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’s squad marched double-time into the campus’ adjacent rice fields. As they crossed trickling Mänoa Stream at the bottom of St. Louis Heights, he wondered whether the FBI had arrested his father.
Back to the mission at hand, he reminded himself. He surveyed the shrubbery, the wild grass and stubby trees covering the hill. No movement. Then again, seasoned troops would remain concealed until their officers ordered them to charge.
“Spread out,” said Kenta, sweat dripping down his face from the sun — and fear. “But not too far. Stay within voice communication of your nearest neighbor.”
“Do you think these old bullets still work?” asked Short Pants.
“Lean forward, everyone,” Kenta ordered, ignoring the question that fueled his own doubts. “Let’s not give them a big target.” The cadets, eyes surveying places to dig if fired upon, hunched over like old men with bent spines and hugged their rifles snug to their chests.
A quarter of the way up the hill, Captain Smith caught up with them, three more squads in tow. He squatted and pulled out his field glasses.
“There’s movement on the right side,” said the captain, his binoculars still covering his eyes.
CRACK! Kenta and Short Pants fired simultaneously where Smith had pointed. Cordite perfumed the air.
“Hold your fire,” ordered Smith. “Who told you to start shooting?!”
“I thought . . .” Kenta started to say.
“Shut up!” hissed the captain.
Kenta had never seen this side of Smith before.
“Look!” screamed Short Pants, pointing to a scrub line that moved.
The sound of rifle bolts pulling back rang out. Smith turned around to face his men.
“Hold your fire! Dig in, boys! Share a shovel. Keep your eyes alert.”
Most of the ROTC cadets had worked in sugar plantations or pineapple fields. Digging holes was easy. In no time, shallow foxholes marred the landscape. The men lay prone, their untested antique rifles aimed at the top of the hill defining the eastern rim of their campus. Captain Smith moved around the defensive positions, redeploying the squads to form a double line.
“Azore, that’s a cracking good foxhole,” Smith encouraged. “Hideo, the reason you are digging is to keep your ass out of the firing line of sight, so how about lying down in that nice hole you dug?”
Kenta flipped up his shirt collar to give his neck relief from the blazing sun. He had inhaled some of the dirt kicked up by the trade winds. All’s quiet on the eastern front, thought Kenta.
Like his older brother Taka, Kenta devoured books, especially those that illuminated history. At age 13, he had read Churchill’s “The Great War.” This year, he had argued that Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” had proven once again that the “Great War” had not been the war to end all wars. He swatted away an ant crawling over his wrist and suddenly felt an urge to pee.
Until just a few hours ago, history had been something other people lived, not someone like himself. Now he realized that this day, this place and these actions would be forever fixed in the annals of history.
Kenta spoke in a low, hushed voice to his foxhole neighbor, Hideo Karamatsu, whose nickname “Hero” was the English translation of his first name. “How could they do this to us? Bomb us, kill us — the only place outside of Japan with nearly a majority of Japanese. It’s such a . . . a betrayal. And so ruthless and cold, so sneaky.”
“Hey, I live in a Korean neighborhood,” Hero said. “They’ve been angry since they lost their country to Japan 35 years ago. Lots of stories about atrocities, conscripted labor, shaming of their king and so on. Are they going to see me as a Japanese or as an American?”
“I’m more worried about the haoles, Hero. They’re going to look at our faces and think, ‘You’re the enemy.’ Those embarrassed admirals have been telling Washington that Hawai‘i is safe and unapproachable. Whose fault then is this attack? Must be spies, a fifth column. Us! You’ve walked past Honolulu’s train terminal. Machine guns mounted and pointed where? NOT out to sea to shoot invaders, but up the street to shoot saboteurs.” Kenta hammered his chest with his forefinger. “Except for a few people like Frazier, they’ll never trust us.”
Hero shook his head. “Most of the white power structure is OK with us, Kenta. Think about it. As soon as we got attacked, they gave us all guns. And who did they send up the hill to fight the Japanese? Us!”
“Maybe they just wanted us to get shot,” said Kenta, ahead with his trigger finger firmly in place.
“Nah, they trust us. More than that, they need us.”
“Sorry,” sputtered Kenta. “I was holding the trigger too tight.”
Collective groans filled the hot, breezy air.
“How come we don’t see any soldiers?” someone shouted.
“Maybe because there aren’t any,” Smith replied. “Otherwise, they would have shot the first idiot that yelled.” He spied Kenta three foxholes away and raised his voice. “OK hotshot, let’s you and me sneak a peek up the hill.”
As they rose to their hunchback crawl position, Kenta saw something white waving over a bush near the crest of the Heights. He and Smith both aimed their rifles.
“Raise your hands and come out slowly,” shouted Smith. He turned to Kenta, “Can you say that in Japanese?” Before Kenta could answer, a silver-haired man waving a white handkerchief over his head came out slowly and cautiously from behind the bush. A little girl no taller than his thigh clung to his pant leg.
“My granddaughter and I were taking a hike . . .” said the old man.
Smith and Kenta lowered their rifles. “You didn’t see any Japanese soldiers?” asked Smith.
The man’s knees wobbled. “No,” he said, dropping his hands.
“Someone must have seen you on the hill and reported a Japanese landing,” said Smith.
“Kenta, escort this family to the gym and report what we have seen to Major Frazier.”
At 3:11 p.m., Smith received orders to stand down.
To be continued . . .