Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: “A Question of Loyalty” — released this past April — 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.
Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Georgia and Japan.
After remaining quiet for the entire conversation, FBI Director Bob Shivers spoke his mind. “There is no sabotage threat, General,” said Shivers. “As you know, Hoover fought internment. He’s insulted that the military doesn’t think the Bureau can ferret out any fifth column operators on its own. We’re confident that we’ve already picked up anyone who might cause trouble.”
Hung Wai Ching turned to Shivers. “You’ve got almost two thousand internees living in appalling conditions at the Sand Island camp, Bob. What’s going to happen to them?”
“We’re running background checks, but most will stay put,” said Shivers.
Ching smiled. “Frankly, General, the only reason Sand Island is secure is that the prisoners have accepted their confinement. If you really thought they were dangerous, the fences would be higher, you would not let them roam around within the camp and you would be assigning a lot more guards.”
“Perhaps you can respond to these letters in the same manner the president does at press conferences,” said Charles Reed Hemenway. Seeing the general’s raised eyebrows, Hemenway explained. “When he’s asked a question he doesn’t want to answer, he simply answers the question he wishes had been asked.”
A smile filled Emmons’ face, and he smacked his hand on his desk. “Exactly. I’ll start by wiring the president that all Japanese in the Hawaii Territorial Guard have been mustered out.”
Ching put both his hands on Emmons’ desk. “And tell him also that as soon as the War Department gives you a place to send them, you have two thousand POWs ready to go.”
Shivers rapped his left knuckles on the arm of Ching’s chair. “You’re one sly old Chinaman.”
Ching broke into his “Confucius say …” Chinese accent, camouflaging his distress over the racial pejorative. “I have known many gifts and insults.” His frown morphed into a smile.
“Today I am giving you a gift — a workforce for Nimitz,” said Shivers.
Shivers picked up his briefcase and placed it on Gen. Emmons’ desk. He snapped open the latches, took out a bound report and handed it to the general. “This is my FBI report on the Sand Island internees. I played up the cooperation the FBI has had with Fielder and his military intelligence team.”
“Good. Our Washington desk jockeys love reports, the longer the better. But Bob, could you just summarize it for me so I can include it in my reply to the president?”
“Every week that we drag our feet on this internment directive gives us a chance to find another excuse the following week,” said Hemenway.
“Right. I’ll muddle along unless I get a ‘remove, or else’ from FDR. I don’t want my command distracted by having to round up tens of thousands of families and constructing a city to house them. That’s a fucking waste of time and resources.” Del Emmons locked eyes briefly with each of the men across his desk. “None of you ever heard this from me. Got it?”
Ching leaned forward and pointed at the petition.
“Yes, the petition,” said Emmons, picking it up again. “This Kenta Takayama has a sense of history, given the size of his John Hancock at the bottom. You would almost expect the first words to read, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’”
“It’s not just that, Del,” added Hemenway. “I know these boys. They are as loyal as Americans you find anywhere.” He sat up straighter. “After the war, General, you will move on to your next assignment. We will still be here. Hawai‘i is our home — for life. Think of the resentment that will fester if you deny these boys their plea to serve. In a decade, these Nisei will make up the majority of Hawai‘i’s voters. What kind of citizens they will become may rest on how you respond to this petition.”
After a heavy pause, Emmons spoke. “Hung Wai, I suppose you have a recommendation. Let’s hear it.”
“If I understand your Washington orders, General, you are to reconstitute the Hawaii Territorial Guard after removing the Japanese, correct? There’s nothing that says you cannot squelch the nisei students’ anger — and their loyalty to our country — by putting them to work as civilians. You could give these plantation boys picks and shovels to build roads, put up fences and buildings and dig trenches,” suggested Ching.
Emmons picked up the petition again and studied it in his mind.
“Another point to consider,” said Hemenway. “These boys have already sacrificed their lives for their country. They served on Dec. 7 and they also gave up enrolling in school to join the Guard.”
Emmons glanced at Shivers. “I assume the FBI has no objection?”
“None whatsoever, General,” said Shivers. “Giving these boys jobs to support the war effort means they will not be wandering the streets with time on their hands and huge chips on their shoulders.”
Emmons rubbed his brow. “God knows we need all the construction workers we can find. None of our bases or beaches are fortified properly, and the Jap fleet has thousands of landing craft.”
“Sounds like you’re in deeper shit than even Washington knows,” said Hemenway.
“Let me put it this way,” said Emmons, leaning across his desk. “If I were Yamamoto, I’d invade.”
Emmons’ words hung in the air.
Ching gave one of his discreet little coughs. “Excuse me, gentlemen, the question to ponder is how can these nisei help?”
Emmons appraised Ching, then the petition. “How about we attach them to the 34th Engineers at Schofield? They’ll be civil servants, wear some sort of uniform and live on base. I have already asked the 34th’s CO, Col. Kuali‘i Lyman, to be here this morning for another matter.”
“Very good, General.” Ching said, smiling. “The Varsity Victory Volunteers.”
Emmons raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“That’s what they call themselves, the Varsity Victory Volunteers.”
“Hmm, clever. Has a nice ring to it. Maybe we can get the fellow who came up with that to work on some new Burma Shave signs.”
The men facing Emmons understood they were being dismissed and rose to their feet.
Emmons rose, too. “One more thing, gentlemen. While I am inclined to act favorably on this petition, the timing is important. Washington has been told I cleansed the army of ‘Japs.’ I can’t come back a day later and report ‘Well, not really.’ So, let’s get moving!”
As the three men headed for the door, Emmons barked into his phone, “Get the admiral on the line …”
“Chester, those nisei I discharged yesterday won’t go away.” Emmons’ words to Adm. Nimitz were tough, but his tone demonstrated admiration. Given the petition on his desk, the building pressure from Knox, FDR and Marshall, and the frank comments in this morning’s meeting, Emmons explained, “I’m getting it on all sides.”
“Del, whatever you do, don’t get rid of the Japanese working on my ships,” Chester Nimitz warned. “I need those welders, tool machinists and all those tradesmen. I’m getting shipwrights from California, but not fast enough.”
“I’m an army officer, Chester — not a politician.”
“Wrong, Del. Once we got our second star, we became political warriors. That’s why we command at our level.”
“Sacrifice some to save the others.” Silently, Emmons mulled his dilemma. The visibility of Nisei in uniform disconcerted the Washington brass and stoked local xenophobes. The next group of “visibles” were the Japanese civilians working in the army offices. They’d have to go eventually, but not now. The brass has been notified that the nisei are out of the Guard. For now, that was enough chum in the water for the sharks. I’ll wait a few weeks and then dismiss all Japanese civilians from the army. That will protect Chester’s tradesmen.
“All right, Chester, I’ll see what I can do,” said Emmons, ending the call.
He stabbed the petition with his finger. One hundred sixty-nine signatures of men who wanted to prove their loyalty to America stared back, challenging him. He was a goddamn three-star general. He would find a way to put those men to good use.
On Feb. 19, the men of the Varsity Victory Volunteers were sworn in as a labor battalion and assigned to Schofield Barracks. They were attached to the 34th Combat Engineer Regiment. They weren’t regular army, but not exactly civilians, either.
Just a week earlier, Emmons had dismissed all Japanese civilians from the army offices.
To be continued …