Four veterans of the World War II volunteer labor battalion known as the Varsity Victory Volunteers were honored by the University of Hawai‘i in a simple ceremony on Feb. 26. The event, which was organized and emceed by “Journey of Heroes” comic book author Stacey Hayashi, was held in front of a sculpture that the late Nisei artist Bumpei Akaji designed and dedicated to the VVV in the Queen Lili‘uokalani Center for Student Services on the UH’s Mänoa campus.
Of the approximately 170 University of Hawai‘i students who stepped forward to serve America with picks and shovels in the weeks following the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, only these four men and perhaps one or two others remain. The ceremony marked the 73rd anniversary of the men’s decision as UH students to serve America by doing backbreaking manual labor as volunteers and UH officials took the opportunity to thank them.
The four VVV, or “Triple-V,” veterans present were: Yoshiaki Fujitani, Takashi Kajihara, Akira Otani and Ted Tsukiyama.
On Dec. 7, 1941, they were student members of the Army ROTC, which was made up of about 500 male students, 75 percent of whom were of Japanese ancestry. They were issued Springfield .03 rifles and ordered to prepare to do battle with Japanese paratroopers who were rumored to be planning an invasion of the St. Louis Heights area. The invasion never materialized.
In the following days, the ROTC was converted into the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard. The young Nisei students were ordered to guard government buildings, vital utilities and the shorelines of Honolulu, among other tasks. Six weeks later, however, the HTG was disbanded — and then reorganized almost immediately, minus the Nisei, because they were Japanese.
The rejected students decided to petition the military governor, Gen. Delos C. Emmons, offering to serve in any capacity. Just over a month later, the men were approved to serve with the Army Engineers as a civilian federal civil service unit attached to the 34th Construction Engineers Regiment at Schofield Barracks. Officially, they were known as the Corps of Engineers Auxiliary, but were more commonly referred to as the Varsity Victory Volunteers. For the next 11 months, they built warehouses and portable field huts, constructed roads and bridges, dug up bomb shelters, strung up barbed wire fences and more.
When President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the formation of an all-Japanese American combat unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, most of the Triple-V members volunteered to serve, and were, in fact, the first to be accepted into the unit.
“It is a sad story and an inspirational story at the same time,” UH President David Lassner told the small gathering of current UH ROTC students and the families of the VVV veterans. Several widows and adult children of deceased Triple-V veterans attended the program. Lassner said the Varsity Victory Volunteers story is the kind of history “we all can learn from.”
A floral arrangement with seven torch ginger was placed at the foot of the VVV sculpture — seven flowers in memory of the seven Triple-V members who gave their lives in battle.