Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
For three summers while attending Hilo High School, I worked with other high school students at Keeau Macadamia Orchard located in Pana‘ewa as a field hand. Our field superintendent was a Mr. Ogamori, who had fought in Europe in World War II. One of the other high school workers was Greg Hall, a 6-footer who was attending a military school on the Mainland. Greg hoped to become an Army infantry officer after graduating.
The sun beat down on us mercilessly, and when it rained, we would be drenched for hours, steaming in the humidity. When Mr. Ogamori, who was only about 5 feet tall, checked the macadamia trees during his rounds, he would sometimes stop and talk story with us during our breaks.
“Greg, do you have experience using weapons and fighting as a cadet?” he asked. They seemed bonded by their military connection. I don’t recall Mr. Ogamori’s highest rank in the Army, but Greg always stood erect when talking to him. “Yes, sir. We use real rifles. I’m going to be in a tank company so I’ve trained in tanks.”
“No matter how much you train, you can never be prepared for the real stuff, ”Mr. Ogamori said. “They can train you to fight, but they never teach you what to do when your friends get wounded, or worse, when they die in front of you. Never. I still have nightmares of guys being shot or the cannons blowing them up and their guts spilling out. Their arms and legs blown off. I don’t know why, but the dying soldiers always called out for their mothers, ‘Okaasan! Okaasan!’ I used to wonder if their mothers could hear them back in Hawai‘i.”
All of us would stand silently as Mr. Ogamori talked. At least he talked about his war experience — many other Nisei never talked about the war. Once he talked about friendly fire, which I did not know about at the time.
“In France, many of the men died from friendly fire,” he said. “The cannons fell short and would slam the branches of the tall trees. The branches would fall without warning on the soldiers below, often killing them. We would yell at the artillery, but they were too far away to hear us. Terrible waste of human life,” he said.
I also remember a veteran who worked next to my father’s hardware store. I never knew his name — he worked for a wholesaling company that shipped vegetables to Honolulu. He always worked in a white undershirt that had turned brown from his sweat.
Actually, it was his wife that I remember more. She was European, but I don’t know where in Europe she was from. She worked alongside her husband, but didn’t say much. I don’t know if they had any children.
“He is a lucky man,” my mother used to say. “His wife works very hard. Even a local woman doesn’t work as hard. I hope he treats her well because I think she must be lonesome sometimes, being so far from her home. I don’t know if she really loved him, but they say that many countries in Europe have nothing. Everything was destroyed. It was almost hopeless for many people in Europe. She must have thought that life in Hawai‘i would be much better than in Europe. I hope he is kind and gentle to his wife. Most times, that’s all a wife wants from her husband.”
I write about the vegetable man and his wife because although many veterans suffered from their war experiences, many of their European wives experienced loneliness in Hawai‘i after leaving their homeland and coming to Hawai‘i.
My last boyhood memory of the Nisei soldiers was Veterans Day in 1945. On that day in Hilo, the Nisei soldiers came marching down Kamehameha Avenue. There were still buildings on both sides of the road at the time. The 1946 tsunami destroyed most of them on the makai (ocean side) side of the street. Although I was too young to understand what was going on during the parade, I recall seeing the Nisei soldiers dressed in their khaki uniforms, marching with their heads held high. The road was packed with cheering people and the county band played loudly. When people standing along the parade route recognized a relative or a friend, they would call out the soldier’s name. The soldiers, in turn, beamed with pride.
“They are Nisei soldiers,” my father told me. “They went to war to show their loyalty to America. They all did a great job; they are all heroes. Clap loud, Roy. We are all proud of them.”
I clapped as hard as I could then. Even today, I clap as loudly as I can for all the Nisei soldiers whenever I have the opportunity to express my gratitude to the Nisei soldiers. They sacrificed so much to bring about a better Hawai‘i for Japanese Americans and everyone in our community. We are eternally grateful for their heroic deeds.
Roy Kodani is a Sansei attorney in Honolulu. He was born and raised in Hilo.