Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Eugene “Gene” Imai, whose military and government career spanned more than three decades, including service in Vietnam and as commander of the Hawai‘i Army National Guard, died Jan. 28 at the Arcadia Retirement Residence after a long illness. He was 72 years old.
According to the Japanese Americans Veterans Association, Imai was one of only 12 Japanese Americans nationwide to have achieved the rank of two-star general in the U.S. Army. He retired in 1999 after 32 years of service.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Lister, for whom Imai served as chief of staff at Fort Shafter as an Army Reserve colonel from 1988 to 1991, described Imai as a “pragmatic” leader who had “the wisdom to realize that, while having grand plans, sometimes you have to settle for the smaller advances that will just make the situation a bit better.”
“Gene not only would speak up when others were reluctant, but he had a way of disagreeing with you without the slightest hint of disloyalty or insubordination,” said Lister. “In fact, if you went against his advice, Gene would then very loyally and thoroughly support the decision he had just spoken out against.
“I once told Gene that I thought that he could tell me to ‘Go to hell’ and make me think I was going to enjoy the trip. Gene was always searching for the way to make things better. ‘Good enough’ wasn’t his motto.”
Imai graduated from McKinley High School in 1964 and was commissioned following graduation from the University of Hawai‘i’s Army ROTC program in 1968. He held a bachelor’s degree in public administration and earned a master’s in business administration from UH after serving in Vietnam.
Retired Army Gen. Robert Lee, Imai’s McKinley and UH classmate, said he was “very lucky” to have had Imai as his mentor for most of his Army career. Lee, who retired after serving as state adjutant general, said it was Imai who talked him out of transferring to the Air Force ROTC program at UH and to instead remain in the Army program.
After serving in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, Imai joined the U.S. Army Reserve in Hawai‘i. He was elevated to chief of staff at Headquarter IX Corps in 1988.
In his civilian life, Imai worked as an administrative services officer for the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture and the Department of Education, where he was appointed assistant superintendent for business services.
He also served as Gov. John Waihee’s budget director and headed the Department of Accounting and General Services as comptroller under Gov. Ben Cayetano. In June 1995, the UH Board of Regents selected Imai as senior vice president for administration.
In 1991, Waihee convinced Imai to transfer to the Hawai‘i Army National Guard, where he became commander, serving until June 1996.
Retired Army Col. Gerry Silva, who served three years as Imai’s Army National Guard chief of staff, said Imai and his wife “quickly became valued members of the Hawai‘i Guard family.” “Gene was a role model for us all and an example of the citizen-soldier at its best.” He said Imai balanced the requirements of his military positions with demanding civilian positions.
“Most of us have our own ‘Imai’ memories because he personally touched so many,” Silva said. “Many of the troops recall Gene taking the physical fitness test with them. As part of his quiet brand of leadership, he did that a lot — unit after unit. He made life easier for me and he set up developmental programs for leaders. Many of today’s Army Guard leaders benefitted because of his vision,” he said of Imai.
Silva recalled that for weeks after Hurricane ‘Iniki, Imai virtually lived at the Diamond Head emergency management command post, calling him “a key player in relief operations for Kaua‘i.”
“Gene never stopped working. I remember early one morning when — catnapping at his desk — he ran over his glasses with his chair.” Imai dashed home to get a second pair and was back in time for the 6 a.m. briefing.
“Although they may not know it, many in this state owe Gene a lot because of what he did for education, government and the military,” said Silva. “He will be missed.”
In 1996, Imai was assigned as deputy commanding officer for reserve affairs at U.S. Army Pacific. He was promoted to a two-star general and retired in 1999.
In 2005, Imai became then-U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s military liaison.
Imai will be remembered in a memorial service set for Friday, March 23, at the Arcadia Retirement Residence (1434 Punahou St.) beginning at 9:30 a.m.
Imai is survived by his wife, Gail, and their two children, Serina Hijirida and Gavin Imai; grandsons; sister Ruth Shigekane; brother Arthur Imai and other family members.
Gen. Lister recalled one of his visits with Imai and his wife. “Gene knew he was fighting a battle he was not going to win. Still, in one sense, he was the same pragmatic Gene Imai that many of us knew in his stronger years. He struggled to keep up with conversations, but he did it in a way that showed that, inside, he was saying, ‘Three strikes and I am not out. I can work hard and make this situation a little bit better.’ Today, I can imagine a clear-headed Gene approaching God and saying, ‘Hey, Boss. I think there might be a better way to approach this problem.’”
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.