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. Prior to “A Question of Loyalty,” 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.
Angelina and Kenta strolled into Kapi‘olani Park. They paused for a few seconds to watch a handful of surfers riding the waves under the August sun. Angelina held a picnic basket in one hand; her other was hooked around Kenta’s arm. A pair of Coca-Cola bottles and a steel bottle opener clinked in the burlap bag Kenta carried, a rolled-up straw mat tucked securely under his arm.
“Over there,” said Angelina, pointing to three palm trees that formed a triangular canopy. They had learned to avoid picnicking under leafy banyan trees, where hordes of pigeons cooed and roosted. Diamond Head rose behind them while the hustle and bustle of Waikïkï was just down the street. A half-dozen families had staked out shaded oases hosting corroded barbecue pits and chipped concrete tables.
Obon season without the bon dance and food kiosks just didn’t feel like obon, mused Angelina forlornly, recalling the thousands who had gathered in the park just a year ago — and every year before that — to welcome home the spirits of their departed loved ones on their annual pilgrimage to the land of the living. The trade winds had swirled the aromas of simmering noodle pots and vats of bubbling oil cooking varieties of tempura. She loved tonkatsu, the Japanese version of deep-fried pork cutlets, and mahimahi filets.
She could still see it in her mind: the skewers of tightly packed chicken-breast pieces, ginkgo nuts, eggplant slices and chunks of sweet pineapple roasting atop a glowing charcoal grill. Perspiring women heaping scoops of rice onto paper plates while men served sake in small paper cups. Muscular taiko drummers clad in red hapi coats, secured at the waist with a simple obi sash, beating a steady rhythm. Nisei girls dancing in colorful yukata, often joined in costume and exuberance by Caucasian, Filipino, Korean and Chinese friends and schoolmates. The colorful chöchin lanterns strung up throughout the park, their lights and pretty paper designs drawing Honolulu’s diverse community into the welcoming spirit of the annual festival.
But not this year. Not after Pearl Harbor.
“Not one person wearing traditional dress, Ken-chan.”
Kenta squeezed Angelina’s hand, an endearment gesture reserved for when they were alone. “This year it’s lipstick, Barbara Stanwyck hairdos and polka dot dresses. Nobody wants to be the nail sticking out of the board.”
“Kenta, when the war ends, will they still hate us?”
Kenta shook his head. “Is it hate or is it fear?”
“Fear leads to hate,” said Angelina. “But when it’s all over, we will still look like the enemy.”
Kenta spread the straw mat under the palm trees.
“We’re going to be facing the sun, Kenta,” she scolded.
“At noon? You move it.”
Angelina put her hands behind her back like an innocent young girl and kissed him on the forehead.
“You’re so cute when you get mad. The sun sets in the west. And it moves every minute. In an hour, the sun will be at an angle blasting our eyes. I suppose the Army only teaches such details to its officers, not to mere ditch diggers.”
With a roll of his eyes, Kenta repositioned the mat. “In a city of 10,000 sweet and polite Japanese girls, how did I find the only one who doesn’t know how to bow?”
“Would you feel better if I walked three paces behind you?” she teased.
Angelina sat down and leaned against the tree. Then she reached into her handbag and pulled out a letter. “It’s from Tommy. Your mom gave it to me yesterday when I dropped by the temple to pick up the laundered nurses’ uniforms for Queen’s.”
Kenta reached for the letter, eager to hear the latest from his brother. Although Haru received weekly notes, the last real news from Tommy had been a phone call to dispel rumors that Nisei units were being sent to internment camps.
Angelina held the letter playfully, just out of Kenta’s grasp. “Make yourself useful and take out the Cokes, then give me the bag.” Kenta handed it over and Angelina folded it several times then laid it on her lap as a pillow. “Put your head down.”
After Kenta had stretched out and made himself comfortable, Angelina handed him the letter. Instead of taking it, however, he folded his hands on his chest.
“No, you read it, Angie, since the sun is at such a good angle,” he said pointing skyward. “If you run across any three-syllable words, I’ll help you out.”
“Since the letter is from a member of your family, I can’t image that will be a problem,” she said, running her fingers through his hair to soften the words. With that, she began reading:
What a hectic six weeks. Other than the weekly aerogram to Mom, I haven’t had time to send a real letter to anybody.
