Mike Malaghan
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.

The Lurline rolled gently in 10-foot swells as it turned east for the long journey to San Francisco. A sense of finality had gripped Kenta when the tip of Aloha Tower disappeared from view. He wondered how many of his three thousand fellow Nisei shared his thoughts: Will I ever see that tower again? Will I be shipped back home in a pine box? 

Kenta was soon distracted by laughter and the loud voices of his fellow recruits. Few had ever left Hawai‘i before, and now they were sailing aboard a luxury liner — albeit repurposed as a military transport — on their way to prove themselves in a faraway place. 

The Lurline shined as the proud symbol of the renowned Matson fleet. Founder William Matson had fallen in love with the Lurline moniker when he skippered a yacht of the same name honoring the Rhine River nymph made famous in an 1860s opera. The luxury liner was halfway to San Francisco the morning Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor. The ship had continued on to California at maximum speed. It then returned to Honolulu, refitted with supplies and loaded with Marines. 

The ship’s captain, rather than joining a Navy-escorted convoy zigzagging at varying intervals to avoid incoming torpedoes, pushed the throttle to full power in a straight line to reduce time at sea and hoped to hell that no one spotted them. Despite the breakdown in security, the Lurline’s captain assumed no one who had come to the pier that day had called the Emperor. The captain chose the straight-line dash option to reach San Francisco in the near-record time of just over four days, trusting that the eastern Pacific’s run of no loss of ships since January would hold.

On this crossing, 3,500 military personnel had to be accommodated on a ship advertised to hold 715 passengers. Upon boarding, Kenta and his squad had dragged their duffels down two flights of stairs to Deck Four, Room 201 — a nice two-person stateroom that prior to the war had been appointed with cushioned armchairs, a writing desk, closet, storage chest and vanity table, and now had been gutted and refitted with four triple-tier bunk beds. No allowance had been made for personal items or duffel bags. The smarter men dropped their bags on their preferred mattress, like a dog marking its territory. Others gave into fatigue and dumped theirs on the floor. 

Hung Wai Ching rushed off from the pier to catch a military transport flight to Oakland. He had convinced Gen. Emmons that he needed to be in California ahead of the Nisei’s arrival so he could lobby Gen. DeWitt to treat his boys with respect. He landed in Oakland 10 hours later, unprepared for the chilly wind of San Francisco in April. His reception was about to get colder. 

Based on his experience with Gen. Emmons, Ching was confident his appeal to Gen. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, would be favorably considered. He remembered Emmons’s arrival in Honolulu, intending to ship all one hundred forty thousand Japanese to the island of Moloka‘i. Although he had ordered the disbandment of the Hawaii Territorial Guard to rid the unit of all Americans of Japanese ancestry, Emmons had not been driven by hate. Rather he followed orders, which were soon tempered by his own good common sense. When he learned how loyal the local Japanese were, he became their booster and protector. Agent Shivers had gone through a similar metamorphosis a few years earlier. 

Ching assumed that anyone promoted to Emmons’s or Shivers’s level of responsibility shared their professionalism and leadership characteristics. Thus, he entered DeWitt’s office like a soldier who stands up in his foxhole thinking the battle is over, only to be hit by a bullet. 

As DeWitt’s orderly began to introduce Ching, DeWitt cut him off.

“Who in the hell do you think you are, barging in on a secure military installation?” DeWitt leaned over his desk like an enraged hawk poised to swoop down on an unworthy prey. His horned-rimmed glasses were pinched tight to the ridge of his beak, emphasizing the hard eyes of a man who squashes problems “once and for all.”

When pressed by Roosevelt for evidence of Japanese sabotage two months after Pearl Harbor, DeWitt wrote the president, “No subversion discovered to date.” In the next paragraph, however, he insisted, “This only proves a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” The president agreed, overrode the objections of FBI director Hoover and issued Executive Order 9066, giving DeWitt authority to declare parts of the United States “military areas from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The order did not name any particular group; it did not have to. The exclusion order enjoyed widespread support up and down the West Coast. When asked about the racial selection of the internees, then-attorney general of California Earl Warren declared, “When we are dealing with the Caucasian race, we have the methods that will test the loyalty of them. But when we deal with the Japanese, we are on an entirely different field.” DeWitt had argued vigorously against formation of the Nisei regiment and wanted the new American soldiers just off the Lurline to know it.

Ching resisted his instinct to step back. Holding his ground, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, which he unfolded and placed on the edge of DeWitt’s desk. He scanned the general’s taut neck muscles and 62-year-old cobalt eyes. Unlike Shivers or Emmons, who were inclined to listen and consider before acting, this self-righteous bigot forged ahead based on an unwavering prejudice — facts be damned.

DeWitt dropped his eyes to the letter of authorization signed by Emmons.

“You used this letter — from another general in another command — to compromise security on my base? You belong in the brig, not in my office.”

Ching stood straighter and inched forward. “I am on a mission authorized by the general of the Pacific Command. Listen to why I have come all this way before you throw me out of your office.”

The white-haired DeWitt glowered at the clearly uncomfortable orderly who still stood by Ching. “Call the MPs.” 

DeWitt leaned forward, his fingers like an eagle’s talons clutching the edge of his desk. “I know why you are here. You want me to coddle those Japs from Hawai‘i. Treat them with ‘due respect.’ They shouldn’t be here; they shouldn’t be in the Army. Emmons will rue the day he didn’t throw out the lot of them. If one Jap wanders off that ship he will be arrested. If one soldier lifts a curtain on the train to Camp Shelby, I will stop the train and court martial everyone on that carriage.”

Two large MPs strode into the office. 

“Take him to —” DeWitt blinked. The veins in his neck recessed back into his throat. “Escort this Chinese ‘gentleman’ off the base.”

To be continued …


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