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.
Camp Shelby – February 1943
Lt. Col. Farrant Turner reached for a short stack of folders on the left corner of his recently constructed pinewood desk and scooped up the top file, labeled “Lt. Young-Oak Kim.” It had been just 17 days since he left the snows of Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and Turner didn’t need another experiment on top of what was already an experiment. He was certain Kim had no desire to be the sole Korean in a group of Japanese whose forefathers had brutally occupied Korea since 1905. Kim’s time at Camp Shelby would likely be short.
With no deployment mission assigned even after six months of training in Wisconsin, he had finally received a wire from Gen. Mark Clark: “Your Nisei battalion is welcome to my command.” The men would be moving to the swamps of Louisiana for combat training — they would fight. Letting the Korean lieutenant go would clear one more distraction from the mission.
Turner gazed out the window at the piles of lumber and building materials stacked in quadrants being leveled by Caterpillar loaders. His fourteen-hundred-strong 100th Infantry Battalion, mostly away on field training, would soon be joined by 4,000 Nisei recruits who formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The first foundations for hundreds of new 16-man hutments would be laid by week’s end.
Turner pressed the buzzer connecting him to his aide.
“Send in Lieutenant Kim,” he commanded his orderly.
In minutes, the lanky Korean strode into Turner’s office, snapped to attention and offered a smart salute.
“Lieutenant Kim reporting, sir.”
His voice was strong and confident, and his demeanor suggested he was not concerned about being summoned to the battalion commander’s office the morning after his arrival.
“At ease, Lieutenant.” Unless the meeting promised to be lengthy, men visiting Turner’s office stood. Turner had learned that the level of kibitzing dropped when visitors remained on their feet.
“Congratulations on graduating at the head of your class at Officer Candidate School.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Turner let out a small sigh. “I don’t think you realized that this is a Japanese unit. And you’re Korean. Historically, the Japanese and Koreans don’t get along, so don’t worry, I’ll have you transferred.”
Kim did not hesitate, his voice remaining steady. “With all due respect, sir, they are Americans, and I am an American. We are all going to fight for America. So, I want to stay.”
Turner tilted his head and pursed his lips. His fingers tapped the file while he thought through a response. “All the other officers who preceded you who were not Japanese wanted out. The process has been set up. I can have you transferred in the morning.”
Turner stared at the new officer, then let his eyes fall back to the file. Kim took this as permission to continue speaking.
“After being drafted two years ago, the army sent me to Fort Benning for basic. At the end of training, the army awarded me this badge,” said Kim, pointing to a rifle patch on his left sleeve. “Number one marksman in my class of 400 men. The next day, my sergeant gave me a choice of either being assigned as a cook or a clerk. When I asked why not infantry, he said, ‘Wake up! You got the wrong-shaped eyes and the wrong color skin. People like you can’t be soldiers.’
“Then the war gave me another chance. But even finishing first in my OTC class — well, I expected to be shoved in some out-of-the-way admin post. Here, with you — I will have a chance for combat. If you transfer me out, I’ll be hidden away. No one is going to give me command of white troops. I volunteered to fight, sir — not push paper.”
Kim’s last words could have been Turner’s own just six months earlier. As executive officer of the 298th Infantry of the Hawaii National Guard, he had initially been passed over to command the 100th Infantry Battalion, which combined the O‘ahu-based 298th and the 299th, made up of neighbor island prewar draftees.
While Turner studied the file searching for a rebuttal, Kim broke the pause.
“One other thing, if I may?”
“My parents owned a grocery store in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles, surrounded by Mexican, Chinese, Jewish and Japanese communities. We all went to school together. Some of the Japanese became my friends. They were sent to the Rohwer internment camp in Arkansas.
“When I graduated from OCS, I took a bus to Arkansas to visit them. I arrived at Rohwer late at night in my new second lieutenant’s uniform. The guards gave me an icy stare and ordered me back to town until they could sort things out. But I had taken the last bus, so they were stuck with me. Those privates, who should have been saluting me instead of holding me at gunpoint, kept me waiting at the gate in the falling snow for two hours until they found someone who had the authority to let me in.
“So, you see, your Nisei boys and I — we’re both fighting for our dignity, for the right to be accepted as Americans.”
Turner put up his hand. “I get the point, Lieutenant. Well, you can stay, but you’ll be on probation to see how well you get along with the men.”
Turner rose from his chair and held out his hand, but Kim ignored the dismissal handshake.
“There’s something else I’d like to discuss, Colonel.”
Irritated but intrigued by the young man’s brashness, Turner nodded. “Go ahead.”
“Sergeant Kitaoka briefed me upon arrival yesterday. During our exchange, I learned that your men are receiving the same basic training they received in Hawai‘i and then again in Wisconsin.”
Turner frowned but did not interrupt. Kim continued, “They march in the morning. Get a lecture. Have lunch and return to camp. Not only is their morale a problem, sir, but no one in the unit has combat training.”
“And you do,” challenged Turner. Behind his words, however, he recognized the deficiency. Kim had brought Turner’s nagging guilt to the surface — that he spent too much time organizing lodging, arranging food supplies and sorting out personnel assignments at the expense of training. He knew all too well that much of the army brass thought this Nisei unit was a dangerous waste of time. He had been proud of their training record in Wisconsin, where the 100th acquitted themselves above average. At Shelby, they were repeating the grade.
“Yes, sir. My OCS training emphasized the new combat doctrine of working as a unit, not as individuals. Give me a typewriter and twenty-four hours, and I can deliver a training program proposal.”
Cheeky, thought Turner. Still, what had he to lose? “Take it up with your commanding officer, Major Jack Johnson.”
The 50-year-old National Guard officer, whose career could be summed up as an ROTC drill instructor, knew his limitations all too well. He listened to Kim’s proposal.
“You got it right. I don’t know anything infantry. I’m worried the men will be sent into battle with inadequate preparation. We need to change the training method, but I don’t know how.”
“The plan starts,” said Kim, “by changing the emphasis on individual training to team training.”
“OK. You’ve got the twenty-four hours you asked for,” said Johnson. “Write it up. But let me run interference for you with the other captains. Doing this only with my squad doesn’t make sense.”
To be continued …