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 44 continued)
“You guys are weird,” he said. “Most of the regular army guys don’t buy newspapers. Just a few officers.” As he cycled off to get more papers, he suddenly stopped, turned and with a grinning face shouted, “I’m Bobby! I’ll be right back, so don’t buy from anyone else!”
Kenta stared after the kid, grinning at Bobby’s compliment. One glance at the newspaper headline, and his smile turned to a scowl. “A Jap’s A Jap.” The Nisei had arrived in Hattiesburg the same day that General DeWitt presented testimony to Congress.
“Listen to this,” shouted Short Pants. “Here’s what DeWitt said: ‘They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine his loyalty. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen. Once a Jap, always a Jap.’”
“He’s not the only one against us,” said Chad, holding up the paper. “There’s some guy named Rankin that the paper claims is the ‘distinguished’ representative from our new home state of Mississippi. Here’s his welcome: ‘Hawaiian-born Japanese are being sent into the South where we don’t want them and where an invasion would surely occur if the Axis ever attempts it. Instead of sending those Jap troops into Mississippi, as the army is now doing, they should be put into labor battalions and be made to do manual labor.’”
“Good,” said Kenta.
“Good?” Short Pants waved the paper in the air. “Are you crazy?”
“Listen, we know DeWitt and what’s-his-name speak for a lot of people. Now it’s out in the open. What’s he going to do when we kill a ton of Germans? The more assholes like him talk stupid, the more dramatic our sacrifice.”
Short Pants threw his paper on the cement floor. “I guess you failed the course on logic.”
Occupied with ranting over DeWitt’s front-page remarks while bundling up in their overcoats to cope with the near-freezing temperatures, hauling their duffel bags with guitar and ukulele necks protruding and hunting for their assigned trucks, the Nisei took little note of a photographer snapping pictures of their arrival. Nor did they bother to read the editorial Johnny Logan had published that day, asking the citizens of Hattiesburg to keep an open mind on the arrival of this volunteer group. Logan had closed his editorial with a quotation from another politician: “The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.” The words of the president, uttered a mere two months earlier.
“I found it!” yelled Buster, pointing at their truck.
Kenta’s squad rushed over to truck number 61 and tossed their duffels into the back. They scampered up the steel-strutted ladder bolted to the rear of the truck and shivered together on the two cold, steel benches running parallel to the truck’s chassis. Kenta was the first on; he sat with his back pressed against the cabin. He turned to peer through the cab’s smudged rear window and exchanged smiles with the driver.
The two-and-a-half-ton transport with a canvas cover pulled onto Main Street. The driver stepped on the gas after passing the city’s last streetlamp. Icy wind and drizzle cut through the flapping tarpaulin. Their fingers numb from the cold, the men struggled to pull their oversized pea jackets tighter around their bodies.
“Hey, Buster,” said Chuckles, “where’s that guitar of yours?”
Buster reached down and freed his guitar from his duffel bag.
“Man, this might hurt,” he said, staring down at his cold, stiff fingers. For nearly a minute, he alternated between rubbing his hands together and blowing on his digits before he started strumming “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Chad pulled out his harmonica from the pocket of his trousers and blew a chord. The squad broke into song. Chuckles screeched out new ribald verses that somehow had escaped the Tommy Dorsey Band.
As the truck slowed, the men stopped singing to focus on their surroundings, squinting through the cab’s window. Bright lights outlined a white archway flanked by twin guard stations.
“We’re here!” shouted Short Pants as the truck passed the guard gate.
To Kenta, “here” meant a whole lot more than simply a place. “Here” proved that they had never given up—even after the betrayal of their parents’ homeland and their humiliating dismissal from the Hawaii Territorial Guard. “Here” gave them the chance they hungered for—the right to fight for their country like any other American.
The truck rumbled along freshly rolled asphalt, then cornered into a poorly lit gravel track. The driver downshifted to a halt. The men piled out of the truck in front of a cluster of less-than-welcoming oblong huts. Low-wattage door lights haloed a washed-out yellow glow, revealing pine plank construction.
A shadow stepped from the door and into the gloom.
“Welcome to Hutment 714,” said a radio-perfect haole voice spoken by a Japanese face. He saluted. “I am Sergeant Johnny Doi, your squad leader.”
Squad leader? Kenta felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. He wanted to yank the chevrons off of Doi’s arm and shout, “What gives you the right to take my job?” True, he had been sworn in as a buck private upon induction, but he assumed that he and the other VVV boys would be promoted to the ranks they had held in the Guard.
Kenta swallowed his rage and masked the disappointment on his face. He saluted Doi. If I am the leader I claim to be, I will not appoint myself chairman of the bitch committee. Kenta was so preoccupied with controlling his thoughts that he missed Sergeant Doi’s “Follow me” order, but he fell in with his squad as they hoisted their duffel bags on their shoulders and marched toward the squat building’s front steps.
Doi faced his new unit. “Us noncoms have been working nights and weekends to try to make these hutments livable. It’s not much, but it’s home.”
He hopped up the four steps, his men close behind.
Chuckles stepped inside and quickly scanned the interior. “What a dump!”
Doi pivoted, his face twisted. He had been hoping for a chance to demonstrate his authority. What had he learned in noncom leadership training? Establish control early. Beat down any attempt to usurp your authority.
His gaze zeroed in on Chuckles. “You, what’s your name?”
“They call me ‘Chuckles.’”
The men behind Chuckles laughed.
Doi’s voice rose. “I don’t want some chicken-crap nickname.” His voice increased another decibel. “State your full name. And you will address me as Sir.”
“Seiji Fukayama … sir.”
“Congratulations, Private Fukayama. Your cute remarks just earned you the first latrine duty. Grab a shovel after dinner.” Doi stared at Chuckles, who took a long moment to understand the strained silence.
“Dump your duffel bags on a bunk, then follow me. The made-up bunk near the stove is mine.”
Chuckles is right, thought Kenta. These barracks are dumps. As he took in the flimsy pinewood walls, he thought of his mother’s descriptions of early housing for sugarcane workers. He brushed off a drop of water that had splashed on his neck. The floors squeaked as the men moved about, staking out their bunks with their duffel bags. No windowpanes, just a wooden hatch window cover lashed shut with string wrapped around a nail. The front door didn’t close tight; it didn’t fit the frame and had been cut a half-inch short. Tents would have been better, thought Kenta. They sure couldn’t be any worse. Months later, he would reappraise his first impression.
The squad crowded into the room. No chairs, just bunks. Doi pointed to the squat black iron stove.
“We used this in winter. They decreed winter ended April 1 and base housing HQ no longer delivers coal.”
“Where’s the john?” asked Kenta.
Doi’s eyes flared, fixated on Kenta.
“I mean … where is the toilet, sir?”
“You boys don’t hear so well. A latrine means there is no toilet. There is a trench behind each row of hutments. That’s why the latrine must be cleaned daily. Let’s go to the mess hall.”
To be continued …