38 Minutes in Hawaii: My Family and the False Missile Alarm

By Jason Scott Jones Published on January 14, 2018

I woke up abruptly. Overzealous JROTC Cadets ran and yelled on the high school track across the street. I rolled over and grabbed my reading glasses. Time to return to the book which I’d fallen asleep reading. It’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile by Eugene Sheppard. Thirty minutes later, I faced a tough choice. Should I go down and check on my children? Or watch an old Lomachenko fight on Youtube? Then my wife called up, “Babe, it’s garbage day. Take out the trash!” So I rushed downstairs. My typical Saturday ritual. As I dragged the trash out a bizarre sound boomed from my phone. I read the message:

“Ballistic missile threat inbound. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

“So it’s today,” I thought. I’m a student of the bloody twentieth century, a hundred years of genocide, democide, and total war.  I’ve lived on Oahu for almost 30 years, in sight of Pearl Harbor. It’s still a key target for surprise attack today. I’ve long thought that Oahu could be the spot where the next great tragic war begins — though not where it ends. Decades of thinking on this inspired me to write a book on the subject with John Zmirak, The Race to Save Our Century. I also recently co-authored a white paper outlining a path to abolish city-busting, strategic nuclear weapons.

I’m Just Trying to Save My Children

Whenever someone suggests that I’m some do-gooding humanitarian, I correct them: “No, I’m just trying to save my children.” Oahu is a small island. But it’s one of the most important strategic locations for the projection of U.S. power to the East, confronting both North Korea and China. Knowing that, you come to accept a grim reality: Oahu is one of the most likely flashpoints for the start of World War III.

So when I saw the alert on my iPhone, I faced it with the same realism that wise Midwesterners greet tornado warnings. And like them I had a plan.

I rushed into the house. “Kids, get in the car. Babe, grab the case of water bottles.” They knew the drill, and soon the minivan was fully loaded. I filled water jugs, two mugs of coffee and grabbed my 9mm.

Heading for the Cave Behind the Mountain

I was rushing to shelter my family behind the Waianae mountain range. That might shield us from whatever was about to hit Pearl Harbor. We had 10 minutes, I calculated, to get there, and hide in the Makua Cave.

As we made the turn into the shadow of the mountain, I felt we’d won a small victory. The first missile must have been intercepted. Or else the inept North Koreans had dropped a rocket in the middle of the Pacific. Before the next wave of missiles hit, we would make it to Makua Cave.

Ignoring signs, police and the rules of the road, I gunned the minivan. We raced for the shade of the mountain.

My thoughts were far away, with my daughter and my wife’s mother. They both live in Waikiki. Surely I should call them. But tell them … what? I knew there was no place for them to go. Was that worth calling to tell them? Then the phone rang. Which amazed me. Why were they working? They hadn’t in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.  I knew because I’d been there.

It was my mother-in-law. She wanted to know what to do. She lives five minutes from Diamondhead Crater. So I told her to drive down into it and hide in its abandoned fallout shelter. Then my daughter called on my son’s phone and asked the same question. I gave the same inadequate answer. As I talked to her, I knew that this might be the last time I heard my daughter’s voice. My wife marked the tears in my eyes.

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This Can’t Be a Hack or a Hoax

As we made the turn into the shadow of the mountain, I felt we’d won a small victory. The first missile must have been intercepted. Or else the inept North Koreans had dropped a rocket in the middle of the Pacific. Before the next wave of missiles hit, we would make it to Makua Cave.

My hopes that this was a false alarm were fading. “If this were a hack or a hoax, the government would have texted us already.” This thought pressed my foot even heavier on the gas pedal. I turned into the empty oncoming lane and passed some 20 cars. A man in a pickup gunned his truck and started to follow me. He was honking his horn, and trying to get my attention.

My first instinct was anger. “This dude wants to fight me for driving like an idiot. He must have his phone off,” I thought. He was a big Hawaiian dude, waving at me with animated gestures. So I slowed down and let him pull up next to me. I rolled down the windows.

But he wasn’t trying to rebuke my crazy driving. He wanted help. “Bro, what should I do? You seem like you have a plan. Where should I go?”

