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.
Six hours later, Kenta stepped off a bus crowded with ripe-smelling GIs. As a first timer to Hotel Street, he was awed by the wild sanctuary catering to the libertine needs of sailors and soldiers. Shoeshine boys tugged at standing trouser legs. Photographers stood in front of cardboard cutouts. Fifty cents bought a snapshot of Hawaiian paradise — grass huts, white-sand beaches, towering palm trees and native beauties baring tanned midriffs dancing the hula in grass skirts.
Teenaged Hawaiian girls hawked leis. Filipino and Chinese kids waved arms laden with watches, chanting “Cheap! Cheap!” Lights blinked outside Portuguese tattoo parlors. Live Dixie quartets and 78 rpm records blasted from bars, almost drowning out the corner hula bands. Tatty kiosks peddled penny postcards, gaudy jewelry and native carvings. Eager sailors and soldiers, weighed down with passports of cash, waited in long queues at the bottom of stairwells leading to pleasure cubicles upstairs over the roaring salons. Kenta knew from the risqué chatter in the Schofield mess that three bucks got you three minutes with a hooker in an assembly line operation Henry Ford would have envied. Welcome to wartime Chinatown, he thought.
Kenta brushed by a popcorn vendor, which reminded him that he had skipped lunch. He reversed course and exchanged a nickel for a hot, butter-stained bag. He walked briskly, keeping his eyes peeled for the Red Rooster’s sign.
The flushed Caucasian faces — ignoring, jostling and stink-eyeing — told Kenta he didn’t belong. In a few weeks, however, he would be wearing their same uniform. Maybe this was why his brother had invited him here. The raucous mood of Hotel Street, coming on top of the Army accepting him into its ranks, flooded his body with adrenaline. He could leap tall buildings and run faster than a speeding bullet.
Kenta slowed as he came to the end of the cacophony of crowds. Had he missed the bar? Loud, tinny hula music resounded from the doors he passed, competing with a Tommy Dorsey recording trumpeting from a loudspeaker in a bar across the street. A huge red rooster blinking through the window stopped him in his tracks.
Kenta jaywalked across the street, dodging taxis to reach the flashing lure. With both hands extended, he pushed through the swinging saloon-style doors. Breathing in the stale beer and swirling sawdust, Kenta couldn’t stifle a trio of sneezes. He felt like a tuna wrong-turning into a frenzy of sharks. He smiled at the sea of white-faced stares. Screw it, he belonged here as much as anyone else. Maybe even more so. He had earned his way into the club. He strutted into the bar, scanning.
Taka rose from a table in the back highlighted by a gaudy chandelier. Kenta took Taka’s right hand and then the beer his brother extended to him.
“If you’re going to join the Army, it’s time to take a peek at the new life that awaits you,” said Taka.
“I have to confess. I’m not sure if I’m joining to prove my loyalty or to find some excitement. You know. War. Adventure.”
“It’s both, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re in.”
“When can we sign up?”
“Whoa, Kenta! Relax and drink your beer. Today’s announcement is just the beginning. It primes the pump. This is the government we’re talking about. They don’t move so fast.”
Kenta took a long, foamy drag of his beer. “OK, so what’s the first step?”
“They’ve got to set up the process to recruit volunteers and then settle on a place to train.”
“How many people?”
“They’re talking about a full regiment.”
“That means 4- to 5,000 men, depending on the mission,” replied Kenta. “Is this going to be an all-Hawai‘i regiment?”
“Hell, no. You’ll only be about a third of the group. There are twice as many draft-eligible Nisei in the relocation camps as there are in Hawai‘i.”
Just then a six-foot, 200-plus-pound sailor in drill uniform bumped their table, followed by a slurred challenge.
“Hey, you! Your kind — you don’t belong here.”
Kenta and Taka ignored the interruption and kept talking.
The boisterous camaraderie near their table quieted. Eyes bleary from beer focused on the big sailor. The bartender retreated to the cash register and dropped his hands. The white sailor kicked the table leg and showed a malevolent grin, exposing two missing front teeth.
“You got a hearing problem to go along with those slant-eyes? I’m gonna say this just once. Get out!”
Kenta ignored the warning signal on Taka’s face and stood up. His eyes came level with the top button of his antagonist’s shirt.
“I am an American about to be inducted into the U.S. Army to fight Germans. I have as much of a right to be here as you.”
“You want a right? Well here’s a right.” The uniform pulled back his right arm.
Kenta shot out his left leg, smashing the sailor’s right shin with his steel-toed work shoe. As the man collapsed, Kenta spun around and drove his right heel into the sailor’s left kidney. As the bully pitched forward, Kenta’s fist hammered the back of the man’s neck. If he had delivered a karate chop with the edge of his hand, the blow could have been fatal.
The sailor’s buddy charged forward. Kenta hit the bridge of his nose with the heel of his hand, then followed through with a full-force kick to the man’s groin. Kenta spun around once more, slamming the man’s upper leg with his heel as he toppled to the floor.
The scuffle was over so fast that drinkers in the front section of the bar had no idea that a confrontation had taken place. The men in back watching the fight reacted according to the color of their uniform. The white uniforms stared belligerently. The khaki uniforms gawked, amused. A voice emerged from the khaki crowd.
“Hey!” called out a tall, big-nosed man wearing sergeant chevrons.
Kenta peered into the gloom to see who had spoken, wondering just how many more he would have to take on.
“You’re one of those VVV boys, ain’t ya?”
Kenta nodded to the sergeant.
“We heard you guys got the green light to join the Army. We’ve seen you out on the road, diggin’ those ditches and doin’ other dirty work. You’re a gung-ho bunch.”
The sergeant raised his mug in a salute to Kenta, then stared at the white uniforms, daring them. “He’s one of us.”
Taka waved a five-dollar bill at the bartender, who had hurried down to the end of the bar wielding a well-used Louisville slugger.
“How about a round of drinks for everyone?”
The bartender didn’t move, indecision on his face.
“These two Dempseys started something they couldn’t finish,” said the sergeant. “No one else is involved. A free beer sounds like a good idea.”
The men on the floor groaned. Their mates ignored Kenta and tried to help the fallen heroes get back on their feet. Kenta took the hint when Taka laid his five-dollar bill on the table, and the two brothers walked out the back door.
“Wow, little brother, where did you learn that?”
“I decided not to take any more crap from anyone. We’ve been accepted in ‘The Man’s’ Army. They will treat us with respect or pay the price.”
“No, I meant …”
“I know what you meant. We’ve been practicing karate and kendo for a year. We learned to hit fast, hit hard and hit in threes.”
Wonder spread over Taka’s face. “What happened to my happy-go-lucky little brother?”
“He died the day they stripped him of his uniform. A year building roads, learning self-defense and finally being accepted into the Army means I don’t have to sit back and take it like a good, quiet Japanese kid.”
Taka gave Kenta’s shoulders a quick squeeze. “I like my new brother.”
Two days later, the Army formally disbanded the Varsity Victory Volunteers in Schofield’s auditorium. Charles Hemenway delivered the keynote address, closing with:
You have carried on through your first year with the same spirit of loyalty that was the basis for your offer to serve in whatever way the commanding general could use your help. You have held fast to your ideals. You have made an outstanding record and have won the respect and admiration of many who were doubtful of the stand which you citizens of Japanese ancestry would take. You have fully justified the confidence of those of us who knew that you are as loyal as any other citizen of other racial descents. I am proud of what you have done.
On March 28, 15,000 cheering people jammed the grounds of Iolani Palace for an induction ceremony with fresh flower leis for all the proud recruits.
To be continued …