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. In 2019, 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.
“Hey! What the hell are you doing?” Kenta demanded
The uniformed man bolted upright and turned.
“It’s you!” shouted Kenta.
Sgt. Crockett, holding some of Buster’s civilian clothes in his hands, wore a sneer of superiority. “Yeah, Jap-man. Me! What I am doing? I’m doing what somebody should be doing every day, slant-eyes. There’s a codebook or a radio transmitter somewhere, and I’m gonna find it. Why they let you slant eyes on an army base in the first place, I don’t know.”
“Get outta here!” ordered Kenta in a voice loud enough to be heard through the canvas walls. “You don’t belong here. You got a problem, take it to your CO.”
“Like I take orders from some enemy pipsqueak who can’t even speak proper English.”
A figure loomed in the doorway. “What’s going on in here?” demanded Maj. Walsh as he tossed his half-smoked cigarette behind him. It bounced off the inside of the flap and rolled on the canvas floor, where it began smoldering.
“A thief,” said Kenta, pointing to Buster’s open locker.
Crockett stood, facing his challengers. His crew cut brushed the slanted tent top as he stepped away from the locker into the middle aisle, a cot flanking each leg. “I’m checking for sabotage,” he said, his voice insolent.
Walsh stepped forward. “Save the bull for your CO, Sergeant. You know everybody’s out on the site, so you sneak in here to do some pilfering. And when you’re caught, you claim you’re on a spy-catching mission.” The major stared down Crockett, letting the silence stretch before finally speaking again. “Apologize and I’ll forget this happened.”
The Texan spat. “I’ll be court martialed before I apologize to a Jap.”
“Fair enough,” said Walsh. “Now, Sergeant, you are ordered out.” He noted the soldier’s nametag and unit badges. “I’ll be reporting this to Maj. Wilkes.”
Crockett sulked out, followed by Walsh. Kenta grabbed his plumb line and returned to the jeep. Walsh hit the gas pedal and pulled a swift U-turn.
“I’m sorry, Kenta. That guy is just some redneck jerk who doesn’t know any better.” When Kenta said nothing, Walsh added, “Look, this isn’t going to end here. I’ll talk to Wilkes and we’ll find some way to ship that guy out of here.”
Walsh had taken his eyes off the road, so he didn’t see a pothole. The jeep hit it hard.
Kenta bumped sideways off his seat. “Ouch! This is not my day,” he said, trying to adjust the loose seat cushion.
“By the way,” said Walsh. “I haven’t seen Stonehead today. Anything I need to know?”
Kenta put a steadying hand on the jeep’s frame. “Stonehead got a call after breakfast. Said he had a family emergency and had to go.”
“You need to report those kinds of things, Kenta, so the upper brass doesn’t think I don’t know what’s going on with my own unit.” Walsh softened his voice. “Hey, I owe you for what just happened, so I’ll just let it pass this time and won’t dock Stonehead a day’s pay.”
Late that afternoon, Stonehead pushed open the flap to the barracks just before the returning work-detail. Clutching a pair of scissors, he stomped over to his bunk at the far end and yanked open the lid to his locker. He pulled out his two sets of uniforms and began hacking away at them.
“What are you doing?!” cried Buster, just minutes before the crew returned to the barracks. The rest of the squad had opted to first hit the head.
“They arrested my dad this morning,” said Stonehead, anger written all over his face. “I’m outta here.” He spoke in a methodical cadence, his violent slashing punctuating each word.
“Haven’t I been a good American?”
Snip! A shirtsleeve fell to the floor, joining other bits of his sheared blue uniform.
“When they asked me to join the Guard, I didn’t hesitate.”
Snip! A pant leg gaped on its way to being severed at the knee.
“When they kicked us ‘slant-eyes’ out, I signed the petition saying I would do anything for my country, no matter how low and disgusting the job might be.”
Snip! Stonehead gripped harder to slice the seams crowding the trouser crotch. By now, his audience had grown as the squad trickled in from the head.
“When they changed our draft status from ‘1-A’ to ‘Enemy Alien,’ telling us we’re ‘not acceptable because of our ancestry,’ I didn’t complain.”
