Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: “A Question of Loyalty” is the second historical novel in Mike 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 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.
Dusk was settling in as Kenta led his bike-riding squad down University Avenue and then right on Kapi‘olani Boulevard. As he approached Washington Place, it occurred to him that he had not waited for instructions. But he worried for nothing. On the mansion’s front lawn another sergeant with a khaki sleeve full of chevrons stood astride a machine gun and three bulky canvas bags, each the size and color of a baby elephant.
Kenta’s squad dropped their bikes on the lawn and formed up. “Corporal Takayama reporting as directed…SIR!”
Stubble covered the sergeant’s square jaw, testimony that he had been awakened by the early morning bombing. A scar on his skull that ran behind his ear suggested a grazing bullet. Kenta guessed he had seen action in France during the Great War.
The sergeant studied the college kids. At Fort Benning he would have greeted them as “ladies” and ordered them to hit the ground and give him fifty pushups for their spotted shoes, less-than-crisp uniforms and sloppy formation. But not today. These kids were all he had — and all the governor would have for weeks, even months, until enough fresh Army units could be moved here. That is, if the Japs didn’t land in hours, or days.
“At ease, men.” He kicked one of the bags. “These are tents. Each sleeps four. Five in a pinch. You men will sleep here.” He zeroed in on Kenta. “Four armed men on duty at all times. Ten men must be on the grounds at all times. That allows two at a time to go into town.”
“Understood, SIR!” shouted Kenta.
“Fall out,” said the sergeant. “I don’t suppose any of you know how to fire this,” he said, pointing to the .30 caliber heavy machine gun. He let the no response stand. “We are placing this on the roof. I will show you how to use it. We can’t practice firing it without making everyone think the Japs have landed.”
Thirty minutes later, Kenta learned that every fifth bullet would be a tracer that lit up to show where they were shooting. Over the next week, his men would be rotated to a firing range to learn how to shoot.
Newly minted Corporal Kenta Takayama assigned himself the midnight to 4 a.m. guard assignment. This would give him time to help set up the tent, bike home, check on his family and then return for a catnap before his midnight shift.
As he tugged the strings on his tent bag, Azore, who shared Kenta’s tent and shift, leaned over to him. “Get out of here. You’re the only one with a family close by.”
Kenta grabbed his Schwinn and sped off into the eerie darkness.
The bright lights from the night before had disappeared completely. The island had been plunged into the total blackness of martial law. The streets seemed abandoned. He thought of Edward R. Murrow’s radio newscast description of London.
Kenta pedaled with his rifle slung over his back. The strap bit into his shoulder blades. Absent of headlights, he had tied a piece of white cloth to the tip of the Springfield in a makeshift attempt to be seen by trucks, Army jeeps, an occasional bus and ambulances rumbling along the streets. Two blocks up Punchbowl Street he ended up in a ditch when an oncoming firetruck hugged the shoulder.
His thoughts came fast and scrambled. Nobody had said anything about what would happen if Japanese troops landed in force and took over the island. Where would he find his place in the new topsy-turvy chaos? He drifted into the fantasy world of a resistance fighter: he and his Hawaiian buddies would hike up into the mountains and set up camp in the North Shore’s Käneana Grotto and in other ancient caves, where they would plan the retaking of Hawai‘i.
His reverie stopped the moment he saw the moonlit shadow of two V-8 Fords parked in front of his family’s home. The distinctive oversized running boards told him his worst fears were being realized and he pedaled faster. The entire family had long prepared for this visit while also hoping it would never happen.
The inviting aroma of fresh-cooked tempura wafted out the open door of the house. In the dim of flickering candles, Kenta quickly removed his Army boots in the hallway and walked into the living room. Four men right out of a Bogart movie turned to face him: dark suits, white shirts, narrow ties, black shoes, fedora hats. The buttoned suit jackets did not hide a menacing bulge below each man’s left armpit. One man held a flashlight.
Kenta saw the men focus on the rifle he held. He read uncertainty on their faces.
The hiss of Prankster, the family feline, from under the couch echoed Kenta’s thoughts. He caught sight of his mother wearing a Western dress, something she never did at home. He had not seen her at first, but her muffled sobs diverted his attention from the men. She made a show of inspecting the curtains taped to the edge of the windows to comply with the blackout orders. Her trembling hands held the masking tape. All of the pictures of the emperor had disappeared. Kenta smelled the burning trash. Taka had warned their mother that in case of war she should destroy anything Japanese.
Haru’s shoulders slumped. Kenta had never seen his mother appear so small. The confident mother and respected wife of an eminent priest had disappeared, replaced by a clone of a self-effacing woman selling trinkets at the Saturday flea market.
The man with the flashlight aimed it at Kenta, who answered the question before he even asked it.
“I live here. Now step outside and take your shoes off. And while you’re at it, your hats, too.”
“We’re real Americans. We don’t take our shoes off,” said the lead agent who, on previous visits, had taken off his shoes. But he had been by himself, and there had been no war.
Kenta stacked his Springfield against the sofa and moved toward the nearest suit, his hands curled into fists.
At that moment Kenta’s 65-year-old father entered the living room wearing his black bishop’s robe, ringed in a gold sash hanging from his waist.
Kenta stopped. “Otosan, these men . . .”
“Please forgive my son,” Kenji said smoothly, bowing low to the suit who seemed in charge. “He has been called to active duty to defend our islands against invasion. He finds your presence troubling. However, I have prepared for this hour.”
“I need to take any papers you have,” the agent said, walking toward a small room off the living room.
A smile crept across Kenji’s face.
“You might like what you find,” he said, his tone cordial. “It is today’s sermon, urging my congregation to be always loyal to the country that provides them their home.”
Haru waved a candle and a match, her eyes asking the FBI agent the question.
He eye-checked the covered windows and nodded.
Haru lit two candles. “Ken-chan,” her wavering voice called out. “You look good in your uniform.”
Kenta knew his mother hated military uniforms. A bone for the FBI. He turned to his mother. “I’ve been sworn into the Army, Okasan. I can’t stay long — our squad has guard duty at Washington Place.”
Haru stepped toward her son. “You are an American soldier. Your country is America. Our country, Japan.” A sob choked her words, but she mustered on. “Our country has attacked your country. That makes us…your enemy, Ken-chan. If it is your duty to shoot us, we will be proud of you.”
The FBI agent studied his socks.
Haru’s fear-driven declaration shamed and angered Kenta. And in front of a haole.
“Don’t talk foolishly, Okasan. American soldiers are PROTECTING everyone.”
“Grab the Motorola,” said the younger agent. “Shortwave.”
Kenta stepped over to the radio. “Let me help you.” He picked it up, strode out onto the porch, down the steps and heaved it over his head, smashing it on the stone walkway that led to the front door. He picked it up again and ran to the curb. In front of the FBI’s black Ford, he lifted the radio again and heaved it against the curb. Calmly, he wiped his hands, executed a military about-face and marched back to the stunned FBI agents who had come out onto the narrow porch.
The younger agent had drawn his gun and aimed it at Kenta. “I’m arresting you.”
Kenta offered out his hands. “Cuff me.”
The older agent placed a restraining hand on his over-eager colleague.
“Put the gun away and just stick the radio in the trunk.”
To be continued …