Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Highlights: Duke Kahanamoku

Today’s post is written by Larry Shockley, Archives Specialist in the Office of Innovation.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. Covering the entire continent of Asia as well as multiple Pacific islands, the origins of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month originated with late 1970’s era congressional activity. Passed via a joint resolution of congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978, House Joint Resolution 1007 designated that a week in May be proclaimed as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.” This week eventually became “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month” via Public Law 102-450 in 1992.[i]

Commemorating both the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States in May, 1843, as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad by a majority of Chinese immigrants in May, 1869, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month has been used to honor the accomplishments of many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. [ii]

Just as Jessie Owens’ four gold medal wins in the 1936 Olympics are considered both ground breaking feats in sports and barrier breaking for African Americans, Duke Kahanamoku represents a similarly transformational figure for Pacific Islanders.

Image of swimmers at edge of pool.
Left to right: Harold Kruger, Clarence Lane and Duke Kahanamoku at Red Cross Benefit Swimming Meet. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York in 1918. Photographer: Paul Thompson.165-WW-38B-32 (NAID 20802740)

Born in Hawaii on August 24, 1890, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was a five time Olympic medalist who won three gold medals for the United States after competing in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, the 1924 Olympics in Paris, and being an alternate in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. There is little doubt that Kahanamoku would have retired with even more medals had the 1916 Berlin Olympics not been canceled. By 1917, he had set three world records in 100-yard freestyle swimming. [iii] [iv] [v]

Image of registration card
Military Draft Registration Card for Duke Kahanamoku. 1916 (NAID 641774).

This World War I Era Draft Registration Card for Duke Kahanamoku (above) lists his age as 26, shows his occupation as “Diver” and his employer as Public Works Department of Honolulu.

In 1927 Kahanamoku traveled from Los Angeles to Honolulu to take part in the opening ceremonies of War Memorial Natatorium. Promoted as “the first “living” war memorial in the United States,” Kahanamoku took part in the ceremonies by taking the first 100 meter swim and was credited as “the man who symbolized the Hawaiian people to the rest of the world.”[vi]

Text excerpt from NRHP.
Excerpt from National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form: War Memorial Natatorium. November 1, 1979. (NAID 63815856).
Image of Duke Kahanamoku with surfboard
Duke Kahanamoku with his surfboard. Photographer: Floyd Lavinius Parks. (NAID 6121002). Courtesy Eisenhower Library.

In addition to his exploits in swimming, Kahanamoku was also known in some circles as “the father of modern surfing.” According to Surfer Today magazine, Kahanamoku was referred to in the surfing world as “The Duke,” and “The Big Kahuna.” He is credited as starring in the first ever surfing exhibition in Sydney, Australia. One of the many books written about him and his exploits on a surfboard is titled Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku.

Image of Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller.
Photograph of Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller at Waikiki, August 1927. Photographer Floyd Lavinius Parks. Courtesy Eisenhower Library. (NAID 6121005).

Although he appeared as an actor in at least fourteen films and took part in several documentaries[vii], his passion for both swimming and surfing suggests that his proudest career moments probably would have been his induction into the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965 and, had he lived to see it, his posthumous induction into Surfers’ Hall of Fame in 1994 as a surf pioneer.[viii]

After his professional athletic career ended, Kahanamoku continued to serve his beloved state of Hawaii as sheriff of Honolulu from 1932 to 1961 and shortly after Hawaii was named the 50th US State, he was named as State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha. Shortly after his passing in 1968, a bronze statue was erected in his honor at Kuhio Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. [ix]

[i] Asian Pacific Heritage – About. The Library of Congress

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Britannica. Online. Biography Duke Kahanamoku

[iv] Asian-American Notables

[v] Library of Congress. Today In History August 11.

[vi] National Archives Catalog NAID 63815856

[vii] Internet Movie Data Base – Duke Kahanamoku

[viii] Surfer Today: The Extraordinary Surfing Life of Duke Kahanamoku

[ix] Ibid.


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