I took a deep breath, then shouted, “Get to Makua Cave! Put as much mountain as you can between yourself and Pearl Harbor.”

The man held up his phone, despair on his face. “I can’t reach my wife! What should I do?”

Oh, man. My wife was right next to me. And most of my kids. I shook my head, and told this poor guy: “There is no time, bro. Drive to Makua Cave!”

He looked at me, then looked at his phone. I watched as he did a U-turn and drove his truck back toward what would probably be Ground Zero. Back toward his wife.

Nothing But Hope

Just as we pulled up to Makua Cave, my cell phone rang and the State of Hawaii finally let us know that this had all been a big mistake.

In 38 minutes I’d gone from rolling out my trash can to loading five of my seven children into our minivan in a desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile. I’d heard my oldest daughter’s voice for what I thought was the last time. I’d given her and my mother-in-law a destination I knew offered nothing but hope. And I’d watched a total stranger turn away from safety to go try to save his wife.

So there we were at this … cave. There was only one thing left to do. Unload the kids and take a photo on Instagram. As we entered, a tourist was there with a walking stick and backpack. “I guess we won’t die today,” I said. He gave me a look of fear and confusion. He hadn’t gotten the alert. And he saw a 9 mm gun stuck in my waist. So I told him what had just happened to the whole state of Hawaii. He looked … relieved.

My Son on Nuking Pyongyang

On the drive home, my ten-year-old son asked me this question: “Dad, why don’t we just nuke North Korea off the face of the earth, so we don’t have to worry about this anymore.”

I breathed deep and posed him another question. “Are there children in North Korea?”

“Yes.”

“Are they as precious as you?”

“I don’t know”

“Of course they are. Are there fathers in North Korea?”

“Yes.”

“Are their lives as precious as your father’s?” He didn’t answer. So I concluded, “It is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it.”Caves

It will be hard for people outside of Hawaii to understand the profound impact of this false alarm. A neighbor child told us how her family hid in the closest and her mother cried for an hour. Another family prayed the rosary and “waited to meet Jesus.” Another friend told me, “I watched TV and hoped it was a mistake.”

As a filmmaker, writer, and activist I have reflected on democide and total war for almost three decades. I’ve travelled the world from Sudan to Iraq. A year ago this week, I was in eyeshot of ISIS, as I traveled with Yazidi and Kurdish soldiers who fought to defend their families. Those families often fled for safety to … caves.

And today, I had walked in their shoes.

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  • Patmos

    Crazy. Worse I ever been through was a pretty severe earthquake, where the damage ended up being minimal.

    A good book to read that will make a person a peace advocate real quick, if they’re not one already, is “Barefoot Gen” by Keiji Nakazawa.

  • Charles Burge

    Here’s my own experience. I was on the streets of Waikiki when the alert came, riding in my coworker’s car. We both looked at each other incredulously, but she continued driving (we were headed back to our office to retrieve a forgotten item). I looked around and noted that life on the streets wasn’t affected at all. Joggers and other pedestrians acting as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Traffic continued to flow smoothly (smoothly for Honolulu, that is – which is often frustrating). We scanned the car radio for any news, and all of the programming was normal – even on the local public radio station. I looked up some news sites on my phone (both local and national) and found nothing. No sirens were blaring. (A recent test had found a few faults, but for the most part, the sirens were functional).

    The other thing that seemed incongruous to me was the timing. In the past few days, the news from Korea has been mostly about the north and south trying to cooperate. While I wouldn’t put it across the “dear leader” to double-cross the entire world, I still felt skeptical. Some have called Kim words like “crazy”, but I tend to think he’s actually quite calculating. I think he knows very well that to attack a city anywhere would be tantamount to signing his own death warrant. Lastly, I’ve been following the news since last year, and from what I understood, North Korea still hadn’t perfected their guidance systems. So I reasoned that even if they did lob a missile our way, the likelihood of it actually hitting land was very low.

    One final point. Lots of people die in traffic accidents every day. I could easily be one of them. We always need to be ready to accept that today might be our last day on Earth. This isn’t fatalism. It’s the peace that comes from putting my trust in Jesus Christ.

    • KRZ

      Well said.

