Walter Dillingham

Name Walter F. Dillingham
Born April 5 1875
Died October 22 1962
Birth Location Honolulu

Noted businessman, developer who was involved in issues related to the Japanese in Hawai'i.

Early Life and Businesses

Walter F. Dillingham was born April 5, 1875, in Honolulu. His father was Benjamin Franklin D. Dillingham, a Massachusetts-born seaman who came to the Islands in 1865, and his mother was Emma Louise Smith Dillingham, daughter of Rev. Lowell Smith, a New England missionary. Dillingham was educated at Punahou School, at Newton, Massachusetts high school, and at Harvard University where he graduated in 1902. He married Louise Gaylord of Chicago on May 2, 1910, in Florence, Italy.

Before the age of thirty, Dillingham took over as treasurer and financial director of Oahu Railway and Land Co., and other Dillingham businesses following his father's breakdown. He put business interests on a sound financial basis and paved the way for new undertakings including Hawaiian Dredging Co., Ltd., which Dillingham founded in 1902. It became the oldest general contracting firm in the Pacific with operations in Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Borneo, Texas, and California. The company built port and wharf facilities throughout the Islands to serve the rapidly growing sugar industry and was awarded lucrative government contracts including the building of Pearl Harbor. In 1939, Hawaiian Dredging entered into a joint venture with two eastern contracting firms to construct naval air bases at Kāne'ohe and Ford Island and at Palmyra, Johnson, and Midway Islands, building more than $1.1 billion worth of military projects. Hawaiian Dredging also built theaters, schools, homes, hotels, business facilities and office buildings, banks, public housing projects, sugar facilities, power plants, dry docks, park pavilions, and sewer pumping plants. Some of its most well-known construction projects include the Federal Building, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the Dillingham Transportation Building which was constructed in 1930 in Honolulu as a monument to Dillingham's father. He also held directorships on a number of other island corporations including Bishop Trust Co., Bank of Hawaii, American Factors, Ltd., Oahu Sugar, Von Hamm-Young Corp., and the Advertiser.

Dillingham's Political Interests and Prewar Activism

Through the years, Dillingham played an active role in community affairs as a Republican and took a keen interest in issues involving Japanese. During the 1920 sugar strike, a high-level delegation chaired by Dillingham known as the Hawaii Emergency Labor Commission arrived in Washington to support the resumption of Chinese labor importation. [1] Dillingham, along with other Hawai'i dignitaries such as Attorney General Harry Irwin and Governor Wallace R. Farrington, testified before a U.S. Senate committee that federal legislation was essential to prevent Japanese control of the Islands as "the solidarity of the Japanese exceeds that of any other nationality that has ever been in Hawaii." [2] When senators questioned Dillingham as to why white labor would not be an acceptable alternative, he replied: "The white farmer who can prosper everywhere throughout the continental United States is inherently unable to work in the cane fields and on the pineapple and other plantations of the Territory." [3] According to the "unquestionable results of many experiments" conducted during the past fifty years, the "peculiar conditions imposed by the tropical nature of the country" necessitated a non-white labor force. [4] Ultimately, the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association (HSPA) sponsored plan to import Chinese migrants failed, but these efforts demonstrated the determination of the planters, leading political officials in the territory, and prominent businessmen including Dillingham to rid the Islands of "unreliable labor."

Dillingham also carefully monitored the 1932 Massie trial and its outcome as he and other businessmen were concerned about the impact of this trial on tourism and military spending in Hawai'i. Dillingham had intimate ties with the navy and spearheaded the effort to "defuse the situation and to make certain that the Islands' oligarchy kept control of the territorial government" as he recognized that the institution of martial law, which some quarters of the population were already demanding, would be detrimental to their political and financial influence. [5] To allay hostilities and to explain what had happened in Honolulu, Dillingham wrote A Memorandum , which despite a statement cautioning that it was "For Private Circulation and Not for Publication," he sent to mainland newspaper editors and members of Congress. [6] While arguing that it was "the greatest importance that this city, which is the playground of the personnel of the Army and Navy, be so operated and controlled as to keep it decent and safe," he held that "Honolulu is better able to cope with its problems through leaders and organizations made up from its citizens than by placing this important function of government under politically appointed officers from Washington." [7] Given recent reforms made in territorial laws, he predicted a future where the "standards of American ideals" would be as high as in any mainland community. [8]

