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.

While Ching locked horns with the great protector of the West Coast, Kenta and the boys were busy throwing up in the toilets, in the showers and over the deck’s railings. On the fifth day, just as most of them began finding their sea legs and holding down solid food again, a cry went up: “Land ahoy!” 

The jubilant men rushed deck side to stare at the San Francisco skyline. Unaccustomed to the cold and gusty winds of the North Pacific and temperatures below 60 degrees, the men donned their newly issued woolen winter coats, which spilled over their shoulders and draped down to their shoelaces. 

As the late afternoon sunset behind them, the Lurline passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in all its reflected brilliance and then passed the infamous Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz had many lives: lighthouse, fortified defense post, military prison and the address of recently released mobster Al Capone and current residents, gangster Machine Gun Kelly and murderer Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. 

“Look at that!” shouted Short Pants as the Lurline slowed to berth. “Haole stevedores!” The muscled Caucasians went about hoisting bundles, carrying picks, pulling carts and lifting bags, oblivious that they so enthralled the young men gawking at them as though they had spotted tigers mating in a zoo. Thinking back to Tommy’s letter noting the same phenomenon, Kenta turned his attention to a waiting gangplank where a company of uniformed men stood at parade rest — rifle butts on the ground, each right hand gripping the end of the barrel at a 30-degree angle.

Kenta’s eyes widened. At the bottom of the gangway stood Ching in a black suit, tie and fedora. Unbeknownst to Kenta, inside his white, long-sleeved Hathaway shirt, Ching wore all four T-shirts his wife had packed for him to cushion him from the cold. A Kodak Brownie camera hung from his neck. The first lieutenant at the guard gate, more impressed with Emmons’s introductory letter than DeWitt, had given Ching pier access while dutifully admonishing him not to take pictures of the port. He could and did take publicity photos of the boys walking down the gangway, not only for posterity but to improve the odds that the guards would be on their best behavior. 

DeWitt had ordered that the Nisei be escorted from their ship to buses taking them directly to the train terminal. Each bus would transport forty men to the station and return six or seven times until the entire regiment had been moved.

Ninety minutes after docking, the ship’s intercom bellowed, “Group twelve, go to the gangplank on mid-ship deck four and proceed to shore.”  

“That’s us,” said Short Pants. 

Minutes later, Kenta watched the last school bus leave with only the second wave of disembarking recruits. The need for Matson to disembark the soldiers quickly so the ship could turn around with men and supplies needed for Hawai‘i, coupled with a shortage of buses, allowed the recruits to mill about in the confines of the port facilities. MPs at each exit ensured none of the “suspicious characters” wearing the same uniform they wore tried to break out and occupy the city in the name of the emperor.

Once on the ground, Kenta marched over to Ching. “Are we soldiers or prisoners of war?” he asked, pointing to a guard who must have overheard. 

Ching put a calming hand on Kenta’s shoulder.

“These white boys with guns are just doing what the overzealous brass tells them to do. Remember, your mission is to prove those old farts wrong.” He turned to the other squad members gathering around, listening to the exchange. “We Orientals have never had a chance to prove ourselves. Now FDR has given you that chance.” Ching returned his gaze to Kenta and gave his shoulder a supportive squeeze. “Seize the opportunity.” 

While Ching calmed Kenta, Chuckles strolled by the row of shops in the civilian port complex and drifted into a cafeteria. Twenty minutes later, he skipped back to his squad, who were entertaining themselves by rolling dice on the tarmac across from the Lurline. No Ticket had borrowed Spud’s ‘ukulele and was turning a ribald ditty he had picked up at Schofield into a Hawaiian tune. 

“Hey — look at me! I’m an emperor!” roared Chuckles. “I just ordered a white woman to bring me a Coke and a hamburger — and she did!” His buddies turned and stared at him in disbelief. 

“You gotta see this. Go to the cafeteria,” Chuckles said, pointing to the shops. “Don’t worry, I’ll watch the bags.” 

Kenta’s squad rushed to the cafeteria and ordered the daily special — a hot turkey sandwich — just so they could write home that a white woman old enough to be their mother had wiped their table, taken their order and served their food. The boys relished leaving her a big tip and were surprised by the sincere thanks from the woman.

Kenta’s squad enjoyed the Bay Area sunset until it was their turn to board the buses to the railroad yard. 

Later, as Kenta’s train chugged into night, an officer addressed the men: “Keep those curtains down. We don’t need the locals calling in reports of Japanese landings.” 

Kenta stood up. “Sir, where are we going?”

The officer gave a wry smile. “You will know when you get there.”

… To be continued


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