Hawai‘i Uchinanchu Will Help Two World War II Prisoners of War from Okinawa Find Peace
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Hawai‘i Uchinanchu (people of Okinawa ancestry) have always demonstrated their “brotherly love” in many ways, says Clara Goto . . . even by befriending prisoners of war from Okinawa who were incarcerated in Hawai‘i in the closing months of World War II.
They shared bentö lunches, fruits, snacks, even cigarettes, with them. One family even invited several of them into their Waipahu home for lunch. For most local Okinawans, it was a chance to, hopefully, learn the fate of relatives in Okinawa following the devastating Battle of Okinawa, or to connect with relatives or with people from their ancestral villages in the homeland. For the POWs, it was the opportunity to speak their native language with people who had ties to their homeland and, hopefully, to meet family members who had immigrated to Hawai‘i and/or their families.
In 1981, after returning to his home in Kadena, Okinawa, after a trip to Hawai‘i, former POW Hikoshi Toguchi wrote to the Hawaii United Okinawa Association: “Hawai‘i is a very special place for me and a place I consider in my heart as my second home . . . . That was where I began to consider the true meaning of life in earnest. Eventually, Hawai‘i became the place of awakening the true natural way of living as a human being for me. You all aided my life.”
This weekend, Toguchi, now 90 years old, and fellow POW Saneyoshi Furugen, 87, will lead a 72-member delegation of POW relatives, Okinawa Vice Gov. Isho Urasaki and other interested Okinawans to Hawai‘i. Toguchi and Furugen are believed to be the last surviving Okinawans who were held in Hawai‘i as World War II prisoners of war. Upon arriving in Honolulu on June 2, they will meet with local Uchinanchu families who befriended the POWs. On Sunday, June 4, they will visit several sites that were part of the Okinawan POWs’ experience, attend a Buddhist memorial service and join a dinner reception.
The plight of the POWs was bleak, noted Hawaii United Okinawa Association executive director Jane Serikaku at a May 9 news conference. “They did not know what their life was going to be like. But with the encouragement of the local Okinawans who came to the camps, it was their saving grace.”
Some 8,489 Japanese soldiers and Okinawan conscripts and civilians were held in 13 prisoner of war camps at Sand Island, Honouliuli, Schofield Barracks and Fort Hase in Käne‘ohe on O‘ahu, and in Hilo and Kïlauea Military Camp on the Big Island, according to former University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu anthropology professor Dr. Suzanne Falgout. The camps also held Italian and German POWs. The Honouliuli Internment and Prisoner of War Camp, built in March 1943 in a gulch west of Waipahu, was the largest site, with more than 4,000 POWs imprisoned there. Some of the POWs were assigned to non-military labor details, which allowed them to work in the civilian community, even removing barbed wire fences that had been erected early in the war to defend the island against a Japanese invasion.
In her “Social Process in Hawai‘i, Volume 45” — “Breaking the Silence: Lessons of Democracy and Social Justice from the World War II Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp in Hawai‘i” — article titled, “Transnational Identities, Communities, and the Experiences of Okinawan Internees and Prisoners of War,” UH West O‘ahu sociology professor Dr. Joyce Chinen notes that two waves of Okinawan POWs came to Hawai‘i. “The first were those captured during the various battles in the South Pacific islands. Another group of POWs who were held in Hawai‘i came after the fierce Battle of Okinawa, the only site of direct land battles in Japan proper, which produced over 250,000 casualties, immeasurable suffering, and large numbers of prisoners of war.”
The POW camps also held civilians who had been captured during “Operation Iceberg,” the code name for the Battle of Okinawa. It was the bloodiest and most bitterly fought battle in the Pacific. Nearly 240,000 Okinawan, Japanese, American and allied lives were lost, and the island of Okinawa was decimated.
The 82-day battle for Japan’s southernmost prefecture began April 1, 1945. Two U.S. Marine and two Army divisions faced an estimated 155,000 Japanese ground, air and naval troops in an island prefecture that was home to 500,000 civilians.
In March 1945, Hikoshin Toguchi had just graduated from Okinawa Prefecture Agriculture High School in Kadena, when he was drafted and assigned to help aerial gunners. He was captured June 20, 1945, in Mabuni in southern Okinawa, where the heaviest fighting occurred two days before the end of the battle. Toguchi spent a week at the Yaka prisoner of war camp (today known as Kin Town) before being transferred in July 1945 to Saipan and then to Hawai‘i. When he arrived on O‘ahu he was taken first to Honouliuli and then to the POW compound on Sand Island.
