Maui Families Reunited after 75 Years

Byrnes Yamashita
Commentary
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

On a recent afternoon in Honolulu, two families with roots on Maui came together to reminisce about their shared connection with a Nisei soldier of World War II. Over 75 years had passed since their families had been connected and it was a happy event.

How this meeting came to occur bears some explanation. On June 4, 2021 the Go For Broke stamp-unveiling event was livestreamed from the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Memorial Building on Kamoku Street. During that event, Nisei veteran Dr. Shinye Gima made a heartfelt speech about the importance of the stamp in preserving the story of the Nisei soldiers. He spoke about two Nisei soldiers that he knew personally, Saburo Maehara and Tom Ige.

Tom Ige was a member of the Military Intelligence Service and headed the small special detachment of Okinawan- (or Uchinäguchi-) speaking Nisei soldiers that Shinye served with on Okinawa near the end of the war in the Pacific. During the Battle of Okinawa, they used their language skills in both Japanese and the Okinawan dialects to convince the Okinawan civilians and Japanese soldiers’ lives to surrender. After the battle, they served as liaisons between the U.S. military forces and the civilian community.

Dr. Shinye Gima speaking at the Go For Broke Stamp Unveiling Ceremony. (Photo courtesy of iHi Photography)

In the June 19, 2020 issue of The Hawai‘i Herald, I wrote about Shinye Gima and how he and his brother, Noboru, ended up on opposing sides during the Battle of Okinawa. 

Gima was a junior at Baldwin High School on Maui when Pearl Harbor was attacked. One of his schoolteachers at Baldwin was Saburo Maehara, a University of Hawai‘i graduate who taught classes in agriculture. 

As a teenager, Gima aspired to be a farmer and even worked on a small plot of land on weekends. He became the president of the Future Farmers of America club and Maehara, who was the club’s advisor, became his mentor.

A happy family: Lt. Saburo Maehara (Right) with wife Louise and daughter Susan Miki at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, January 1944. (Photos courtesy of Maehara Family)

“As a student in his classes, and as leader of the FFA club, we naturally grew close,” said Gima. “He took an interest in me as a student; on one occasion, he allowed me to drive home the school’s tractor so I could plow a one-acre parcel of land in upper Waikapü that I rented from a family friend.”

When the call for volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was made in early 1943, Maehara volunteered as an ROTC graduate, and was commissioned as an officer. He later served with the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy and France. 

Maehara volunteered for the Army in spite of his father being arrested and incarcerated as a potential enemy to the United States, having committed no crime. At the time he entered the service, he was already married and the father of a young daughter.

Maehara was born in Pu‘unene, Maui on April 5, 1915 as the third son of Teiichiro and Yoshie Maehara. The family had a total of ten children: seven sons and three daughters. The elder Maehara was the principal of the Pu‘unene Japanese-Language School. Many principals and schoolteachers of Japanese-language schools were among those arrested across the state at the beginning of the war as the government felt they may be potential sympathizers with Japan.

Saburo Maehara (left) with his brother-in-law Samuel Sasai in France. Samuel was later wounded in Italy near where Saburo was killed.

By an otherworldly coincidence, I had met Dr. Ryan Maehara just two days before the Go For Broke Stamp event and we had talked about his family’s experience during World War II. He mentioned his uncle who had served with the 442nd RCT in Europe and was killed on April 5, 1945, (his 30th birthday) in Italy just one month before the end of the war in Europe.

When I listened to Gima’s speech during the stamp-unveiling ceremony, the name Maehara rang a bell and I asked Ryan if it was the same Maehara that he was related to. He said, “Yes, he [Saburo] was my uncle who we talked about the other day.” He later asked if I could somehow arrange a meeting for himself, a cousin and Dr. Gima.

I contacted Gima who immediately agreed to meet up. We met one afternoon in Ryan’s dental office waiting room along with his cousin Paul Maehara. Ryan is the son of Goro Maehara and Paul is the son of Ichiro “Iron” Maehara, both of whom were brothers of Saburo.

The Maehara Family gathering at Saburo’s funeral service.

Paul is a retired bank executive and as the family historian shared many updates and details on the family history during the meeting that Gima thoroughly enjoyed hearing.

Paul Maehara recounting his family’s history. (Photo by Byrnes Yamashita)

Before we knew it, three hours had gone by. Paul had meticulously answered all of Gima’s questions about the Maehara family siblings and their offspring. In turn, Gima told Ryan and Paul about his relationship with Saburo and how he knew many of their family members back on Maui.

“Besides Saburo, I knew Rokuro, a classmate at Baldwin. I also knew Michie, a younger sister of Rokuro,” said Gima. “I also met ‘Iron’ Maehara as a teenager, when I was working in the canefields of central Maui. ‘Iron’ was a field luna (supervisor) for the Pu‘unene plantation and he was famous for his baseball prowess.”

One interesting tidbit of information for me was to learn that Nisei veteran John Tsukano was also a student of Saburo’s at Baldwin High School. After the 40th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Bruyeres, France by the 442nd RCT, Tsukano published a wonderful photo documentary book, “Bridge of Love” in which he recounted the Hawai‘i wartime experience and the Nisei soldiers’ role in the war in Europe.

I felt extremely fortunate to hear these stories going back so many years and the connections that bind and connect our families here in Hawai‘i. Our families were all shaped by the war and understanding how those impacts have reverberated through the years is extremely interesting to me. It seems like every family has a unique immigration story and wartime experience that shaped their members lives after the war.

Over 700 Nisei soldiers gave their lives in World War II. All of us that are descendants of the Nisei veterans are blessed that our fathers were able to return to Hawai‘i and have families while always remembering the buddies that they left behind. In the May 21, 2021 Memorial Day issue of The Hawai‘i Herald, I wrote about my father’s best friend who was killed in Italy in 1945 and how he always remembered him.

The story of Saburo Maehara is more poignant than many others because he left behind a wife and daughter. His memory is still revered and his life remembered by his surviving family members. All of the men who lost their lives were someone’s son, father, brother or uncle and their families still bear the scars of their loss which happened so many years ago.

Families reconnected. From left: Dr. Ryan Maehara, Dr. Shinye Gima, Mr. Paul Maehara. (Photo by Byrnes Yamashita)

As Ryan said, “Here in Hawai‘i, we are all connected by only two degrees of separation.” After learning about the story of the Maehara and Gima families, his words ring true to me.

Paul Maehara later offered, “We were pleased to meet Shinye and learn of his fondness for his Baldwin High School teacher who became his mentor. That teacher was our uncle Saburo, whom we never got to know personally because he passed away before we were born. We really enjoyed hearing about Shinye’s memories of his interactions with the Maehara family which provided us with interesting additional information about our family history.”

I was honored to play a small part in helping to rekindle the warm memories linking the Maehara and Gima families. 

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