World War II Nisei Soldiers’ Story Comes to the Big Screen
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In January 1942 —a month after Japan’s attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor — a group of dejected University of Hawai‘i Army ROTC students were sitting under a tree near Dean Hall on the Mänoa campus. Called to duty with the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they had stood guard to defend the Islands against a feared Japanese invasion for weeks, only to be expelled because they looked like the enemy.
From his office across University Avenue, YMCA leader Hung Wai Ching, a member of the Territory of Hawai‘i’s Morale Committee, saw the young men and went to them. He tried to convince the confused and bitter young Nisei that even though their government did not trust them to carry guns, they could still serve their country and demonstrate their loyalty in another way — by swinging picks and shovels as members of a labor battalion.
The scene is one of the pivotal moments in a new 90-minute movie, “Go For Broke — A 442 Origins Story,” that will be the closing night film of the Hawai‘i International Film Festival, presented by Halekulani, on Nov. 12 at the Hawaii Theatre. Hung Wai Ching is played by actor Michael Ng.
The screening will mark the public premiere of the movie, which was written by Stacey Hayashi, directed by Alexander Bocchieri and produced by Hayashi, Dean Sensui and Anne Misawa.
‘Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro wrote the soundtrack for the film and also has a role in it. He appears as Maui schoolteacher Saburo Maehara, whose father is interned on the Mainland.
A rough cut of the movie was shown at a private screening at the Hawaii Theatre on Oct. 8 for the World War II Nisei veterans, now in their 90s, cast and crewmembers and Island dignitaries. Among those in attendance were Hawai‘i Gov. David Ige, whose father served in A Company, 100th Battalion; Adm. Harry Harris Jr., head of the U.S. Pacific Command; and retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who has a cameo part in the movie.
Sixteen years in the making, the movie chronicles the period beginning on the eve of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, to the sendoff ceremony on March 28, 1943, in which 2,686 Nisei volunteers of the 442nd Regimental Combat stood in formation in front of ‘Iolani Palace before shipping out a week later for training on the Mainland and the battlefields of Europe. The producers had to rely on special effects and only 120 actors to recreate the iconic palace scene.
The movie covers the 15 months after the Dec. 7 attack, when martial law and a curfew were imposed and the loyalty of Japanese Americans became suspect. It chronicles how Hawai‘i largely escaped the tragedy of mass evacuation and internment of Japanese (although about 2,000 primarily Issei were removed from their homes in Hawai‘i) and how Japanese Americans were given the opportunity to prove their loyalty with the help of people like Hung Wai Ching.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, there were about 2,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry serving in the Army in Hawai‘i. Most had been drafted in the year preceding the attack and were serving in the 298th Infantry Regiment on O‘ahu and 299th on the neighbor islands. These were Hawai‘i National Guard outfits that had been federalized in late 1940, when the war raging in Europe prompted America to resume the military draft. In May 1942, the Nisei were removed from the 298th and 299th and reassigned to a new Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion, which shipped out of Honolulu Harbor in June 1942. When the men arrived in Oakland, Calif., a week later, they were renamed the 100th Infantry Battalion, Separate.
Hundreds of other Nisei were among the Hawai‘i residents who answered the call on Dec. 7 when the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard was activated, using University of Hawai‘i and some high school ROTC cadets and members of the American Legion. They were issued Model 1903 Springfield rifles, with only five .30-06 rounds apiece. In the movie, that prompts one guard member to ask his buddies: “Now, if the enemy should come and you shoot your five bullets, then what’s going to happen after that?” His buddy responds that he would probably just hightail it.
Six weeks later, all of the Nisei were abruptly discharged from the HTG. At the urging of Hung Wai Ching, the Nisei students successfully petitioned the military governor to create a volunteer labor battalion. One hundred sixty-nine of the former ROTC cadets became the Varsity Victory Volunteers, as they called themselves, and spent 11 months at Schofield Barracks, digging ditches, building roads and military installations, stringing barbed wire and breaking rocks at Kolekole quarry.