Serikaku said the POW camp for Japanese, Okinawan, Germans and Italian soldiers and detainees was located about a block from the present Coast Guard station on Sand Island. A parcel of the former POW compound is today occupied by RK Oshiro Door Service, owned by Ralph Oshiro and his family.
Ironically, Oshiro was born in Okinawa to an American father and a native Okinawan mother. His father was a civilian working for the U.S. military on the island. In 1960, when Ralph was 10, his father moved his family to Hawai‘i. Oshiro said he was unaware of the historical significance of the property. “When she (Serikaku) showed me the map, I was surprised,” he said. “There were no clues as to what was there before.”
Oshiro leases his business property from the state of Hawai‘i. He said the lot was vacant when he built the structure for his door-making business in 2003.
With the assistance of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association and the Okinawa-Hawaii Kyokai (a support organization in Okinawa), Toguchi, Furugen and the delegation will revisit Toguchi’s days as a prisoner of war. The group will also visit Schofield Barracks, where the remains of 12 Okinawan POWs who died in Hawai‘i were interred for a time.
This will be Toguchi’s third visit to Hawai‘i since the end of the war, said Serikaku, who met Toguchi in Okinawa in March. Last October, the Okinawa-Hawaii Kyokai sought the HUOA’s assistance in bringing closure for Toguchi and Furugen, asking that they help locate the remains of the 12 POWs who died or, at the very least, hold a memorial service for them in Hawai‘i.
In an April 19 interview at the Kadena Town office, Toguchi told Kyokai president Choko Takayama that the Okinawan POWs had “mixed emotions.” “They were afraid to go home if Japan had won the war, because being caught as a prisoner was shameful and they would be treated as outcasts, expected to commit suicide.”
After being captured by American forces, Toguchi said he thought he would be thrown off the ship bound for Hawai‘i. Uncertainty plagued him throughout his 18-month imprisonment at Sand Island, as he didn’t know the fate of his family in Okinawa or what had become of his homeland. He always wondered when he would be able to go home.
Toguchi was held in Hawai‘i from July 1945 until Christmas Eve 1946. He said the POWs were treated well and he has no bad memories of his time in Hawai‘i.
It was the kindness of people like Fumie Oshiro’s family and neighbors that the POWs took home to Okinawa. Oshiro was 16 years old in May 1946, working in the tailor section of Waipahu’s Arakawa Store when her father and several of their Waipahu neighbors befriended eight Okinawan POWs who were digging a trench in front of her home. “There was a work detail laying pipes near my house, which was close to the site of the Waipahu gym, below Spanish Camp,” Oshiro recalled.
“The ladies in the neighborhood made bentös for the prisoners and my father invited eight of them into our house to eat,” she recalled. Oshiro took several photos of the eight prisoners with her box camera, although she never got their names. “They all looked so young,” she said. One of the POWs gave her a pencil sketch of two cranes in a bamboo forest. She kept it for all these years. “I think he wanted to thank me,” she said.
Sadamitsu Higa of Kahalu‘u was 10 years old when he met his uncle, Giko Nishime, for the first time in 1946. Higa, now 80, said it was the first time his mother, Ushi (Nishime) Higa, had seen her youngest brother since immigrating to Hawai‘i in 1917. He was told that they met in an Army office with a wire screen separating them. “No physical contact was allowed. There were more tears than anything else,” Higa told The Hawai‘i Herald.
University of Hawai‘i scholars note that although Army rules prohibited locals from interacting with the POWs or giving them money or gifts, the rule was not strictly enforced.
In her “Breaking the Silence” essay, “Honouliuli’s POWs: Making Connections, Generating Changes,” Falgout notes that of the 16,217 POWs housed in Hawai‘i, Okinawans were the third largest group with 3,723. The largest POW group were Italians (5,000), who made up one-third of all the prisoners, followed by 4,766 Japanese from mainland Japan. Additionally, there were 2,692 Korean POWs and 36 classified as “Others” — Formosans, Southeast Asians, Chinese and Filipinos.
“The Okinawan POWs had the greatest amount of contact with the local Hawai‘i population,” wrote Falgout. “Reportedly, nearly all of them had relatives in the islands.”
Additionally, she noted, “In an attempt to better handle the fraternization problem, the military’s Visitors Bureau directed visits by locals within the POW camps. The local response was robust: the military received some 380 applications on the very first day.”
