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.
S.S. Lurline, April 4, 1943
Bugle reveille pierced the silence in the Varsity Victory Volunteers’ barracks at Schofield at 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning. For some, it would be their last day on Hawaiian soil. Ever. Kenta wondered if he would be one of them. Putting the thought aside, he yelled, “Gambarimasu!” — Let’s do our best! — to his drowsy but anxious bunkmates, then shed the underwear he wore as pajamas. Grabbing a towel, he bolted down the dimly lit corridor to be among the first to shower.
He fingered the locket — Angelina’s — hanging from a silver chain around his neck. The glass side displayed her picture winking at the camera. Between the picture and the locket’s silver backing, Kenta had wedged strands of her silky ebony hair. He smiled remembering the moment she had gifted it to him. His lips touched hers and she whispered, “Just something for you to anticipate — when you come back.” The erotic replay hardened him, so he switched his thoughts to yesterday’s grand money exchange to keep from becoming the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Kenta had watched the paymasters unwrap boxes of crisp U.S. bills. As a precaution against providing Japanese with a bonanza of U.S. dollars if they occupied Hawai‘i, the U.S. mint had begun superimposing the word “HAWAI‘I” on the island’s currency, making the stamped bills as worthless as Monopoly money in the hands of the Japanese. The disbursement officer announced he had $300,000 available so the recruits could exchange their “Hawaiian dollars” for regular greenbacks now that they were departing Hawai‘i. His condescending tone suggested that he thought this was way too much for this sorry-assed group of misfits the army had misguidedly selected for combat training.
After just a dozen swaps with more than fifteen hundred to go, the paymasters exchanged whispers. One then hurried out the door. When the money quickly ran out, the senior officer — resisting an urge to shake his head in disbelief — announced, “The paymaster is bringing back another $400,000.” Kenta laughed as he recalled telling Major Walsh how family and friends had loaded them up with senbetsu, or “send-off best wishes money.”
By dawn, the recruits had departed Schofield for the Iwilei train station. At 8:00 a.m., the boys began the mile-long march from the railroad station to the pier, each carrying a duffel bag that weighed nearly a hundred pounds. As he hoisted his bag over his shoulder, Kenta felt confident that the past year with the VVV had prepared him well. He swelled with pride as he walked, seeing the thousands of family members and friends that lined the road to cheer them on. So much for military secrecy, he thought.
The men slogged onward, wilting under the tropical sun that burned above in a cloudless sky. No one had thought to fill a canteen with water. Some tossed items on the roadside to lighten their bag — personal treasures that had seemed indispensable the night before. Any semblance of military order disappeared as every man fixated on placing one overburdened foot in front of the other, conscious of the sorry sight they were displaying to the community. Soldier after soldier stopped to rest, only to hear the bark, “Get a move on, soldier!” from the nearest non-com.
As Spud trudged along next to Kenta, his mother spotted him and ran out to give him one last hug. A burly MP stopped her.
“This is a military march, not a picnic,” he snapped, shooing her back into the crowd. For years, Kenta would remember her tears and humiliation, and regret that he had not challenged the MP.
As more men faltered, Kenta’s anger rose. “This is all wrong,” he said to Spud. “Some of us are not coming back. A mother’s last image of her child should not be of him dragging a duffel bag like some ox.”
Spud wiped his grimy brow with his sleeve. “Yeah, this stinks. The army could have loaded our bags onto trucks and let us march past our families. They could have had a military band play marching music. It would have been a proud memory our parents could cherish. Even now, we’re still treated like runaway plantation workers.”
The three-foot-tall hands of the Aloha Tower clock pointed straight up as the pre-war luxury liner S.S. Lurline pulled away from the pier to shouts and tears from ten thousand people. A wind gust swept away the white “Dixie Cup” cap of the sailor casting off the last mooring into outstretched hands on the pier. Pressed together like sushi, the soldiers waved to family and friends, wondering if they would ever see them again.
Kenta nudged his way to the mahogany railing of the bow. He checked his pockets again for the envelopes stuffed with cash. As the ship eased away from the pier, he spotted his mother and Taka standing outside the barrier. When Kenta could no longer make out their faces, he focused on Hung Wai Ching, who had permission to be inside Pier 11 to see his boys off at the gangplank, until Ching, too, faded into a stick figure.
As the Lurline shrank toward the horizon, Haru, who had returned to her Queen Emma Street house the previous month, remained rigid at the rope restraint. Thirty-eight years ago, she had watched excited men board ships in Hiroshima on their way to Manchuria to fight Russians. She had yelled “Banzai!” and waved a little white flag with a blood-red circle in the middle. She thought of her brother, forever a teenager, buried somewhere in Manchuria, and prayed for her sons.
She prayed for every son.
To be continued …