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.
Schofield Barracks Army Base – Early March, 1942
Kenta and Short Pants ambled from their tent to the mess hall for their morning fare of greasy ham, burnt toast, runny eggs and room-temperature oatmeal. Their Army-issued T-shirts hung outside their trousers, and their work boots showed off weeks of scars and not a single coat of shoe polish.
The misty central O‘ahu rains dampened their ill-fitting denim uniforms. Daily rain clouds drifted in from the North Shore and collided with the eastern slope of the Wai‘anae range, bringing downpours that fed the reservoirs. The sun’s rays slanted in at sharp, early-morning angles. A double rainbow curved into the mountain forest, once abundant with sandalwood trees that had been Hawai‘i’s treasure. A crisp outer ring of yellow, blue and red arcs rimmed a faded replica shimmering underneath.
Short Pants hummed “Chattanooga Choo Choo” while Kenta pounded a scruffy baseball into his fielder’s mitt, hoping to pick up a game of catch after breakfast.
Soon Kenta and Short Pants left the fresh air smells of dawn and entered the steamy breakfast odors of Building 442, the mess hall. A year later, Short Pants would claim the number had been a secret prophecy, the kind of the thing Nostradamus would have understood. At the moment, the only number holding Short Pants’s attention was forty-five — the amount on the pay stub in his pocket from his first two weeks of wages. He had to speak loudly to be heard over the din of clanging dishes, banging pots and hundreds of chattering men.
“Until I stood in line yesterday and actually got the cash, I didn’t really believe this crap.” His eyes lit up as all the ways to spend the money ran through his head. “Forty-five bucks every two weeks!”
Spud, who favored potatoes over rice, had caught up with them as they joined the tail end of the chow line. “It’s real, all right. The first day we had PX privileges I bought a box of Tampax for my sister at half the price of Wong’s Pharmacy in Chinatown.”
“Jesus,” said Kenta, “do you have to talk about stuff like that? I’m getting ready to eat.”
Spud ignored the rebuke. “Things are good, Kenta. We get to sleep in tents big enough to stand up in. We’re next to the showers, get steak every night, all the butter we want and free movies!”
“But we wear the ugliest shirts and baggiest dungarees in the weirdest blue colors ever imagined,” grumbled Short Pants. “God forbid anyone think us funny-eyed workers are in the real Army.”
“At least no one seems to mind that we don’t wear those ridiculous green-felt armbands with ʻVVV’ sewn on them,” said Spud.
Kenta broke into his good-news smile. “Hung Wai is working with UH to have professors come out here and offer a few courses for credit. He’s going to teach a business class.”
“Sign me up, Kenta,” said Spud.
“Right now, I’m concentrating on getting all the gym time I can get,” said Short Pants, who had won his first boxing match the previous weekend.
The conversation lapsed while they loaded their trays. They found a table that had just been vacated except for their squad mate, Seiji Fukayama — “Chuckles” to them, because he laughed at his own lame jokes.
Spud poured sugar into his coffee as though he were making molasses and noisily clinked the inside of the cup as he stirred the sludge. “Let’s see if I understand the Army. They didn’t trust us guarding civilian installations, but it’s okay for us to be inside an Army base?”
Spud enjoyed the status of a sansei. His father was born three days after the annexation, thus becoming Hawai‘i’s first person of Japanese heritage to hold U.S. citizenship. The local press had not reported the event, but his plantation village on the island of Kaua‘i had celebrated for three days. Two decades later, Spud’s father became a union activist in the failed sugar strike of 1923 but fared better when he and Kenta’s father led the successful strikes in 1939.
Chuckles drowned his scrambled eggs with ketchup. “How’s this for crazy? My brother didn’t join the VVV, but he got a communications job at the Maui naval station.”
Spud stopped stirring. “Communications? Honto ni!”
“Yeah, really!” said Chuckles. “He reads all the messages between Nimitz and his ship captains. And you don’t think they keep an eye on him? Just in case he wants to send smoke signals to a Japanese submarine.”
Four regular Army enlisted men joined their table, which seated eight. “Good morning,” they mumbled. Kenta and his group answered with their standard “Aloha.”
Kenta poked Spud’s arm. “Don’t turn your head now, but have you noticed that sergeant two tables behind you staring at us?”
