Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: “A Question of Loyalty” is the second historical novel in Michael Malaghan’s trilogy on the Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i. Last year, the Herald concluded chapter-by-chapter publication of his first novel, “Picture Bride,” which chronicled Haru Takayama’s escape from Japan to begin a new life in Hawai‘i as the picture bride wife of Kenji Takayama, a Buddhist priest. In the second novel, we follow Haru’s and Kenji’s children through the World War II years.
“A Question of Loyalty” will be released in the next few months.
Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Georgia and Japan.
Kenta and his men followed the sergeant to the back of the gym where several closed doors lined the wall. He had never seen those doors open and assumed that they led to a utility room housing pipes and wires. A brass ring holding a half-dozen four-inch-long keys dangled from the sergeant’s hand. He pulled off one key and handed it to Kenta.
“Open the doors.” He turned back to the rest of the platoon and ordered, “You men go get five tables and a dozen chairs.”
“But there aren’t any tables here,” Stonehead protested, adding, belatedly, “Sir.”
The sergeant glared at Stonehead. “That’s why I’m ordering you to go find some, genius.”
“To the cafeteria!” bellowed Fats.
Their nonchalant stroll toward the cafeteria door elicited a quick rebuke from the sergeant. “On the double, ladies. There’s a war going on.”
As the men broke into a run, Kenta forced his key into a matching slot. It took several grunted efforts of escalating pressure to force the key to turn the stubborn tumblers. He pried open the squeaking door, exposing greenish metal bins rusted at the edges, jammed tightly on narrow wooden planks. Caked dust covered square tubs with stenciled letters spelling out “Ammunition,” “Firing Pins” and “Firing Pin Springs.” A single unlabeled box held grungy chamois cloths and odd-contoured screwdrivers. Kenta wondered whether the ancient bullets could even fire.
He turned back to face the sergeant just in time to see the only non-Nisei in his squad, Carlo “Azore” Carlesso, running toward him with two chairs in each hand. Behind Azore, whose nickname revealed his heritage — parents who had been recruited as sugarcane laborers from the Portuguese Azores at the turn of the century — came the rest of Kenta’s platoon, hustling as best they could while hauling tables and more chairs.
The sergeant took back the door key and then fired off an order to Kenta. “Pull out those metal boxes and set them on the tables. Then start inserting those firing pins into your Springfields.”
Kenta’s bewildered eyes told the sergeant that he might as well have asked him to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The sergeant shook his head in disgust. “If the Japs break into the gym, are we supposed to hit them on the head with rifle butts? Set the bins on the tables!” Once the steel trays were lined up neatly by category, he pointed to a canister of firing pins caked in gooey packing grease and grunted, “Start cleaning.” He then pointed to Kenta. “Hand me your rifle.”
Kenta handed the rifle to the sergeant, thinking that in almost two years of ROTC training, he had never fired any rifle.
“Watch me,” barked the sergeant, taking a seat at the table. “The rifles you have been drilling with can’t fire a bullet. No firing pin. We’re going to fix that.” He pulled back the bolt on the rifle and unscrewed the Springfield’s trigger housing, placing it reverently on the table. Next, he picked up a wiped firing pin. The 2.286-length pin ended with a rounded protrusion that provided maximum impact to ignite the deadly projectile’s charge. The sergeant held the firing pin high for inspection. Satisfied, he reached into a metal box and extracted a steel coil spring. Pinching the spring, he slid it over the pin. Holding tight, he slotted the firing pin into the trigger housing, giving it a twist to hold it in place. Finally, he screwed the now-lethal trigger housing back into the rifle’s firing chamber.
“Now you all do it.” The sergeant walked around the tables, supervising the squad’s clumsy efforts. He glanced at the milling ROTC and shook his head once again. “I don’t have enough time to train everyone. I’m going to order each squad in rotation to present their weapon to you, and you will insert the pins.” He paused, eyeballing Kenta.
It took a few seconds for Kenta to finally understand the sergeant’s meaning. “Yes, sir!”
Kenta wondered what quirk of fate had caused the sergeant to pick him out of the crowd to open the doors holding the firing pins. Cadets continued to straggle in and find their group. Territorial Guard officers and senior non-coms moved in and out of the gym engaged in agitated discussions. But no one seemed to be taking charge. Kenta hadn’t seen Major Frazier for over an hour.
Kenta wanted to call home, but the military, needing all the phone lines, had decreed: “No calls for any reason.”
“There’s the major,” said Short Pants.