A scene from the movie shows Ching and educator Shigeo Yoshida, also a member of the Army’s civilian advisory Morale Committee, at a June 1942 meeting with then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel to plead their case for the formation of the VVV. Yoshida is played by actor Chris Tashima, while Arlene Van Asperen Newman plays Eleanor Roosevelt.
During an hour-long ceremony preceding the screening, Adm. Harris, the top U.S. military commander in the Asia-Pacific region, recognized 442nd veteran Masayoshi Nakamura, who was recently awarded France’s Legion of Honor for his service in the liberation of France in 1944.
Harris, whose father and uncles served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and whose mother was born in Japan, told the audience that everyone suffered in World War II. “But the Nisei warriors had to struggle against additional challenges — discrimination and distrust,” Harris said.
Ige also presented Hayashi with a proclamation designating Oct. 8 as “Go For Broke Day.” In congratulating her, the governor also acknowledged the contributions of the UH Academy of Creative Media, saying, “The big studios will never tell our story. There isn’t enough commercial value in our stories for them to be told.”
Hayashi’s movie focuses on the Varsity Victory Volunteers and traces the origins of the 100th Infantry Battalion. The earnest service of Nisei in both units, with support from Ching, Yoshida and many others, convinced federal authorities to create the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, whose motto would become the film’s title, “Go For Broke.” (The 100th went into combat nine months before the 442nd, which folded the 100th into the regiment as its first battalion. Most of the VVV members were among the 10,000 Hawai‘i Nisei who volunteered for the 442nd.)
Four Territorial Guard members who subsequently volunteered for the Varsity Victory Volunteers are portrayed in the film: Akira Otani, played by Chad Yazawa; Michael Hsia as Ted Tsukiyama; Yoshiaki “Sharkey” Fujitani, played by Colin Horibe; and John Ishikawa as Yoshimi “Hash” Hayashi. Otani, Tsukiyama, Fujitani, Takashi Kajihara and Thomas Nikaido are believed to be the last surviving members of the Varsity Victory Volunteers. Tsukiyama, 96, a retired labor arbitrator, and Fujitani, 94, who became a Buddhist priest and bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, were unable to attend the screening due to illness.
Angry that his father, a Buddhist priest, had been taken into custody by the FBI and needing also to support his mother and siblings financially, Fujitani quit the VVV. He later volunteered to serve with the Military Intelligence Service in the war against Japan. (Yoshimi Hayashi, who would go on to become a Hawai‘i Supreme Court justice, also served in the MIS.)
The experiences of three 298th Infantry soldiers are also highlighted in the film: Torao Migita, played by Leighton Hara; Jabez Armodia as Leighton Goro Sumida; and Keane Ishii as Thomas “Kewpie” Tsubota. They are shown stringing barbed wire; constructing machine gun emplacements; patrolling beaches; and building dugouts along the windward shore of O‘ahu, between Makapuu Point and Kualoa. In one scene, a 298th soldier who is not Japanese, turns to his Nisei comrade in the foxhole and, in anticipation of a Japanese invasion, asks, “Who are you going to shoot — them or me?”
The movie also notes that Pvt. First Class Migita was the first Japanese American soldier killed in the war, felled by “friendly fire” on Dec. 7 while on his way to report for duty with the 298th Infantry.
Japanese action star Ban Daisuke, known for his role as Jiro in the series, “Jinzo Ningen Kikaida,” plays Akira Otani’s father, Matsujiro Otani, a successful prewar commercial fish merchant. Matsujiro Otani was one of the first Issei to be arrested and held at the Sand Island and Honouliuli detention camps before being sent to internment camps on the Mainland.
Even after seeing his father being led away in handcuffs by FBI agents, dressed only in a kimono, Akira, Matsujiro’s eldest son, served in the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard and the VVV because he believed his country needed him. He was among the first to volunteer for the 442nd RCT before being transferred to the Military Intelligence Service.
Matsujiro Otani returned to his family in Hawai‘i after the war and continued in the fishing business as the head of what is today known as United Fishing Agency, O‘ahu’s only fresh fish auction. Today, the company is run by Akira Otani, his sons and other trusted and longtime employees.
