In December 1935 the residents of Hilo, Hawaii, were in a full-blown panic. Weeks earlier, Mauna Loa had erupted. The “glowing lava” cast an eerie red glow on the sky, the Associated Press reported at the time. There were at least five “lava rivers,” and one of them was advancing rapidly toward the town, destroying everything in its path.
Unlike the smaller communities being threatened by Kilauea’s recent eruption, Hilo was, by Hawaii’s standards, a major town. Some 15,000 residents, along with their homes and businesses were threatened.
“The whole ridge of Mauna Loa is breaking into fire,” reported radio operator Sherborn Smiddy, according to the AP. “A dozen fountains are shooting into the air.”
Just days before Christmas the situation became dire, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The lava was advancing about one mile per day and scientists feared it would soon reach the Wailuku River, Hilo’s main water source. At that rate, it would reach Hilo in less than 20 days.
Volcanologist Thomas Jaggar, founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, realized there was only one thing that could be done to protect Hilo. He had to stop the flow of molten rock, and he had a plan to do it: Bomb the volcano.
In theory and perhaps in the boundless American imagination, the idea makes sense. Blowing up the natural tubes within the volcano that carry the lava could disrupt its flow.
After all, humans had been battling nature for centuries, diverting rivers, clearing and burning forests and carving paths through mountain ranges. In Europe, there were even accounts of temporarily redirecting lava flows using barricades.
But bombing a volcano had never been tried before.
Jaggar needed help, so he contacted the U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed in Oahu, about 200 miles away. Enter a lieutenant colonel named George S. Patton.
Years before gaining fame as the World War II general who helped liberate Germany from Nazi forces, Patton was given the responsibility of orchestrating the first-ever aerial bombing of a volcano, according the USGS.
On Dec. 27, 1935, 10 Army bombers, then biplanes with cloth wings, set out to defeat nature, according to Historic Wings, an online aviation magazine. Each plane carried two 600-pound demolition bombs.
The mission: Bomb the lava flow source.
The planes dropped 20 bombs on Mauna Loa that day, five landed directly in the lava flow, creating giant craters that were quickly filled by the molten rock. The other bombs missed and one even turned out to be a dud.
Then everyone waited.
About a week later, on Jan. 2, the lava stopped. Jaggar was jubilant.
“The experiment could not have been more successful; the results were exactly as anticipated,” Jaggar told the New York Times.
While Jaggar was certain his plan had worked, other scientists were less confident.
In his 1983 autobiography, Harold Stearns, a government geologist who had flown in one of the bombers, wrote of the Mauna Loa bombing and its apparent success.
“I am sure it was a coincidence,” he said.
Even Jaggar’s boss at the time, Hawai’i National Park Superintendent E.G. Wingate had his doubts. In a December 1935 report, Wingate wrote, “Just what part the bombardment had in stopping the lava flow the superintendent is not qualified to say. Certainly the facts are most interesting and Dr. Jaggar believes the experiment to have played a definite part.”
Scientists in later years also viewed the bombing’s effectiveness with skepticism. According to a scholarly article published in 1980 in the Bulletin of Volcanology, the effort was “without significant success.”
Additionally, local Hawaiians were disturbed by the bombing, but they weren’t upset over whether it worked or not. They believed the practice to be an affront to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano deity.
In a book titled “Pele, Volcano Goddess of Hawaii: A History,” H. Arlo Nimmo, a cultural anthropologist, wrote that many feared the bombs “would only anger the goddess to further destruction.”
As legend has it, less than a month later, Pele extracted a measure of revenge. Two planes collided over Oahu and six men who participated in the bombing were killed.
Still, people have not stopped trying to challenge volcanoes, both in Hawaii and around the world.
In the years before and after Jaggar and Patton took on Mauna Loa, people have tested an assortment of strategies, ranging from barricades to blasting the fiery rock with icy seawater.
Bombs were tried on Mauna Loa a second time in 1942, “but again there were no significant effects,” wrote J.P. Lockwood of the USGS and F.A. Torgerson of the U.S. Air Force in the Bulletin of Volcanology article.
As Kilauea continues to ravage residential areas on the Big Island, people are again starting to wonder: Can anything be done to stop the destruction?
The answer, at least for the moment, is no. The best people can do is get out of the way, as they are doing now.
That doesn’t stop people from speculating.
“The technology of lava diversion is pretty simple and capitalizes on observations of the way lava flows behave,” the USGS said.
Still, “Strategically placed barriers on sloping ground could, theoretically, deflect lava flows from highly developed areas into less developed areas,” the service said. “Water-quenching could, theoretically, freeze an advancing lava flow front and deflect the molten portion behind it onto another path. Explosives could, theoretically, be used to breach established lava tubes, channels, or vent walls to deflect lava onto different paths and rob the threatening flow of its supply.”
Would modern, more powerful bombs work better than the relatively small munitions of the 1930s?
Perhaps, suggested Lockwood and Torgerson. “Ordnance, tactics, and aircraft delivery systems have changed dramatically since 1942,” they noted.
But the only serious test so far was Patton’s, who “literally tried to bomb a Mauna Loa lava flow in 1935,” as volcano scientist Jess Phoenix wrote in a recent tweet.
“Spoiler: it didn’t work, because lava cares not for your puny human incendiary devices. I mean, they should’ve seen that coming. The volcano goddess Pele is not to be trifled with.”