Dillingham and World War II

During World War II, Dillingham was a staunch supporter of martial law and Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons appointed Dillingham as director of food production for the Hawaiian Islands. [9] In this capacity, Dillingham noted that the majority of Hawai'i's food was produced by Japanese under military surveillance. [10] Dillingham spoke out in defense of the loyalty of Hawai'i's Japanese noting that Japanese farmers were critical to the food production in the Islands, and "there is not a recorded case of sabotage to the American war effort. We have put the Japanese to work and they are doing a good job." [11] Thus Dillingham intervened in the eviction of Japanese Americans farmers at Lualualei in Wai'anae on the leeward coast of O'ahu as he argued that these farmers were critical to food production on O'ahu. [12] A few months after Pearl Harbor attack Dillingham also organized a luncheon with high ranking military personnel including Delos Emmons and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz after a meeting with Cecil Coggins . [13] At this meeting, Coggins presented a statement of Japanese American loyalty that he had drafted with members of the Honolulu Civic Association, previously the Hawaiian Japanese Civic Association. Although the impact of this statement is unclear, it was published by Harper's Magazine in 1943 during a period of anti-Japanese sentiment in America and the mass internment of Hawai'i's Japanese was prevented. [14]

In the latter years of his life, Dillingham continually opposed statehood for Hawai'i in part because of the alleged communist influence in the Islands until it was officially passed by the U.S. Congress. [15] When statehood became a fact, he said that although he felt that it had been a mistake, he would support it as strongly as he had earlier opposed it. Dillingham passed away peacefully in his sleep on October 22, 1962, survived by his wife and two sons, Lowell and Benjamin, and a daughter, Mrs. Myron Wick of Greenwich, Connecticut. He was preceded in death by his youngest son, Air Force Captain H. Gaylord Dillingham, who was killed in action over Kawasaki, Japan, in 1945.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Dillingham, Walter F. A Memorandum . Honolulu: n.p., 1932.

"Hawaii Leaders Hail Varied, Distinguished Career." Honolulu Advertiser , 23 October 1963, A-4.

"Leaders Cite Stature Of Walter F. Dillingham." Honolulu Star-Bulletin , 23 October 1963, A-1.

Melendy, H. Brett. Walter Francis Dillingham, 1875-1963, Hawaiian Entrepreneur and Statesman . Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., 1996.


  1. United States, Congress, House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Labor Problems in Hawaii: Hearings Before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, House of Representatives, 67th Congress, 1st session on H. J. Res. 158, A joint resolution providing an emergency remedy for the acute labor shortage in Hawaii and on H. J. Res. 171, A joint resolution providing for immigration to meet the emergency caused by an acute labor shortage in the Territory of Hawaii, Serial 7 - Part 1-2, June 21 to June 30 and July 7, July 22, 27 and 29, Aug. 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, and 12, 1921 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1921), 225; John Ernest Reinecke, Chronology: Activities of the Hawaii Emergency Labor Commission and Related Activities (n.d.), 1-36.
  2. Labor Problems in Hawaii , 230.
  3. Labor Problems in Hawaii , 223.
  4. Labor Problems in Hawaii , 223.
  5. H. Brett Melendy, Walter Francis Dillingham, 1875-1963, Hawaiian Entrepreneur and Statesman (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., 1996), 209.
  6. Melendy, Walter Francis Dillingham , 218.
  7. Walter F. Dillingham, A Memorandum (Honolulu: n.p., 1932), 10.
  8. Dillingham, A Memorandum , 11.
  9. Harry N. Scheiber and Jane L. Scheiber, Bayonets in Paradise: A Half-Century Retrospect on Martial Law in Hawai'i, 1941-1946, 19 U.Haw. L. Rev. 477 (1997), accessed on October 13, 2013 at .
  10. "Hawaii's Food Largely Raised by Japanese," Pacific Citizen , May 13, 1943, 1.
  11. "Hawaii's Food," 1.
  12. Mark Santoki, "The Farmers of Lualualei," Hawaii Herald , August 2, 1991, A-6.
  13. Tom Coffman, The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawai'i (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003), 81-82.
  14. Cecil Hengy Coggins, "The Japanese-Americans in Hawaii," Harper's Magazine (June 1943): 75-83.
  15. John S. Whitehead, "The Anti-Statehood Movement and the Legacy of Alice Kamokila Campbell," Hawaiian Journal of History 27 (1993), 44.

Last updated Dec. 19, 2023, 7:08 p.m..