The volume of murmurs dwindled as Kenta watched a clearly agitated Major Frazier rush over to ROTC Captain Smith, captain of the University of Hawai‘i football team, and the sergeant.
Major Charles “Rusty” Frazier, deputy commander of the Hawai‘i Territorial Guard, was a third-generation kama‘äina — Hawaiian for a non-ethnic Hawai‘i resident who was born in the Islands. Streaks of grey now dulled his once fiery-red hair. As with many of the white leaders, he stood a shade over six feet tall and exuded an easy air of authority.
The cadets coalesced into formation by squads. Frazier, Smith and the sergeant fast-stepped to the middle of one side of the gym and ascended to the third row of bleachers. Frazier said something Kenta could not hear, but he saw the sergeant draw himself up.
The men snapped their boots together and stood rigid. They stomped their rifles firmly on the ground at a 45-degree angle and focused straight ahead.
Major Frazier’s eyes scanned the room as he moved his head in a slow arc. He cleared his throat.
“Today, your country needs you. Our battleships have been sunk. Our planes destroyed. While there has been no bombing since 10 o’clock, there have been reports of invasions, including, moments ago, an unconfirmed sighting of Japanese paratroopers landing on St. Louis Heights, just beyond this campus.”
Frazier waited for the stir to die down.
“This would NOT be the first time that Japan’s soldiers followed a surprised naval attack. In 1905, without a declaration of war, Japanese warships entered the Tsar’s Manchurian harbor of Port Arthur and opened fire on the unsuspecting Russian fleet. Nearby, Japan landed 10,000 marines, unchallenged.” Frazier wiped a sweat bead from his eyebrow with the little finger of his right hand. “We’re the only military unit in this area. The burden falls on you to face the enemy.
“Men,” he said, his voice raised strong and confident, “we are moving out. Captain Smith is taking charge of the operation.”
Speaking with equal authority, Smith picked up where the major had left off. “The major has already requisitioned shovels from the groundskeepers’ shed. They’re being delivered outside as I speak. Three shovels per squad. We’ll be digging some foxholes.” Smith scanned the men. “Takayama, Okamoto, Ogura . . . take your squads out now. Spread out across the bottom of the hill. If anybody shoots at you, fall down, shoot back and start digging.”
Dumbfounded, Kenta asked himself why an experienced officer wasn’t leading a patrol? Prior to today, Kenta’s military “career” had consisted of marching to student officers’ drill commands and thoughts on Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” required reading for freshman literature. Will I run if rifle-firing soldiers shouting “Banzai!” charge down the hill to kill me? Japan has been fighting the Chinese for six years. Now these same combat soldiers might be less than a mile from here?
Kenta hoped no one noticed his wobbly knees. He tightened his grip on his rifle barrel and addressed his squad. “Let’s do our duty.”
Seeing the sergeant stepping down from the bleachers directly in front of him, Kenta felt the impulse to shout, “I will fight the invader,” but his voice came out squeaky, albeit with resolve. “We’re ready.”
“Good,” said the sergeant. “If you see a Jap soldier, shoot him.”
“Yes, sir,” said Kenta, his vocal cords almost normal now. Seeing the uncertainty in the sergeant’s eyes, he added with firm conviction, “I’ll shoot to kill.”
“Buster” Sugi, who had earned his nickname from mimicking the voice in the Buster Brown radio ad — “I’m Buster Brown and I live in a shoe” — held up his rifle. “What happens if I shoot all five bullets?”
“That’s when you find out if you really believe in God,” snapped the sergeant. “Now get going!”
“They wouldn’t put us up there if the Army had any troops to spare,” said Azore, sidling up to Kenta.
“Even if they did, the Schofield troops couldn’t get here in time,” said Kenta, dropping his voice to match Azore’s.
“Do you really think there are Japanese soldiers on St. Louis Heights?” asked Fats. Kenta noticed his men perking up upon overhearing the question.
“Let’s find out,” said Kenta. “Let’s prove we are just as American as any haole.”
Kenta glanced at the men milling about the gym, their eyes filled with uncertainty. He caught Captain Smith’s eyes on him. He raised his hand, shaped it into a pistol and aimed at the double doors leading to the Heights. Well, somebody has to go first.
“Grab a helmet and a gas mask.”
Kenta walked over to twin piles of World War I helmets and gas masks stacked like pyramids outside the adjoining supply doors. He picked up his set, adjusted them and then checked on his men. Satisfied, he ordered, “Follow me.” Emanating Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, Kenta marched out of the gym without glancing back.
To be continued . . .