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.
Farrington took a long drag of his Camel. “You have a couple of unlikely allies in keeping the Nisei out of the South, Hung Wai. Let me read excerpts from a recent speech by John Rankin, a Mississippi House Representative. We serve on the same subcommittee on territorial issues. He’s the one who tried to pass a bill requiring that only nonresident whites be appointed to high-level federal government positions in Hawai‘i. A few years later, he led the charge to frustrate Hawai‘i’s ambition to statehood on the basis of our mixed-race population.”
“Excuse me, Joe, I was there at that time.”
“Right.” Farrington picked up what resembled a newspaper, but not quite.
“This is an edition of last year’s Congressional Record.” Farrington began reading, mimicking an exaggerated Southern drawl. “‘You cannot regenerate a Jap, convert him, change him and make him the same as a white man any more than you can reverse the laws of nature. Damn them! Let us get rid of them now.’”
Farrington swapped it for a Washington Post, turned to an inside page, and resumed his slow, Dixie impersonation. “‘I am shocked beyond expression to learn that several thousand Nisei troops are training in Mississippi. More trainloads of Japs are coming to my home state.’” He took a pull on his Camel. “He delivered that little gem yesterday on the House floor.”
After he and Ching discussed strategy, Farrington called Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy. He and Ching took turns explaining the problem. When McCloy complained, “It’s late in the day” to bring this to his attention, Farrington reminded McCloy the army revealed the destination only yesterday.
McCloy replied, “You know the boys from the 100th are already there, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Ching. “But that group is smaller in number and has been subject to army discipline for almost two years, including a year of combat training in Wisconsin. The 442nd is just off the plantations. They’ll be tough soldiers — as you will see the first time they are insulted for not having eyes shaped like the grandsons of Jefferson Davis.” As he said the words, Ching felt as though he were talking to the wind.
But not one to give up, he placed a call to Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he had met the previous year on her trip to Hawai‘i. During a photoshoot, she had shaken his hand and maintained a steady gaze. “Let me know if you need help.”
Evidently, she had meant it. To his surprise, Ching got through to her.
After listening to Ching’s concerns, Mrs. Roosevelt said she would call McCloy and see what she could do. Then after a pause, she added, “Mr. Ching, since you are so close to the White House, I will send a limo over to pick you up. I think the president might like to see you. That is, if you have the time.”
The First Lady greeted Ching at the White House entrance. As she escorted him to the empty cabinet room two doors from the president’s office, Mrs. Roosevelt shared some mixed news.
“I talked to Mr. McCloy. Your Nisei will be going to Hattiesburg.” Ching struggled to hide his disappointment but did not restart his argument. He had been heard.
“But, Mr. Ching … I do believe Mr. McCloy knows that I have a personal interest in how those young men are treated.” She smiled as she opened the door. “I will leave you here to ponder all the decisions our republic has made in this room.”
Surveying the many portraits covering the century-old walls, Ching’s eyes came to rest on an unexpected portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president, which was so large it dominated the room. He would have guessed that Washington, Lincoln or Jefferson would hold that commanding spot, yet on reflection, it made sense. The current president had served as Navy secretary in Wilson’s war cabinet.
Ching had just moved to a window facing the Rose Garden when he heard a knock on the door. He turned to find an attractive young woman entering the room.
“Mr. Ching? Good morning,” she said, her voice low and pleasant.
“You must be Grace Tully,” said Ching. “Your newspaper photos do not do you justice.”
The woman blushed and let the compliment pass. “The president is ready to see you. Please follow me.”
As Ching walked down the corridor, his sense of intimidation eased. His mission dominated his thoughts, strengthening his wobbly knees. Yet, as Grace Tully held open the door to the Oval Office, Ching admitted a sense of awe to himself. If only my immigrant father were alive to know that his son sat in the White House foyer, about to not only meet the President of the United States but to express his views on national policy.
As Ching entered the world’s most famous office, the stench of cigarette smoke filled his nostrils. It had the odd effect of steadying his nerves by taking his mind away from meeting the president, even if only for a few fleeting seconds.
“Mr. President, this is Mr. Hung Wai Ching,” said Harry Hopkins, the president’s diminutive personal advisor who sat across from Roosevelt. Hopkins stood up and shook hands with Ching before guiding him around the Resolute desk to FDR, who also stood and offered a handshake. Like most visitors before him, Ching did not know that the president was crippled by polio and normally confined to a wheelchair. However, when sitting in a normal chair behind the presidential desk, President Roosevelt could use his upper body strength to lift himself up to standing, seemingly without effort, and shake hands with visitors.
The man who greeted Ching radiated vigor. Roosevelt grasped Ching’s hand firmly and locked onto his eyes, then motioned his guest to take a seat. As he sat down across from the president, Ching noticed a lit cigarette, snug in its signature holder, resting in an ashtray shaped like the continental United States. The president eased back into his chair, opened a teakwood box, and offered a Lucky Strike to Ching, who accepted. When Roosevelt flicked his silver lighter, a flattered Ching leaned over the desk for the President of the United States to light his cigarette.
“So, you are the man who keeps the lid on the Jap community in Hawai‘i — the same man who thwarts my orders to remove them to a safe place.”
President Roosevelt’s oft-photographed smile took the edge off his words. But they reminded Ching that even one incident of sabotage in Hawai‘i would send all the Japanese to Moloka‘i.
“Quite the contrary, Mr. President. On the small islands of Hawai‘i, it’s easy to keep tabs on everyone. The quick action by the police and the FBI removed anyone with even the slightest potential to do damage. I believe on the day of the Pearl Harbor infamy, we arrested more Japanese in Hawai‘i than were picked up on the entire West Coast. We were prepared.”
The White House photographer stepped into the room. Rather than respond to Ching, the president said, “Mr. Ching, why don’t you come over here to my side of the desk and we’ll get a picture together.” While FDR said something to Hopkins, Ching snuffed out his cigarette and cupped it in his hand before dropping the memento into his pocket and moving beside the president. The photographer snapped away with Ching standing next to Roosevelt, the president’s head tilted up with his cigarette extending from its holder, wearing an election-winning smile.
To be continued …