Now 97, Akira Otani was the only VVV member to attend the Oct. 8 screening with his family. “It is good for the younger people to know what the boys went through,” he said. “I am happy to get the story to the younger people.”
In one scene, 17-year-old Daniel Inouye, played by Kyle Kosaki, is racing through Mö‘ili‘ili (filmed at Hawaii’s Plantation Village/Waipahu Cultural Garden Park) on his bicycle to report for Red Cross duty while Japanese attack planes fly overhead. Choking with emotion, Inouye raises a clenched fist and utters, “You dirty Japs!”
The movie also depicts Inouye’s frustration after volunteering for the 442nd, only to be turned down because of his work with the Red Cross and his status as a pre-med student at UH. Inouye got his draft board to accept him and went on to serve in E Company of the 442nd and was awarded the Medal of Honor for a battle in Italy which cost him his right arm. Like so many veterans, he went to college on the G.I. Bill and returned to Hawai‘i to lead its transformation from plantation oligarchy to the 50th State. Inouye would serve as a member of the Hawai‘i Territorial Legislature and then in the U.S. Congress
Alyson Watanabe, whose father, Paul Watanabe, 94, served with the 442nd RCT’s 232nd Combat Engineer Company, said her father is “really proud of Stacey and her commitment to tell the story” of the Nisei warriors. “We are very grateful,” she said.
Hayashi, 41, said she had always wanted to do a movie about the exploits of the Japanese American soldiers of World War II. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, including the 100th Battalion, is the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. Eighteen-thousand Japanese Americans served in the 100th and 442nd in World War II, earning 21 Medals of Honor, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars, thousands of Bronze Stars, more than 4,000 Purple Heart medals and seven Presidential Unit Citations for outstanding accomplishments in combat.
Several movies have been made about the Nisei warriors, although many of them focused on the irony of their service in light of the mass removal of Japanese from the West Coast and their incarceration in desolate camps.
The biggest Hollywood production on the 442nd was the 1951 black and white film, “Go For Broke,” starring Van Johnson and a few 442nd veterans, including Henry Oyasato. It premiered at the old Waikiki Theater on Käläkaua Avenue. The most recent film, “Only the Brave,” starring Lane Nishikawa, was released in 2005. The film, which Nishikawa wrote and directed, was based on the experiences of his four uncles, who served in the 100th Battalion, 442nd RCT and the Military Intelligence Service.
And, in 2010, the Japanese television network TBS aired a five-part miniseries, “99 Years of Love: Japanese Americans.” The series spanned a period of 99 years and focuses on one family, beginning with the arrival in Seattle of the Issei father, his family’s internment and his Nisei son volunteering for the 442nd RCT.
In 2006, Hawai‘i documentarian Tom Coffman produced “The First Battle,” which highlights the role Shigeo Yoshida and Hung Wai Ching played in helping to preserve the rights of the Nisei to serve in the U.S. military.
About eight years ago, Hayashi said she realized, “There was too much to tell in just one movie. I had collected too many stories.”
In 2012, Hayashi collaborated with artist Damon Wong to turn her movie script into a 30-page graphic comic book about the “boys who went to war and changed everything.“ The comic book, however, did not highlight stories of individual soldiers, as does her movie. “No one is named in the comic book,” Hayashi said.
Two years later, Hayashi lobbied the Legislature, which gave the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Foundation a $560,000 grant for the film. According to Hayashi, that amount was matched by private donations. Other companies, such as Hawaii Media Inc., donated camera equipment, supplies and vehicles.
Hayashi hopes this 90-minute film will be the first part of a 10-episode miniseries and is working on educational materials and curriculum that can be used in Island classrooms.
Hayashi dedicated the movie to Congressman Mark Takai, who died last year, for his support in spreading the story of the 100th Battalion, 442nd RCT and the Military Intelligence Service.
“Go For Broke — A 442 Origins Story” will be shown on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at Hawaii Theatre. It will travel to the Garden Isle and Hawai‘i Island later in the week, showing at Waimea Theater on Kaua‘i on Thursday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov 19, at 7:15 at Hilo Palace Theater. Go to hiff.org for ticket information.
Gregg K. 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.