The Boogie House Girls
The Footfalls of History
It was 1942, and the fleet was in. In Honolulu prostitution was legal, and it was welcomed. A white river of uniforms, peppered with the occasional brown uniform of an officer lined Hotel, River, Mauunake and Pauahi streets in front of the boogie houses. Only about two hundred girls worked in Oahu’s houses. One carrier had two thousand or more men.[i] The girls charged $3.00 for sailors, $2.00 for locals, a day’s wage. The Madam got a dollar. Girls paid for their own room and board, tips were welcomed. Some men kept to their “surrogate wife,” preferring the same girl every time. Others didn’t care. If she was white and female, she would do. In 1942, few white men were OK with women of color. They were kept in a separate part of the house.
Most men, however, headed for the bullpen, a room divided into four enclosures. He’d step into the first enclosure to undress and be wiped down by an assistant. In the second, he became ready and waited; in the next, he’d have his three-minute “love affair”; and then he’d step into the fourth to clean up and dress. Girls serviced 12 men an hour or 100 a day, 6 days a week unless they had their “flowers” (period). The girls had tried to raise their rates as demand overwhelmed them, but the military threatened to shut them down. Bullpens worked.
Girls were supplied from the mainland by a “procurer” who charged a Madam anywhere between $500 to $1000 a girl, plus freebies. Sometimes they were girls brought over by the government as defense workers who didn’t cut the mustard.
The Police Vice Squad controlled prostitution and got a cut of the action. The girls had to comply with a strict set of rules. They could not:
Go to Waikiki beach and could only swim at Kailua Beach
Patronize bars or better class cafes
Own property including a car
Have a steady boyfriend
Be seen on the streets with any man
Visit any Army post, Navy base, golf course or a friend’s apartment
They could not marry service personnel
Wire money to the mainland or phone the mainland without permission from the Madam
Take a trip without permission
Ride in the front seat of a cab, or ride in a cab with a man
And they could not be outside a brothel after 10:30.[ii] [iii]
On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack and the hospitals overflowed, the Madams opened their houses to the walking wounded. The girls donated blood and tended their wounds. Because their beds were now occupied, the women were forced to look for rooms in areas of Honolulu where they weren’t allowed. When Police Chief Gabrielson sent his Vice Squad to roust them, the military police came to their rescue, driving off the squad. The women had serviced them in pleasure and in pain, and the men would have none it. Chief Gabrielson tried to cede control of the brothel to the military, but military governor, General Emmons, revoked his order. With Gabrielson again in charge, the rules were back. So the girls went on strike. They paraded around the police station and Iolani Palace carrying signs saying, “No tricks. No service.” Newspapers were banned from covering the story—censorship was in place due to martial law. The strike lasted three weeks. Finally, the police and military formed a truce and the women were allowed to live outside the vice district but they had to do business within the district. Because of black-out conditions and the curfew they had to turn their tricks during the day.
These women served their country during time of war. They were rewarded with money instead of medals. They also had the gratitude of soldiers and sailors, who looked forward to them, if and when they made it back to Honolulu for a little R&R. But, they did not escape without scars; their reputations were tainted, their bodies used and abused. They received no hero’s welcome when they returned from the front. But, many men remembered Pearl Harbor with a bit of fondness because of the girls at the boogie houses.
[i] Chernin, Ted; My Experiences in the Honolulu Chinatown Red-Light District https://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10524/228/2/JL34209.pdf
[ii] O’Hara, Jean; Honolulu Harlot, RCT Publishing, 1944.