Leonard Oka, founder of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. (Photo courtesy of Leonard Oka)
Leonard Oka, founder of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. (Photo courtesy of Leonard Oka)

Creating the Maui Nisei Veterans Memorial Center

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” represents a partnership between the Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. They are Japanese Americans who have made contributions in fields ranging from politics, business and education to athletics, the military and the arts and sciences. We feature such individuals in each segment of this series.

The writers are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Leonard Oka’s complete interview is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-GB/RecordView/Index/7265. The authors also acknowledge use of excerpts from “Honoring Heroes” in The Maui News by Sarah Ruppethal (April 26, 2019) and a Hawaii Public Radio interview conducted by Noe Tanigawa on July 27, 2018.

Persistence and grit are essential attributes of leadership. Leonard Oka possesses both in spades. It took Oka over three decades to realize his vision of a center on Maui to honor Nisei veterans. In the process, he was instrumental in forging a critical partnership amongst six veterans’ organizations on the Valley Isle.

Father’s World War II Experiences

Leonard Oka’s paternal grandparents, who immigrated to Hawai‘i from Yamaguchi Prefecture, worked in the sugar plantation and in the camp store in Pu‘unënë. Oka’s dad, Clarence Heiichi “Hekka” Oka, like his own father from that Issei generation, was employed by the Hawaii Commercial and Sugar Company. Clarence Oka was 28 years old when he impulsively volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 1943. Leonard said his father was older than most recruits and a “typical hard-headed Japanese man” who had strong opinions. His dad wound up in Company L, Third Battalion. The younger recruits jokingly called Clarence “the old man.” He was a skilled baseball player who played in all the AJA leagues on Maui, and he became a member of the championship 442nd baseball team. According to Leonard, his father’s company was sent to Europe in 1944. On the transport ship, there was little to do except to “gamble, gamble, gamble.” In fact, his dad said that the slogan “go for broke” was a gambling slang.

From stories that his father told the family, Leonard realized that his dad was not afraid to speak up to his superiors in defense of the other soldiers. In one incident, he faced the lieutenant of his platoon, who had ordered a dangerous reconnaissance mission. He told the officer, “You can’t send these guys out on that suicide mission.” They wound up with heavy casualties on that mission. “He was just looking out for his younger brothers,” explained Leonard. His father contracted an illness in Europe, and by the time he was well enough to return to the front, his company had left. He was ultimately assigned to a non-Nisei transportation unit for the duration of the war.

Collecting the Veterans’ Stories

Leonard himself graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa with plans to become an elementary-school teacher, but teaching jobs were scarce on Maui. He opted to sell insurance, a 40-year career that allowed him to build valuable personal networks in the community and to have flexible working hours. Leonard admits that he didn’t start off with an interest in his Japanese American heritage. He said, “Up to high school, even college, I didn’t know anything about the 442[nd RCT], or the 100[th Battalion].”

Leonard’s father was a masterful storyteller; at their family dinners on Sundays, the entire family listened to his war experiences. This inspired Leonard to think about stories that other Maui veterans had to share. It was only after he had a young son that he realized the importance of capturing the memories and stories of the earlier generation to leave as a legacy for the younger generations. “As a parent I wanted [to] leave my son something that was meaningful. I realized that his grandfather, my father, and his grandfather on my wife’s side, were both 442 members. At Sunday family dinners, my father was telling all these stories about the 442. So, I thought, that’s something that is important. I want to know more about it myself, but I also want to make sure my son knows about it,” he said.

Maui Sons and Daughters of the 442nd

Leonard knew that there were two separate clubs on Maui for the 442nd and 100th veterans. These clubs were largely social in nature. Members came together for parties but never really shared their history. To realize his goal of preserving their stories, he got the blessing of the 442nd club board to establish a separate group called the Maui Sons and Daughters of the 442nd. In 1982, this became the first organization established by the sons and daughters of veterans in the U.S. Then the real work began.