This, apparently, was how Sadamitsu Higa’s sister Sumiye was able to arrange the visit between their mother Ushi and her POW brother. “My sister, who was 17 or 18 at the time, contacted the Army,” said Higa. He was told about the encounter by his mother and sister. Higa believes his uncle was held at Honouliuli and that the siblings’ first meeting took place somewhere in Kalihi. Another brief meeting was held at Fort Shafter.
“Basically, this was her whole family,” Higa said. “He was the youngest of seven children. Everybody else, her father and mother, were gone. Her sisters had moved to South America. His twin brother had been killed earlier while serving in the navy. Everyone was gone except for this guy in prison.”
Higa said his mother never returned to Okinawa, not even for a visit. However, he met his uncle in 1999. He said they never spoke about his imprisonment or the war and wonders whether his uncle might have been too ashamed to talk about having been a prisoner of war because he had survived. Higa said he hasn’t heard from his uncle for several years and doesn’t know if he is still alive. “He would be more than 100 years today.”
Artist Seikichi “Chick” Takara, 88, said his mother learned that her brother-in-law, Kame Takara, was being held in a detention area near Kapi‘olani Park in 1946. “My mother made a bentö,” said Takara, whose McCully home was destroyed by “friendly fire” in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“We took the trolley to the park. There was a Nisei soldier guarding the prisoners. He looked away while my mother shoved the bentö under the wire fence and talked with the prisoner.”
Clara Goto, 84, said her father, Taketo Asato, heard that a POW working on the military pier at Pöka‘i Bay was from his family’s home village of Nakagusuku in Okinawa. Taketo and his two brothers, Shinsei and Usei Asato, took a bentö lunch when they met the Nakagusuku prisoner, Yukin Higa.
Goto said her parents never discussed the meeting with Higa. She believes “it must have been a very emotional one since they were happy to see someone from their village” and because they were worried about relatives who were still in Okinawa.
In 1990, Goto made a special trip to Nakagusuku to visit Yukin Higa. “I know I cried,” she said. “Just meeting him drove me to tears.”
Larry Yogi, 79, recalled that he was 6 or 7 years old when his mother and several other Okinawans living in Waipahu drove out to visit some POWs who were being held in an area near what is today Mililani Golf Course. “My mother made andagi (Okinawan doughnuts); others brought ‘ökolehao (distilled liquor from ti root) and tobacco boxes. They talked story, had their lunch, smoked and socialized through a barbed wire fence,” Yogi recalled.
Higa, Takara, Goto and Oshiro and other Hawai‘i Uchinanchu will share their wartime memories with the Okinawa delegation at the Hawaii Okinawa Center after they arrive in Hawai‘i on June 2.
Toguchi said he and his fellow POWs never forgot those acts of kindness. He said the Hawai‘i Uchinanchu “gave all the prisoners hope and also showed us the true meaning of life.”
Hikoshin Toguchi has spent the past four decades of his life trying to track down the remains of the 12 Okinawan POWs who died while incarcerated here. On Sunday, June 4, the delegation will visit Schofield Barracks before attending memorial services at the site of the former Sand Island POW compound (RK Oshiro Door Service) and Jikoen Hongwanji Temple in Kalihi. In 1983, the Ryukyu Shimpo, one of Okinawa’s daily newspapers, reported that the remains of 12 Okinawan POWs who had died while in Hawai‘i were interred at Schofield Barracks. However, during a base expansion project, their grave markers were removed and researchers were unable to determine where they were reburied or if their remains were returned to Okinawa.
The long day will conclude with a dinner reception at the Pagoda International Ballroom, where Choichi Terukina of Okinawa, a Living National Treasure of Japan in the Afuso Ryu style of Okinawan sanshin, will play the three-stringed instrument made of snakeskin. The sanshin Terukina will play was given to a POW by an Uchinanchu who had brought it with him when he immigrated to Hawai‘i in the early 1900s.
Serikaku said the immigrant gave the sanshin to the POW after seeing him playing a song using a rudimentary version of the instrument made from a gallon-sized can for the box, scrap lumber for the instrument’s neck and tuning pegs and three wire strings. The can sanshin was known as a kankara sanshin.
The former POWs and their families will perform traditional folk songs such as “Yaka Bushi,” (“Song of Yaka”) which describes the devastation of Okinawa and the plight of family members held in POW camps. Said Serikaku, “There probably will be a lot of nostalgic songs.”
Gregg Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.