“You mean the one whose face broadcasts that his parents lost a bet with God?” asked Spud. “Reminds me of Willie Whacker. Remember him? He squeezed his zits until his face mirrored Capone on a bad day.”
Chuckles wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “That’s the same guy who cut in front of me in the chow line. He kind of bumped me when he did it, but instead of apologizing he just sneered at me. ‘Japs at the end of the line.’ What a jerk.”
The soldier sitting next to Kenta pointed his fork at Chuckles. “Stay away from that nutter. That’s Sgt. Davy Crockett.” When the other three Army guys laughed, he explained. “His real first name is Randall, but he makes sure everyone knows he’s a real hard-ass Texan who is some twice-removed cousin of Davy Crockett.”
“Yeah,” said another private. “Claims letting you people on an Army base is the worst thing that’s happened since Lincoln freed the slaves.”
By the time Kenta and his buddies left the mess hall, the sun had burned off the morning mist. The rainbows had disappeared, but clouds still hugged the mountains, waiting for their stormy afternoon companions to join them.
The back area of Schofield had previously been an open range. Scavenging cows would occasionally meander through the scrub, scouring for rare sweet grass working its way up through the rocky volcanic earth. Kenta’s squad had been assigned to fence it in. Since most of the VVV boys had been raised on sugar plantations, it didn’t take much training to show them the Army’s method of perimeter security. If they kept up their current pace and the afternoon rains remained light, they could finish their assigned section today.
As Kenta jammed a fence post into a freshly dug hole, a jeep rumbled to a stop behind him. He welcomed the interruption. Wiping his brow, he took off his heavy gloves and walked over to greet Maj. Walsh.
Walsh had been an eight-year lieutenant in the peacetime Army when war broke out. At five and a half feet, his height corresponded to the Nisei men he commanded, but his broad shoulders and barrel legs gave him an imposing 20-lb. advantage. Walsh’s freckles and fair skin betrayed a Celtic heritage, as did the beginnings of a red drinker’s nose. A two-inch scar over his right eye and a missing chunk of ear on the same side suggested his usual genial demeanor could change when challenged, especially when under the influence.
“Hey, Kenta, we’re supposed to lay down four miles of road parallel to the north perimeter. Gotta crush some rocks for the bedding.”
“That sounds like about 12 tons of gravel,” said Kenta. “When do you need it?”
The major checked his Timex. “It’s almost eleven. How about by three this afternoon?”
“Hell, Major, why wait till three? We’ll just deliver all 12 tons to your office by two and take the rest of the day off. That is, unless you want us to build a new barracks hall before we go home.”
“Tell you what. Since I’m in such a good mood, how about a ton every three days? I wouldn’t want to cut into your surfing time.”
“Man, you are too good to us.” Kenta nodded back at the direction of the compound. “This Sunday, we’re roasting a couple pigs behind our barracks. If you and your officers want to take a break from the mess hall food, you can get a taste of real Hawaiian chow. You know, to show our appreciation.”
“That purple poi crap you guys eat is so tempting, I don’t see how I can pass it up.”
Chuckles had meandered over. “Hey, Major, if that doesn’t sound good, we can always whip up an Irish gourmet dinner instead.” Chuckles’ giggles swelled to guffaws, making it difficult for him to deliver his punch line: “A six pack and a baked potato.”
Kenta cringed, wondering if Chuckles had gone too far.
Walsh just laughed and pointed to the water barrel on the back of his eight-seater jeep. “You fellows might want to refill your canteens.”
Kenta lifted his canteen from his belt and walked behind the jeep. The rest of the squad dropped their shovels and picks to form a queue, glad for the break. Kenta took a swig and twisted the cap back on. “Actually, I’m glad you showed up. I forgot our plumb line. We’re used to building roads and fences without one, but you Army types are a little picky when it comes to straight lines.”
“You need a lift back to the barracks? Hop in.”
Four minutes later, Walsh skidded to a stop in front of Kenta’s tent. “I’ll stay put,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “Make it snappy.”
“You can time me,” grinned Kenta.
He sprinted to the canvas barracks, shoved the flap back and bounded in.
He stopped short.
At the far end of the row of cots, a man in uniform with his back to Kenta was stooped over Buster’s locker, rifling through its contents.
To be continued …