Oka first brought together interested friends, all baby boomers who had been born in the years following the war. They secured a club site that was a recreational facility owned by the Arisumi brothers. To start, the members held holiday social events to get to know one another. They followed this with the serious business of collecting artifacts. Oka said, “We got a lot of service uniforms that were in very good shape.” The club rented an air-conditioned office to house these artifacts. Families also began to donate old news clippings and wartime photos. At the same time, the club members started to collect books that had been nationally published.

Conducting Oral Histories

The daunting challenge was working on oral histories with the Maui veterans themselves. Oka attended workshops conducted by Warren and Michi Nishimoto from the UH Mänoa Center for Oral History to learn about the protocols involved in conducting these histories. Volunteers captured the interviews on cassette tapes. The club also received financial and professional assistance from the Hanashi Oral History Project sponsored by the Go for Broke National Education Center. The oral histories the club conducted through this GFBNEC support have been archived at the Go for Broke National Education Center headquarters in Los Angeles. Oka’s regret is that these histories were done on audio rather than video tapes, as he later recognized the value of seeing the facial expressions as well as the words of the interviewee. Oka was happy, however, that he had videotaped his father before his death in 1991.

A milestone for the Maui Sons and Daughters of the 442nd was the work done by Dawn Duensing, who was hired to organize the association’s growing collection. She received funding to publish a book of oral histories done with Military Intelligence Service veterans that was distributed to all the public libraries in Hawai‘i. In the early 1990s the Maui Sons and Daughters of the 442nd also successfully staged displays at Maui Mall on Veterans Day and invited veterans to participate.

Oka’s big dream was for the club to have its own building. In the 1980s, Mayor Hannibal Tavares was instrumental in contacting Robert Pfeiffer, the CEO of Alexander and Baldwin, about the possibility of donating land for this purpose. Oka recalled, “I received a call from Garner Ivey, who was running the A&B operations on Maui. Ivey said that Pfeiffer was recommending that the A&B Board approve the donation of two acres to the Maui Sons and Daughters Club.” In 1987, A&B deeded two acres on One Beach Road to the club.

Nisei Veterans Memorial Center

With the land secured, the next step was to raise the millions for the building itself. The enterprising planners quickly realized that their young group needed the financial support of the older community members. Oka said, “We eventually asked each of the existing organizations at that time — 442nd, 100th, MIS social club, Maui AJA veterans club, and Lahaina AJA veterans club. We had a total of six organizations that pitched in. We now called ourselves the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center.” It took more than 30 years to complete funding the building project. All the organizations are now represented on the Center’s board of directors. In the process, the Maui Sons and Daughters of the 442nd became the Maui Sons and Daughters of Nisei Veterans to embrace the six associations involved in building the facility.

Over the 30-year period, the vision for the Center has also expanded. In addition to preserving the veterans’ experiences, the building houses a community center and non-profit offices. The collection in the archives and gallery now extends beyond the history of the Nisei veterans to include the Issei immigration story, AJA internment in Hawai‘i and on the mainland, the AJA role in the post-war political revolution in Hawai‘i and AJA veterans in more recent wars. While the core focus remains the Nisei veteran, the AJA story is now connected with the history of those who came to Hawai‘i from Japan as well as the AJA impact on the community following the war. As Oka explains it, the Center’s goal is to have the public “understand the whole story.”

The Dream Realized

Today, the Center has an inter-generational approach to supporting the Maui community. Individual non-profit agencies like the Maui Adult Day Care Center and the Kansha Pre-School serve as tenants at the Center. This provides for the Center’s financial stability. As the founder of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, Oka believes in the importance of preserving the values that the earlier generation of veterans shared. In an interview with Noe Tanigawa for Hawaii Public Radio, he said, “Like honor, humility, they show gambatte, a go for broke attitude. That’s why they did well. They didn’t have to think about it. It was in their brain and in their heart. They just lived it. I think that’s the story that needs to be passed forward.”


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