drawn at seemingly random intervals. Brother Boomer had one too, but his was light blue and had a different pattern. Mister B’s father, however, didn’t join in.

Mister Boomer was able to see his early dreams of Hawaii come to life when he and the missus visited the islands to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. He found it to be every bit an island paradise as was described when he was a wee boomer. Ever since that time, he’s dreamed of returning to our 50th state.

What early memories of our Hawaii do you have, boomers?