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.
(Chapter 43 continued)
“Ni hau, Mr. Ching?” said Pence, greeting him in Mandarin, asking him how he was.
“Hen hau … Very good,” replied Ching, adding, “Colonel Pence, your years in China have given you a better command of Mandarin than I have.”
Remaining standing, as he usually did to keep such meetings short and to the point, Pence said, “I developed a certain affection for China during my deployment. I suspect the army has given me this posting because of my experience in the Far East.” He gave a rueful shake of his head. “Of course, you and I know the Chinese and Japanese cultures are quite different. I’m now in the process of learning how Nisei culture differs from what we would find in Japan.” He changed his expression to a near-smile. “Some things still translate, though. I am reminded that Asians love their rice, so I have asked the quartermaster to do what he can to get some.”
“Anyone who spends time in Asia learns how to adapt and appreciate cultures different from his own,” said Ching, pleased with the direction of his first conversation with the man who would have control over his boys.
Pence waved off another orderly who stood at the door with files in hand.
“Just this morning, Lieutenant Colonel Turner, the CO of the 100th, bragged that his young men have acquitted themselves very well. Last week, they captured the entire enemy headquarters unit in war games. Caused quite a stir.”
Ching saw the opportunity he had hoped for. “Will they see combat?”
“That I cannot tell you. Eisenhower is not on board with this ‘Nisei experiment.’ But second-in-command General Mark Clark has told Colonel Turner that he will take anybody who will fight.” Pence paused as if he might add something more, but apparently had a second thought and let the statement hang.
“Colonel, those boys want to fight. It is a matter of pride for themselves — and honor for their families.”
“I accepted this command because the army designated the regiment a combat unit, but it’s out of our hands, Mr. Ching. Not everyone in Washington and North Africa is convinced that these boys have what it takes to be a fighting unit, even putting aside loyalty issues.” Pence cleared his throat. “I know you’re concerned about the morale of the 442nd. We share that concern.”
“I’m encouraged to hear you say that, Colonel. Perhaps we could address a few of those issues today.” At Pence’s nod, he continued. “First, I am worried how the young men will be treated in Hattiesburg.”
“Well, this is the South. The locals don’t want the Nisei here, but have agreed to treat them as honorary whites.”
“So I’ve heard, but it is a little more complicated than that.” He told Pence of the conversation with the Nisei wives about the USO and then offered a solution.
“Go ahead and make some calls, Mr. Ching. You have my backing,” said Pence in a voice suggesting an end to the meeting.
“One more thing,” said Ching in a soft, urgent voice. “I’m sure you are aware that most of the men are Buddhists.”
Pence sat quietly for a moment. “I’ll admit I hadn’t given it all that much thought.”
“I just met Reverend Adcock. A fine man.” Ching began to relay his conversation with the reverend.
“I see where you are going with this.” Pence motioned to a chair. “We’d better sit down. What do you have in mind?”
Ten minutes later, Ching left with an agreement that two chaplains from Hawai‘i would be sent for, both Christians since all of the Buddhist priests, save one, had been incarcerated. Chaplains from Hawai‘i had grown up with the spirit of aloha and an understanding of both Buddhist and Christian traditions.
Ching’s focus on the religious and racial issues obscured two other simmering volcanoes. He hadn’t failed to notice that the Mainland Nisei spoke “white” English instead of the Pidgin English favored by the Hawai‘i boys, yet had given little thought to the language disparity and its consequences. Further, he raised no alarm when Pence commented, “We scoured the military for Mainland Nisei who were drafted before Pearl Harbor and promoted most of them to sergeant. We have been training them since February to be the noncoms for the 442nd.”
For years, Ching would wonder how he had completely missed what should have been so obvious, ignoring the fact that no one else had foreseen the circumstances that would almost destroy the entire Nisei experiment.
Saint Louis, Missouri – April 12, 1943
When the train pulled into Saint Louis, the curtains were drawn and the Nisei were forbidden from disembarking, even to stretch their legs. The men peeked out through the edges of the curtains and saw for the first time a large population of Negroes.
An officer wearing a major’s stripes swung up the steps and into the coach.
“Listen up, recruits,” he said. All of the men fell instantly silent. “While we have a few minutes of relative quiet, let me explain the ways of the South. You boys are from Hawai‘i. Lots of races mix, but you don’t have many coloreds. You will find the South different. Jim Crow means whites and coloreds each have their own role in society. You might think it strange or even repugnant. Our job is to get ready to fight Germans, not get involved in Southern social issues.” He gazed around at the somber faces. “Do I make myself clear?”
Kenta broke the silence. “And what exactly are we?”
“I’m just getting to that. You are ‘honorary whites.’ You are to use white-designated drinking fountains and toilets, and you sit in the front of the bus. You are not to use the colored facilities.”
Most of the men stared blankly, hearing but not registering.
The officer moved on to the next train cab and Harry Nakata took out a map. “We’re running out of geography. My guess is we’re heading for Camp Shelby.”
Hero studied the map. “A buck says it’s Fort Benning, Georgia.”
Chuckles opened his wallet and pulled out a crisp bill, which he waved at the two of them. “The 100th is in Camp Livingston, Louisiana. I bet we join them there.” He laid his money on the side table that folded out just below the train’s window.
Nakata held his ground. He and Hero each threw a dollar into the pot. Spud and Fats, who had watched the exchange without comment, figured there must be more than two Army camps in the South. With the odds in their favor, they joined the pool.
The next day when the train slowed coming into Hattiesburg, they accused Harry of not playing fair.
“You must have overheard the officers talking,” grumbled Chuckles.
“Hey, I don’t need any ‘inside information’ to beat you knuckleheads,” grinned Harry as he scooped up his winnings.
The Nisei arrived in Hattiesburg in mid-afternoon but were ordered to remain on the train until nightfall. Kenta peeked out from the edge of the curtain. The only posters he saw on the freshly scrubbed brick station walls and pillars promoted war bonds. Leaking clouds and angry winds exaggerated the chilly temperature Kenta felt in his bones when he cracked the window to freshen the sour air inside the overheated carriage. His eyes widened. There, standing under his fedora, was the unmistakable Hung Wai Ching. “Mr. Ching! Mr. Ching!” Heads craned out the windows.
Ching broke into a wide smile, tipped his hat and boarded the train. He visited each carriage. “The military has decided it best not to parade a thousand Japanese through downtown Hattiesburg in broad daylight.” The men had heard it all before. As nightfall conquered dusk, Kenta’s squad hoisted their duffel bags and descended the train’s grated steel steps into the damp, cold wind. They meandered over to the station entrance where a fleet of two-and-half-ton transport trucks was just pulling up. While searching for his assigned truck, number 61, Kenta spotted a newspaper boy. The skinny ten-year-old white kid had waited all afternoon, shrewdly guessing that with so many soldiers on the train a few of them might want to buy a paper. Kenta whistled him over and handed the boy a nickel. In seconds, a sea of khaki-attired arms surrounded the boy. In minutes he had sold out.
To be continued …