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.
At dawn, the train slowed for a brief stopover at the former gold rush city of Marysville, California. The previous summer, the city’s racetrack had been a holding area for 2,500 internees, including Marysville’s own sizable Japanese population, until they could be shipped off to a permanent camp. Building internee housing for 110,000 displaced American citizens and their parents had taken months to construct.
As the train pulled in, an announcement told the recruits they had thirty minutes to stretch their legs.
“May be trouble ahead, Kenta,” said Short Pants who was peering down the track. Kenta poked his head out the window. “There must be hundreds of people, like a mob.”
Earlier, DeWitt had issued an advisory to the citizens of Marysville that a trainload of Japanese soldiers in uniform would stop there to replenish water stores. The warning, intended to allay the townspeople’s fears and keep residents from the station, instead set hospitality wheels in motion. More than 500 citizens — all of them white — showed up with homemade banners reading “Welcome to Marysville” and “Cheers to the fighting Japanese Americans.” Chocolate cakes, apple pies, baked hams, cribbage boards and Monopoly sets sat atop colorful homemade quilts covering portable card tables.
Kenta stared out at the crowd with a surprised smile.
“Can you believe this?” asked Chuckles.
“I wouldn’t if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.” Kenta reached up to the rack and pulled down his duffel bag. “I’ve got a lei made of puka shells in here,” he said, finally holding up the strand.
“Right,” said Chuckles, pulling a harmonica out of his pocket. Others followed their lead, searching to find Hawaiian treasures to share.
A man with a bullhorn, who turned out to be the town’s mayor, stood in front of the enthusiastic crowd.
“The city of Marysville is proud to have you stop here.” The mayor’s voice wavered as his misted eyes surveyed the young men on the platform. “Marysville has many Japanese Americans among her citizens — our neighbors and our friends. We miss them.”
Kenta walked over to the mayor and placed the puka shell lei over his head. Chuckles played a few bars of “Little Grass Shack.” Half a dozen soldiers started strumming their ukuleles, serenading the cheering well-wishers with a medley of Hawaiian songs. After the impromptu concert, Chuckles presented his ukulele to a blonde, pig-tailed girl who, according to her little brother, had turned 10 that very day. Two train cars down, another squad broke into a hula. Townsmen shook the soldiers’ hands and wished them good luck. The women passed out hot coffee and homemade baked goods. Thirty minutes had stretched to 60 by the time the train left the station.
By midmorning, the early spring marigolds and petunias of Marysville had been replaced by snow-covered granite of the Sierra Nevadas. At noon, the train stopped for another water refill at the Donner Pass Township and with whoops of delight, the Hawai‘i boys engaged in their first snowball fight. The first winter after California became part of the United States following the War of 1845 with Mexico, 81 pioneers attempted to cross this pass. Just 45 of what became known as the Donner Party survived—and then, only because some survivors ate those who did not.
Once the 442nd recruits passed the California border, beyond DeWitt’s command, the officers ignored the curtain rule. The new soldiers did what soldiers have done since the time of the Hittites. They gambled, carped about the food and bitched about not knowing where they were going. Kenta had read about the vastness of America, could name the 48 states, and knew the prominent geographic features of most of them. Still, nothing had prepared him for the rich agricultural lands of the rain-favored western side of the mountains, the first majestic crossing of the High Sierras and the water-starved eastern side of the range where nature had carved sculptures from mesas and granite outcrops.
At the Salt Lake City water and refueling stop, a few long-time Japanese families residing there, along with a small group of Hawaiian Nisei Mormons—students attending Brigham Young University—greeted the train. From there, the train moved through the Rockies in Utah and Colorado and then into the flatlands of Kansas. Kenta found it hard to believe that a hundred years before, when Honolulu hosted a bustling whale port, Indians and buffalo had populated this part of America.
He watched the evolution of American agriculture roll past the train’s windows. Farmers drove John Deeres to grind soil for spring planting while their poorer counterparts, often on small plots tucked between big farms, walked behind mules pulling tillers cutting furrows for seeds they would plant by hand. Half the men on the train knew from experience exactly how grueling that process could be — experience that would prove invaluable during the Italian campaign.
As the train left the wheat fields of the Midwest for the cotton fields of Missouri, Kenta watched farming practices regress. No coloreds and few whites had mechanized equipment. Dark-skinned men strapped to a tiller or grader grunted and pulled as men had for 10,000 years. The lucky ones had a mule.
Hero nudged Kenta, pointing to shacks the colored families called home and the shabby unpainted frame wooden houses reserved for the slightly better-off whites.
“It doesn’t pay to lose a war, Kenta. You would have thought Sherman had marched through here last year.”
Kenta didn’t bother to correct Hero by telling him Sherman never got close to Missouri.
Hung Wai Ching watched the last 442nd train leave Oakland, then took a taxi to the airport to catch a Pan Am Clipper to Washington, DC. General “Tight Lips” DeWitt had inadvertently given him the information no one else would — the destination for the 442nd: Camp Shelby, Mississippi. It was the worst possible choice — the Jim Crow South, where social order divided everything from toilets to bus seating between two — and only two — races. The Japanese would have to be assigned one of them. He expected and feared his brown-faced recruits, owning the eyes of the enemy, would be treated as colored. This would destroy the morale of the Nisei brought up in a multicultural community. Whites might top the social and power hierarchy in Hawai‘i, but everyone shared the same public bathrooms. No cultural or racial group suffered any impediments when registering to vote or entering the university. Nisei boys were not lynched for talking to white girls.
Ching arrived in Washington just after the city’s three thousand cherry trees, given to President Taft by the people of Japan in happier times, had shed their last blossoms. The Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival had been renamed the Oriental Cherry Tree Festival as an alternative to chopping down all the trees. He had slept little since his disastrous meeting with DeWitt. While in flight to Washington, D.C., he rummaged around in his imagination for a strategy to keep the 442nd boys from going to Mississippi. He could come up with no approach other than begging the army for reconsideration. The furrows in his forehead deepened as he foresaw a looming catastrophe.
Upon arrival, Ching taxied directly to the Hawai‘i congressional delegate’s capital office. A young greeter immediately ushered him into Joseph Farrington’s inner sanctum, Ching’s new Samsonite still in tow.
“Aloha, Hung Wai.” Farrington came around his desk to exchange a Hawaiian hug. He stepped back. “I have never seen you so frazzled.” He eyed Ching’s suitcase. “I insist you stay with us. Elizabeth won’t forgive me if you don’t.”
“Mahalo. We need as much time together as possible to avoid a calamity in the making.” He recounted his disastrous meeting with DeWitt and his discovery of Camp Shelby as the eventual destination for the 442nd. “We are talking about a helluva morale crisis, Joseph. You know our boys. Give them a taste of the Jim Crow life and they’ll riot. The sugarcane strike will seem like a Kapi‘olani Park picnic compared with what will happen in Hattiesburg.”
Farrington lit a cigarette and then offered his guest a Camel. Ching accepted and lit it with the tip of Farrington’s cigarette before resuming.
“We need to make some calls. Our boys come from the fields, the farms and tough city ghettos. You insult one of them and the whole gang ‘makes beef,’ as they would call fisticuffs defending their honor. They don’t think. One provocation and the fists fly.” Ching’s forehead creased deeply. “Can you imagine the reaction the first time someone says, ‘You can’t drink from that fountain’?” He let his shoulders slump. “This entire enterprise could be abrogated in a series of racial incidents.”
To be continued …