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.
Schofield Barracks Army Base, O‘ahu – Dec. 14, 1942
Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy arrived to inspect Hawai‘i’s military facilities. At the end of one of his briefings with Gen. Emmons, he asked about the Oriental workers he had seen, some repairing a bridge and another group laying gravel on a new road. He didn’t stumble upon the VVV work brigades by accident. Hung Wai Ching, who had been asked to escort McCloy for part of his inspection, had carefully orchestrated it.
“Splendid chaps, John. They call themselves the Triple V – the Varsity Victory Volunteers. They really are remarkable. Do you remember the orders to get rid of the Japanese from the Territorial Guard?”
“Sure, I remember. What a dichotomy. While the Army prepared to intern the Japanese on the West Coast as potential saboteurs, the same Army deployed armed Japanese American soldiers to guard the port and other facilities in the territory under the threat of an invasion.”
“Quite right. After we stripped the men of their uniforms and weapons, I expected them to go back home and lick their wounds. I just hoped they wouldn’t cause any trouble, not that their kind is inclined to. Well lo and behold, that evening, I get a petition from them saying they would dig ditches to help the war effort and prove their loyalty to America.”
“Rather unexpected, given the circumstances.”
“The best part is how we move the VVV brigades around the base to work next to our lads, some of whom need a burr on their ass to work at full speed. These VVV boys report to work every day as if the invasion were tomorrow.” Emmons rapped his knuckles on his desk and leaned forward, his body language demanding a response.
“A lot’s happened in a year, Del. The Japanese American unit training in Wisconsin has impressed the officers. They’re tough, eager to fight. Maybe it’s time to put weapons back in the hands of the VVV boys.”
Emmons opened his desk drawer and pulled out a file. “John, I’d like you to read these.”
McCloy perused the documents chronicling Emmons’s proposals to recruit and train a Japanese American unit to fight in Europe, along with the Department of War memos rejecting the idea. He laid the file back on the desk and sat back, one hand massaging his tired eyes.
“Things have changed, General, I’ll grant you that. Frankly, we need all the good men we can get our hands on.”
“I suspect our Japanese would relish the chance to show us what asses we have been for not letting them join the Army in the first place,” said Emmons.
McCloy nodded slowly. He stared at the framed photographs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. George Marshall mounted on the wall behind Emmons as if he were asking them for help framing his answer. He put his hands together and cracked the knuckles of each forefinger. His eyes came back to Emmons, and he dropped his voice a half octave.
“I think FDR has had second thoughts about these mass internments. But, politically, he doesn’t dare make any public admissions. Perhaps putting these boys in uniform could be a way of making amends — and give us the kind of motivated men we need to win this war.”
Schofield Barracks Army Base, O‘ahu – Jan. 28, 1943
Maj. Walsh grabbed an empty tin coffee pot from beside the electrical heating unit and clanged it against the nearest metal-framed bed. In his free hand, Walsh fingered a yellow square of paper with a telex message pasted on it.
The VVV boys froze in various stages of dress. Engine noises from passing jeeps and water running in the showers competed with a radio blaring an ad for Honest John’s Used Cars. Kenta stood next to his bed — the one the major had just assaulted with the pot — in nothing more than his skivvies.
“Get the men from the shower,” Walsh ordered.
Kenta dashed for the showers. “Short Pants, all you guys, get your ugly asses in here. Something important may be happening.”
“The radio,” said Walsh as Kenta rushed back into the barracks.
“You, too, can own a Chevy convertible for just $290! Come on down to —“
Kenta twisted the radio’s volume knob to zero. The interrupted commercial would forever be seared into his brain. At radio silence, the sound of shower taps shutting off heralded the arrival of three dripping-wet men, towels wrapped around their hips, who joined the huddle forming around Walsh.
“Gentlemen, listen up. Gen. Emmons just sent me this from Secretary of War Harry L. Stimson himself.”
Kenta could guess the contents. Taka had given him a heads-up three weeks ago but swore Kenta to secrecy.
“It is the inherent right of every loyal citizen, regardless of ancestry, to bear arms in the national defense. Loyalty to country is a voice that must be heard.”
The men stepped closer to Walsh. He dropped his arm holding the telex.
“This morning, Stimson announced President Roosevelt’s decision to reverse the draft status of American citizens of Japanese ancestry. You men are no longer enemy aliens classified 4-C. Effective immediately, you all are 1-A.”
The stunned men stared at their major and then each other. Then Kenta jumped in the air, one fist raised. “We did it! We won!” shouted Kenta. “They couldn’t hold us back!”
The VVV boys tossed towels and work caps into the air. They yelled and stomped their feet. Chuckles attempted a back flip and landed on his back. Buster strummed his ‘ukulele. The men slapped each other on the back and exchanged hugs.
Walsh pumped his open hand into the air to quiet the exuberance.
“There’s more. Since you are no longer classified as aliens unfit for military service, the Army is …” Walsh’s eyes dropped down to the telex message. “The Army is ‘accepting Japanese American volunteers for the purpose of creating an all-Nisei combat regiment.’”
A second round of pandemonium broke out.
“I’m coming back a hero in a pine box,” shouted Short Pants.
Spud looked at Kenta and in a fierce tone just loud enough for those around him to hear, he said, “If we die — and some of us will — they can’t treat us as second-class citizens anymore.”
The barracks payphone rang. It took a half-dozen rings before anyone noticed.
“It’s for you, Kenta,” called Fats, waving the phone.
Kenta raised his voice. “Hey, you guys, quiet down! The major’s not finished. Fats, tell whoever’s on the phone I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Men, meet me here after breakfast. We need to — what’s the expression you fellows use? ‘tidy up the nest.’ This is your last day here.”
Whoops and horseplay punctuated the major’s parting words. Kenta evaded a towel snap from Short Pants on his way to the phone.
“It’s your brother,” said Fats.
“Kenta!” Taka’s raised voice came across the line. “Judging by all the noise, I guess you heard.”
Kenta plugged his left ear with a forefinger. “You had it right, Taka, but it sure was hard keeping it a secret.”
“You did good. Listen, word is you’ll be dismissed by lunchtime. We’re trying to arrange a proper mustering-out ceremony in a day or two. Let’s meet at the Red Rooster on Hotel Street around two.”
To be continued …