Tom Coffman

Tom Coffman. (Photos courtesy of Tom Coffman)

Writer’s note: With the help of many, including the Sons and Daughter of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, I worked over a 10-year period on researching and writing “Inclusion.” The goal was a deeper understanding of how Hawai‘i prepared for World War II and how the war crisis was navigated. Why, despite intense pressure from Washington, was there no mass evacuation of the Japanese community, in contrast to the sweeping West Coast internment? I looked for the cooperative and often heroic effort of wartime that facilitated the postwar political revolution, statehood, the development of an inclusive society, and Hawai‘i’s contribution to the country. To mark the book’s publication, I was honored to address the recent 442nd RCT annual dinner. This is the speech given that night. Mahalo to all. — Tom Coffman

I didn’t set out to write about “Inclusion” as a concept. Rather, I was guided by a belief that the legacy of the 100th/442nd was actually more far-reaching than had been told. I investigated many strands of this history, from the perspective of Hawai‘i, the West Coast, and Washington D.C.; and also prewar, wartime, and postwar. I concluded that the ultimate legacy of the 100th/442nd was its contribution to building an inclusive Hawai‘i and an inclusive America. The legacy of the 100th/442nd is not Japanese American history in and of itself. It is American history. What began as a great military force became a great moral force. 

Within Hawai‘i the essential question of inclusion versus exclusion was constantly at work. Under the domination of a white-based oligarchy and the Big Five corporations, was Hawai‘i to be a hierarchical, segregated backwater or was it to be a multiracial democracy? Compounding this question was a growing crisis in the 1920s and 1930s resulting from friction between Japan and the United States. Army Intelligence, Naval Intelligence and then the FBI all conducted investigations into the Japanese community. You can imagine the tremors of apprehension this sent through the immigrant generation. 

Meanwhile, the evolution of the Nisei generation unintentionally acted as a sort of counterveiling force, a force for inclusion. The Nisei population exploded during this period. One half of the entire public school body was Nisei. Young people made acquaintances across ethnic boundaries, not only in schools such as the famous McKinley High but the University of Hawai‘i, the YMCA, progressive churches, a PanPacific movement, the ROTC, National Guard, and, in the last year before the war, as draftees in the United States Army.


On the cover of my book are three of the heroes of what came to be called the Council for Interracial Unity. Hung Wai Ching was originally a YMCA youth worker; Shigeo Yoshida was a teacher and then a school principal; Charles Hemenway was a nearly lifelong member of the UH Board of Regents, a mentor and friend to all. They led a network of people in convincing American officials on the ground that Hawai‘i’s people would be loyal in the event of war with Japan. They illuminated the choice of inclusion versus exclusion. They determined that if war came, they must minimize victimization of the Japanese-ancestry community by maximizing the participation of all groups in the war effort, Japanese included. Put simply, “Make friends before you need them.”

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, people throughout continental America panicked. Fed by an irresponsible press, they believed the big lie of their day, which was that through espionage and sabotage people of Japanese ancestry in Hawai‘i accounted for Japan’s military success at Pearl Harbor. I devote a long chapter to a history of this sabotage phenomenon, the scapegoating of an imaginary enemy within. One of my archival finds was that Hawai‘i’s delegate to Congress, Sam King, desperately tried to persuade Washington that there had been no sabotage. His campaign was backed by numerous fact-finding affadavits to Congress including one from a young police captain, John A. Burns.

In this light, the mass internment of Japanese in the West Coast states became even more heinous than I previously had thought. The reason was that by the time people were actually being rounded up, decision-makers at the highest level had realized there had been no sabotage in Hawai‘i and no justification for internment. Nonetheless, neither the president nor those around him had the moral courage to stop the forced evacuation. 

