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 ladies walked Ching to the nearest bus stop and waited with him until the Camp Shelby bus arrived. He joined the queue with the whites and dropped his nickel into the cash box attached to a metal pole next to the driver. He then took a seat in the third row. After all the whites had boarded, Ching saw the coloreds, mostly in uniform, follow. There weren’t enough seats in the colored section to accommodate all the Negro passengers. Although seats were still available in the white section, the last two colored soldiers stood in the back of the bus, behind an empty “whites only” seat. Ching fought his urge to object to this absurd injustice, reminding himself that he had come to Hattiesburg to protect his boys, not to challenge Jim Crow.
Along the nine-mile ride south to Camp Shelby, the only thing Ching observed was pine trees and more pine trees, with an occasional break of shacks huddled together or clusters of nightclubs. Once inside the Shelby gate, the standing colored soldiers moved forward and sat in the vacant seats reserved for whites. The driver frowned, but his authority to enforce the laws of Hattiesburg stopped at the camp’s entrance.
Camp Shelby bristled with activity consistent with a training facility hosting a transient population of up to a hundred thousand men living in fourteen thousand tents and hundreds of wood-framed barracks. A civilian army of hardhats drove tracked Caterpillars and operated Deere backhoes. They shoveled dirt, hammered boards, ran electric wiring and installed plumbing. Khaki-clad soldiers marched on the grounds not reserved for construction. Including leased land, Camp Shelby consisted of almost eight hundred thousand acres, with ample room for battalion-sized training exercises, tank maneuvers and firing ranges for every type of weapon. Ching heard what he guessed were tank or artillery barrages in the distance. No one else on the bus seemed to notice.
The driver dropped him off at the 442nd headquarters, which was still a work in progress. Uniformed men with Asian faces moved in and out of the building. As the bus steamed away, a sergeant rushed out the door, bounded down the steps and came to a stop in front of Ching.
“You must be Mr. Ching. We have been awaiting your arrival.” The soldier took Ching’s briefcase and introduced himself as being from Berkeley, but more recently from the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. Inside the building, the strident scent of freshly cut pinewood planks fought against the ever-present cigarette stink. Men at desks, mostly Caucasians, shoved papers, signed requisitions and gave orders. An orderly moved toward a door and placed his hand on the knob.
“Colonel Pence is expecting you.”
Ching’s peripheral vision had spotted a sign over an open door just to his right. He put a gently restraining hand on the orderly’s arm to read it: “Reverend Joseph Adcock.”
“One moment, please.” Ching moved to the open door and peered into the office, where he found a big man sitting behind a desk, his short, blond hair in the early stages of going gray.
The man took in Ching in his black suit and ventured a guess. “You must be that wonderful Chinaman everyone talks about,” he said, rising from his chair and offering his hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you. I want to hear all about the good work you are doing with the YMCA.”
Ching smiled and reached over to shake Adcock’s firm hand. “I see you have done your homework, Reverend Adcock. A lieutenant colonel,” he added, his voice reflecting his admiration.
Adcock beamed. “I guess they want a career fellow working with … ah … this special unit.”
Ching surveyed all the plaques hanging on the wall. Most of them had the words “Southern Baptist” prominent in their lettering. “Quite impressive.”
Adcock came around his desk and put his arm on Ching’s shoulders. He then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone.
“As a fellow Christian, you can see the opportunity to bring the Bible to these Buddhist heathens now that they are out of the influence of the plantation.”
Ching felt his adrenaline rush demand a sharp retort. He smiled instead, as if Adcock had complimented him on his tie.
“Colonel Pence is waiting for me, but I did want to introduce myself. If you will excuse me …” Ching backed out of the office. “I’m sure we will meet again.”
Ignoring his neck’s suddenly knotted muscles, Ching froze his composed face and followed the orderly into Pence’s office.
Colonel C.W. Pence, not a man given to smiling often, made no exception when Ching entered. From the time he dropped out of college in his senior year to enlist in the army during WWI, Pence had built a reputation as a man of serious intentions that were seriously undertaken. He comported himself more like a professional athlete in the twilight of his career than a twenty-six-year Army veteran, thanks to his time spent at DePauw University playing football, basketball and baseball. In college, he bussed tables to pay for his incidentals, yet somehow managed to maintain close to a 4.0 average. He still ran hard with his troops to maintain his thirty-inch waist and tough demeanor. Someone like Pence might have intimidated a lesser man than Ching. But Ching had worked with driven men like Emmons and Shivers who concentrated on getting the job done and were not sidetracked by ideology, prejudice or bureaucracy.
He respected Pence’s spartan office. The unfinished pine walls displayed no adornment other than a world map on the left wall dotted with blue and red pins. A single peg snagged an Army-issue rain jacket on the back wall. A file basket on the right side of Pence’s desk contained a few papers. Next to it sat a short pile of folders. A squat inkwell rested next to a day calendar and a bare, leather-edged ink blotter in the center awaited paperwork. A white, wooden plaque rested at a forty-five-degree angle on the front edge of the desk, its boldly etched letters heralding “Col. C. W. Pence.” The black phone at his right elbow suggested that Pence preached “minimum motion serves best.” It reminded Ching of his own habit of keeping his toothbrush, toothpaste, straight razor, badger hair shaving brush and lather bowl perfectly aligned in order of use on a side table next to the sink. The only personal item in the entire room sat on Pence’s desk: a glass globe containing a miniature forest engulfed in water that looked like a snowstorm when tipped upside down. Ching guessed it must have been a gift from a grandchild.
The colonel stood and offered his hand. Ching had learned to provide a firm handshake and eye contact with military officers, quite different from the gentle clasp of hands exchanged in his Hawai‘i business dealings. He knew this first exchange must be one of equals. The crisp creases of Pence’s khaki shirt and trousers validated Ching’s decision to change into a freshly starched shirt as the train had approached Hattiesburg.
To be continued …