  • Elena

    Powerfully stated.

    Now that Hawaii has gotten a rude wake-up call, stop and design a better plan. Where to meet the rest of the family when it’s done. What to take, what to leave behind.

    For all we know, he did shoot but we took it down… Gov’t is not always truthful.

    I spent a birthday in a bunker w/my fellow Sailors and Marines in the Gulf War. Saddam had sent 200 tanks in our direction one night. He ended up w/Khafji for a while until the Qataris (really the USMC did the job, the Arabs came back for the photo op) liberated what was left of the town. Twin field hospitals (Golf and Foxtrot – like MASH units) and one large logistics base were the intended target. Mercifully, they were repulsed before they got to us. I can only image what would have happened to us women in the units there.

  • Oldshooter

    Interesting story. How did youlicense/permit for that 9mm in , or were you carrying illegally?

    • Mark Chance

      Way to focus on what’s important.

      • Oldshooter

        It is abundantly clear already that HI (and almost certainly all the other states in the lower 48) are totally unprepared for a nuclear attack. It is also apparent that the vast majority of Hawaiians have no plans, preparations, or idea what to do in the case of an actual attack. This is so apparent as to require no further comment. However, it is not at all clear if Hawaiians realize that they have consistently been electing liberal/progressives who are acting to make effective self-defense illegal. The article’s author writes as though he considers having a gun for this purpose with him in case of a major emergency to be normal, and leaves readers with the impression it is feasible to do so. For Hawaii’s residents however, at least the law abiding ones, it is not. This is a situation that can be remedied simply by voting against the incumbents and their fellow travelers. This will not happen unless the average Hawaiian reading this article realizes just how defenseless his elected officials have rendered him. This issue is important in ANY sort of disaster including floods, tsunami, typhoons, riots, etc. not just the much less likely nuclear attack. Thus, I think my comment above is an extremely important element of the whole nuclear attack scare. Any thinking Hawaiian resident already knows he needs some planning and preparation after this scare. If they see my comment, they may also be moved to investigate how illegal it will be for them to try and include self-defense in their plans.

        • Kelly B

          As someone who works in and lives near Washington DC – another terrorist bulls eye consistently rendering its citizens unable to defend themselves – I concur.

        • Charles Burge

          It’s even worse than you think. I live in Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s district. While I never voted for her, I haven’t voted against her either. Why? For the past two cycles, her only opponent was a homeless libertarian whose pet issue is preserving the right to smoke in public. The Republican party is in shambles in Hawaii, with no hope of recovery on the horizon. Our state senate has zero Republicans.

  • Judy Palmquist

    I wondered what reaction the residents of Oahu had. You are well prepared. Congratulations!

  • Peace Love Bunny

    We are so screwed.

  • Johnny Thorne

    The sooner we take out North Korea the sooner we can relax again. Thank Bill Clinton for arming North Korea (appeasement). Thank George W. Bush for ignoring the threat. Thank Obama for trying to create another North Korea in Iran. Blame Donald Trump for actually obey his oath of office.

    • Global Wonk

      Btw, other notable events the weekend of the false alarm were:
      — Bill Clinton was in Hawaii at that time (odd and bizarrely coincidental, yes?)
      — A dead body was found on the runway of the Intl Airport on Oahu

  • Constitutional Reconvention

    Ashes to ashes.
    Dust to dust.
    Cave to…. cave.

  • Huntsville Harrahs

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. God willing we’ll survive this century and sanity will return to the world.

  • Big Sheepdog CCW

    in 1938, Did the ‘War of the Worlds’ Radio Broadcast Really Cause Mass Panic? how many people died from that program and how many died from this faux nuclear missile? Did people commit suicide? I think if I was there of what I’d do. Walk out into a park, facing West, in prayer to God commending my soul to him, when 10,000° Heat Blast hits me, I will vaporize in a split second with no pain and be standing in the presence of Jesus. Better to die instantly than suffer from radiation burns.

    • Kelly B

      Actually, it’s a myth that the War of the Worlds broadcast caused mass panic – a couple of journalists heard second hand from unreliable sources (geez, some things never change!) and, in the typical race to publish the big scoop, published the false account.

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