Within Hawai‘i, the meetings to calm people, educate people and involve people in the war effort ran into the hundreds, in every nook and cranny, in every ethnic group on every island. The scales tipped. What began as a massive disaster became a massive mobilization within Hawai‘i. Instead of being victims of history, the people of Hawai‘i became authors of history. To be sure, there were many injustices — insults and abuse, the denial of constitutional due process under martial law, and the internment without cause of one to two percent of the Japanese-ancestry population, some of whom were American citizens. I think the best explanation was that inclusive community attitudes and practices prevailed in the absence of good government. Despite swings in morale, inclusivity kept most people more or less together and moving in one direction. 

The main impetus for Nisei service in the military came first of all from the Nisei themselves and more generally from the community of Hawai‘i. It was the Hawaiian Army command that got to know the Nisei and that pushed a reluctant Washington for formation of the fighting units. When history hung in the balance, it was mainly the young men from Hawai‘i who crucially filled the ranks — not the mainland. 

The Allied Army consisted of millions of soldiers of many nationalities and ethnicities, from Free French to Italian partisans, from Ghurka warriors to Jews from Palestine. Where you would expect the soldiers from Hawai‘i to have all but disappeared, they rose to the top. 

The phrase, “most decorated,” meant they took the highest casualty rates. “The most purple hearts for a unit of its size” meant they were the most wounded and killed, causing discussion of whether they were sometimes treated as cannon fodder. In fact they were committed to certain battles recklessly, without proper regard for life, but the fact was the 100th/442nd was thrown into the hardest situations by commanders who were desperate for highly-motivated troops. They were cited first by General Mark Clark, and then General Eisenhower, the Undersecretary and Secretary of war, and by many others, as America’s best soldiers in Europe. 

Immediately, the 100th/442nd became the postwar exhibit for healing the national wound of the internment. President Truman famously said to them on their return, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you have won. Keep up that fight, and we will continue to win — to make this great Republic stand for just what the Constitution says it stands for: the welfare of all the people all the time.” The first battle was over, the second battle was beginning, and the President was calling on the 100th/442nd to leverage its record on behalf of genuine democracy. As shorthand for the 100th/442nd legacy in the early postwar, I think foremost is the way it inspired the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces by executive order of President Truman.

The process of change had a running start in Hawai‘i in the repeated brainstorming of a more just and democratic future. These had begun in the Federal guard units, the military training camps and the Varsity Victory Volunteers. They had resulted in a stream of communication between battlefront and homefront about what the young soldiers hoped would emerge from the war. Hung Wai Ching carried one such letter in his breast pocket wherever he went. Hemenway was one of the key correspondents who constantly upheld the vision of a truly democratic Hawai‘i. When I inteviewed Governor Burns on his extensive World War II work, the letters from the battlefield stood out strongly in his memory. 

In short, the Democratic revolution of the 1954 Territorial election ended the half century of oligarchic political rule, and the 1959 passage of statehood ended Hawai‘i’s second-class status in America. 

The benefits of Hawai‘i’s inclusion as a state spilled across the country. We think too much about what we get from the federal government and too little about what we have given. The Hawai‘i delegations led by Senator Daniel Inouye, Senator Spark Matsunaga, and Representative Patsy Mink, was pivotal in the remaking of American democracy through the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, a colorblind Immigration law, equal access to sports by female students, and the apology and reparation law of 1988, to name but the most obvious. Hawai‘i is a small place in the big wide world, but what people have done here is no small thing. 

Once again, thank you and aloha.  

Tom Coffman’s “Inclusion” is available at Native Books, an independent bookseller located in Honolulu’s Chinatown at 1164 Nu‘uanu Ave. You can also go online to purchase at Other book stores that carry “Inclusion” are Na Mea Hawai‘i, Ward Village, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., Ste. 270.; Da Shop in Kaimukï, 3565 Harding Ave.; BookEnds in Kailua, 600 Kailua Rd., Ste. 126; Basically Books in Hilo, 334 Kilauea Ave.; Maui Friends of the Library, E. Camp 5 Rd.; and also available for borrowing from public libraries.


  1. *Inclusion: How Hawai‘i Protected Japanese Americans from Mass Internment, Transformed Itself, and Changed America* is published by (and can also be ordered from) University of Hawai‘i Press.


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