First, the good news! We got a huge morale boost upon our arrival in Oakland. We are no longer the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion, the name they gave us before we left Hawai‘i. We are now the One Puka Puka — the 100th Infantry Battalion. Infantry!
Old Man Turner says that means we will be trained to fight. He told us to talk like Americans. We got the hint. Except for when the poker stakes are high, we talk only in English, even if it is our favorite Hawaiian English — Pidgin English, of course!
The people of Wisconsin treat us well. We wondered how folks would take to hundreds of us short, brown-faced GIs with strange-looking eyes living in their little town of Sparta, the place closest to Camp McCoy. At first, they stared at us like we were animals in a zoo. We heard a few mumblings like “What is Roosevelt thinking?” We wondered if they were going to throw peanuts — or rocks.
But then, as we’d go in to buy sodas at Walgreens or buy stuff at Woolworth’s, people got to know us. Many townspeople had relatives in Germany, so they made the connection. They knew parts of America where anti-German immigrant feelings ran pretty high. Many of them lived through the anti-German hysteria in the Great War.
Angelina let her hand holding the letter rest on Kenta’s shoulder.
Anyway, back to the beginning. Thanks for seeing us off at the pier. Most of the guys couldn’t contact their folks. The Army tried to keep our departure secret. After all, there were Japanese submarines between Hawaiʻi and the West Coast, so you could see their point. You can imagine the cheers on our third day at sea when the captain announced that our navy had sunk most of the Japanese fleet trying to capture Midway.
Angelina paused to take a long sip of Coke and then resumed reading:
Our seven-day journey across the Pacific started with most of us puking our guts out. This is nothing like sailing from Hilo to Oahu, although if you remember I threw up on that trip, too. By the third day, most of us had gotten over it. We were eating well and keeping our food down and settling into hour after hour of boredom—broken only by rolling the dice in craps games.
Larry Sakoda of D Company designed our battalion’s colors with an eagle’s beak holding a banner with our motto: Remember Pearl Harbor.
You won’t believe what I saw the first day we landed in Oakland. Haole people doing dirty work! All the longshoremen are haole. We passed a waterfront canteen—all the waitresses were haole. The truck drivers are haole. White people even collect the garbage!
Kenta sat up.
“It’s hard to imagine haoles doing that stuff.”
“Maybe ‘haole’ doesn’t always mean ‘boss.’”
Kenta sat cross-legged, motioning Angelina to continue sharing the letter:
The Army couldn’t get us out of Oakland fast enough. They bussed us from the pier to the train station at night —“for our safety.” We gave two bits to grinning colored porters to send our telegrams letting everyone know we arrived safely.
We boarded this really dirty, smelly train. It burned charcoal, so we were covered with so much soot we could have been mistaken for Amos and Andy. The food tasted like it had been dropped on the coals and left there. The officers ordered the shades pulled down. I guess they didn’t want the locals thinking Tojo had invaded. It took us four days to reach Wisconsin.
The first day of man-to-man combat training provided a few laughs. After a demonstration of a bayonet charge by a group of big haole trainers, they asked for volunteers. Six of us with kendo training jumped up. You should have seen the shock on those haole faces when they all hit the dirt. They took it pretty well and seemed impressed that we had come to fight. They told us we were the first group that never had anyone drop out on the morning runs. We might have thrown up, but we didn’t fall out. We know we’re guinea pigs. If we do better than anyone else, maybe the Army will let more of us enlist.
We share training with the Texas 2nd Division. They’re loaded with Mexicans. Big guys. We found that sort of strange, given all the Remember the Alamo history. But the Mexicans found us strange, too. At first, a lot of them called us Japs. I guess they thought they could get away with that — they must have thought our small size made us pushovers. We cleared out the cafeteria twice with fights, giving better than we got. A couple of our boys spent a night in the brig, but they never again called us Japs. Earlier, the Mexicans were fighting the Texan white boys after being called greasers and wetbacks. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the enemy are the Germans and Japanese, not us fellow Americans.
Last weekend, our squad had a three-day furlough. We went to Chicago. Nobody seemed to mind that we were Japanese. Of course, we were wearing Army uniforms. The first two drinks in some bars were free. On short trips, most of the taxis refused to take our money. We popped for Glenn Miller tickets. It seemed half the audience were wahines who wanted to be showgirls. Wahines outnumbered the guys, 2-1. Some of us got lucky.
To be continued …