In early 1942, the United States government began issuing a special set of banknotes custom-made for Hawaii. The back of each note looked identical to the existing U.S. paper currency apart from one major difference: the word “HAWAII” was stamped across it.
The design of these notes wasn’t the most elegant—the “HAWAII” looked as though it was inscribed by someone with a black ballpoint pen and a ruler. But that’s understandable, given their circumstances: these banknotes were an emergency series, rushed to print in the months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The idea was that if Japan invaded Hawaii, the U.S. government could immediately identify and devalue the state’s currency so it would be worthless to the Japanese.
“The Federal Reserve notes were issued in the San Francisco Federal Reserve District, which included Hawaii in its jurisdiction,” says Mark Anderson, Numismatic Consultant to the Museum of American Finance. If the need had arisen, “the notes’ distinctive features would have allowed prompt and easy identification.” In addition to the big HAWAII stamp, each note featured brown treasury seals instead of the usual blue or green, and had “Hawaii” printed vertically in small black block letters on the front.
Of course, the standard American currency already circulating on the Hawaiian islands presented a problem. The U.S. government made an attempt to snap it up quickly, lest it fall into the hands of the Japanese. In January 1942, the government recalled all paper money in Hawaii, except for a per-person allowance of $200. (Businesses were permitted to hold onto $500.) As the Honolulu Advertiser tells it, the actions were drastic:
“Everybody was supposed to turn in their cash and securities. Patriotically, they did so—$200 million worth. Then the government had to burn all this money. It was taken to Nuuanu Mortuary, but the crematory there couldn’t handle such a mass of paper currency and securities. So the rest of it went up in smoke at the ‘Aiea Sugar Plantation mill.”
The new notes prevailed, and served as Hawaii’s currency through the rest of World War II and for several years after. Because Japan never invaded Hawaii, the notes were never demonetized. In fact, they are “still legal tender today,” says Anderson, though they “have not been seen in circulation for many decades now.” Coin dealers sell them, but they’re not too rare or valuable—you can get a full set for under $200.
Image courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History
Description courtesy of Atlas Obscura (http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/object-of-intrigue-banknotes-for-a-japanese-occupied-hawaii?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=atlas-page)