My Friend, Keo
"The Hawaiian Flying Fish"
by Joan Wade
I was one of only three girls swimming for the University
of Hawaii when a little-known coach from Maui brought a small
group of swimmers to the Duke Kahanamoku Meet in 1937. Drawn
by the presence of top swimmers from the prestigious Olympic
Club of San Francisco, a crowd of 2,000 spectators filled the
bleachers at the Natatorium, and watched in awe as the kids from
Maui stole the show, capturing wins in all the age group events,
and ushering in a new era of swimming in Hawaii.
That was when I first met Kiyoshi Nakama, a shy Puunene kid
who, a few years later, would become world-famous Keo Nakama,
the "Hawaiian Flying Fish!" After finishing
high school, Keo enrolled as a freshman at the University of
Hawaii. I was then working on campus but still gravitating to
the pool every day, and we became friends. The next year Keo
transferred to Ohio State University and we kept in touch by
About the same time, I met Wendell Wade on a church picnic
at Hanauma Bay one evening, ran into him the next day at Waimea
Falls and again that night at the church. He offered me a ride
home and en route mentioned that he played basketball. I said
"Maybe I'll come to watch you sometime" to which he
answered "How about Tuesday night ?" I went just to
watch and ended up keeping score for his team for the whole season.
To get even, I enlisted his help at swimming meets, never dreaming
that we would still be working at swimming meets 50 years later
We planned to announce our engagement to the church group
on the evening of December 7th, 1941, but that morning Pearl
Harbor was bombed and lives were forever changed. Wendell enlisted
the next day in the Army Air Corps and shortly went off to learn
to fly. Early in 1943, he received his pilot's wings and 2nd
Lieutenant bars in Marfa, Texas, and asked me to join him there
to be married.
I was a real Kuaaina, hadn't been off O'ahu since I was 6
years old, never been to the Mainland or away from home, so this
was a BIG step.
Because it was wartime, I had to travel in a convoy of 7 ships
escorted by two destroyers.
In Hawaii we had to carry gas masks with us at all times,
so I was very happy to leave mine at the dock - - until I was
handed a life preserver and told to keep THAT with me at all
Our 7-day trip was interrupted only once by a submarine scare.
I stepped onto the dock in San Francisco with only one small
zippered bag, and not even sure how to use a pay phone.
A friend took me shopping for a whole new warm wardrobe, very
welcome after learning that Wendell was now in Colorado, not
At the train station I was told I would arrive in La Juanta,
Colorado at 1 A.M., so I wired Wendell to meet me and began my
Gawking at the strange scenery, seeing my first tiny patch
of snow, and learning from a G.I. across the aisle how to mark
a deck of cards. I also learned that the train would get into
La Juanta at 6:30 A.M.
When I was deposited in the snow some distance from the station
door, lugging three heavy suitcases in my still-ungloved hands,
and found no Wendell in sight, I was almost ready to call the
whole thing off - except that people could no longer get to Hawaii
unless on official business and I didn't have any other place
to go. However, Wendell soon showed up, saying he had been there
at 1:00 until someone noticed and told him trains hadn't come
in at that time for ages, so he went to the motel room he rented
for me and went to sleep. This was probably a good thing because
he just got me settled in and had to report to the base for some
flying time. A few days later, his parents arrived from Kansas
and, I met my new in-laws for the first time.
We had ordered some carnations, telling the florist we didn't
need the stems, just blossoms, but we received five dozen huge,
long-stemmed hot-house beauties, straight from Denver. I spent
my wedding morning stringing a lei so thick and fluffy it looked
more like a horse collar, but at least it gave me a touch of
home to take the place of family and friends.
Wendell, being a brand-new instructor pilot, could not get
any time off for a honeymoon, was gone all day, and I had nothing
I knew that the NCAA Championships were to be in Columbus,
Ohio, in two weeks. The thought of seeing Keo and Bill Smith
(who had followed Keo to Ohio State University) in action in
a major meet was so tempting that I decided to go.
I didn't realize just how much country there was between Colorado
and Ohio. It was a loooong ride in an old coal-burning, open
windowed train, and I arrived in Columbus very grimy.
I immediately called Keo, who said he had to swim his first
race in less than an hour, so I should take a #3 streetcar outside
the hotel and get off at the campus, where he would have a cab
waiting to take me to the pool With time only to wash my face
and rub a damp washcloth over my hair (which came off black with
soot !) I hurried down to catch my ride.
Many other streetcars passed while I waited for the #3. I
eventually got there, found Bill Smith waiting at the pool entrance,
was introduced to his girlfriend and was just in time to see
Keo triumph over his top-ranked opponent from Yale. Later, Keo
told me I could have taken any of the other streetcars to get
up to the campus !
It was a big thrill seeing Keo and Bill, and also Pete Powlison
and Carlos Rivas from University of Washington, uphold Hawaii's
honor in swimming. After the meet, we spent the rest of the day
and evening at the Phi Upsilon fraternity house, where Keo and
Bill were room-mates, and time went so fast that I missed the
last streetcar and had to take a cab back to the hotel. On the
trip home, Pete sat with me until Chicago, where our paths split,
and while I did feel a bit guilty for having deserted my husband
to spend time with Keo, It had been a very special weekend for
In 1945 we were stationed in Champaign, Illinois,
and drove up to Nortwestern University to see Keo in the Big
Ten Champs. Bill Smith was then in the Navy, stationed at Great
Lakes Training Center, but we enjoyed having dinner with the
A few months later, Keo came to Champaign in his other role
as "Casey" Nakama, the baseball player, in a Big Ten
game against the Illini. Then we moved back to the Southwest
and didn't see him again.
Wendell had been assigned his crew as a B-29 bomber pilot
and we were in Nebraska awaiting his overseas orders when the
war ended, and a few months later we were back home in Paradise.
Keo got his master's degree and eventually came home, too, and
although we have not seen each other very often over the years,
it is always special when the Keo Nakama Meet comes around and
we have a chance to renew our long friendship and can joke about
my spending my "Honeymoon" with Keo.