Snip! Snip! Stonehead had moved on to a shirt. The scissors slashed easily through the back.
“When the Businessmen’s Military Corps restricted its membership to Caucasians only, and they put in their goddamn charter, ‘Our main job is to watch the local Japanese,’ I let that pass, too.”
He stopped his angry cutting. “So why did they have to take my dad?”
“Hell, Stonehead,” said Fats, “you thought they were going to pick him up in the first round of sweeps. Besides, you told me you hardly ever talked to your dad.”
“That’s not the point! He taught at a Japanese-language school. Yeah, the students learned some Japanese history, but the history books stopped at World War I, so what’s the big deal? We hate the Nazis, but our own SS goons are just as bad—they just couldn’t leave him alone. The son is good enough to dig ditches on an army base, but the father belongs in jail? Screw the FBI! Screw the Army!”
Kenta came over and put his arm around Stonehead’s shoulders. When his friend shook him off, Kenta sat down on a bunk.
“Hey, you’re not the only one whose dad got thrown in a prison camp because of this war.”
“Maybe not, Kenta. But you and your dad knew Buddhist ministers would be arrested if war broke out. Hell, you weren’t even surprised when your dad got picked up on the first day. But the FBI has had three months to see that my dad’s been working as a longshoreman, unloading goods for the island since the attack. They know that his son quit school to serve his country.” Stonehead dramatically waved his hands in the air, scissors in one hand and shredded shirt in the other. “There hasn’t been one incident — not one! — of us Japanese doing anything that could be called suspicious. Other than looking Japanese.”
Kenta sat mute. All he could do was confirm the truth in Stonehead’s words. No one in the unit noticed that someone had entered their tent and remained quiet.
“Attention!” ordered Sgt. Crockett.
The VVV boys, dismissed from the Guard only a few weeks ago, assumed the position. When Kenta recognized Crockett, he used his strongest command voice.
“Sit down, guys. We’re civilians and this guy has nothing to do with our squad.” He refused to make eye contact with the sergeant.
Crockett walked down the aisle flanked by the foot-ends of wooden cots. “You think I didn’t see what this traitor just did? He destroyed government property and desecrated the American flag.”
Hero stood up. “What you talking about? It’s just a civilian work uniform.”
Crockett picked up a sleeve that Stonehead had cut off. “You runts fake patriotism and sew American flags on your yellow arms.” He shoved the sheared sleeve under Hero’s nose. “This flag is cut in half.” He turned to Stonehead. “You’re under arrest.”
“Don’t mind him, Stonehead,” said Kenta, who turned on Crockett. “You have no right. You don’t …”
Crockett had pulled out his pistol, pointed it at the canvas ceiling and fired. Then he aimed the gun at Stonehead.
“Anybody else want to talk about rights?” No one spoke. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. That’s because you don’t have any right to be here, Jap-boys.” He jerked the gun at Stonehead like a teacher with a pointer. “March! We’re going to the brig.”
Stonehead stared at the gun inches from his eyes. “Screw you! Go ahead and shoot me, pock-face.”
Several Nisei from nearby barracks, their numbers sprinkled with haole soldiers, slid through the flapped entrance of the tent, forming a crowd that kept pushing forward like a wave.
Crockett jammed his gun into Stonehead’s forehead.
Stonehead glared at the Texan and pressed his head into the barrel.
The swelling crowd was now just an arm’s length away from the two men.
Uncertainty flashed across Crockett’s face. “Clear the way!” he shouted. “This is an arrest.”
A sea of smoldering almond eyes challenged the sergeant. Not one Nisei moved. Two MPs worked their way through the impassioned huddle.
“I’m glad to see you guys,” said Crockett. “I’ve discovered a traitor. I’m ordering you to take this man to the brig.”
Before the MPs could respond, a familiar voice boomed, “What the hell is going on?!”
Buster pressed a fish knife into Kenta’s hands.
The crowd cleared a path for Major Walsh.
Stonehead moved aside. Crockett kept his gun hand steady, which left the major now staring down its barrel.
“Sergeant, that weapon you are holding is aimed at a major in the U.S. Army. Drop it.”
“I just caught this man …”
“I said to drop it, soldier, or I will order the MPs to shoot.”
… To be continued