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.
April 26, 1943
“I’m hungry,” said Fats. “Let’s get some chow.”
The men changed into aloha shirts and shorts and ambled over to the mess hall where an angry and out of breath Short Pants and Buster ambushed them.
“We were just told that they don’t sell toothpaste to Japs at the PX,” snapped Short Pants.
“Tell the clerk to go screw himself and check out with another cashier,” said Fats.
“The cashier practically kowtowed to the haole bullies,” said Buster.
“A wimp,” said Short Pants, his breathing almost back to normal. “A bunch of cretin Sixty-Ninth New Yorkers just coming off maneuvers started in with the ‘You Japs don’t belong here’ crap. A few more guys came over. Five or six of them against the two of us.”
“That’s it!” hammered Fats. “I’m finished pretending I don’t hear those racial slurs.”
Kenta’s face tightened as his mind flashed back to the two haole soldiers hitting the floor at the Hotel Street bar, which replayed like a movie trailer. “Right Fats, I’m tired of hearing ‘you Japs’ every time we go to the PX. It’s time we stood up for ourselves. Let’s go over there and settle this.”
“We ain’t gonna take this crap anymore,” said Short Pants, leading the charge.
Kenta fast-marched the seething soldiers to the PX. On their way over, they tore down army propaganda posters showing slit-eyed soldiers grinning sinisterly as they bayoneted children. What a motley bunch the Nisei looked as they entered the PX adorned in their mishmash attire of aloha shirts, T-shirts or unbuttoned uniform shirts, straw zori or half-laced army boots, and shorts or floral-themed drawstring trousers.
“There they are,” said Short Pants, pointing at a table of beer drinkers in the canteen section of the PX.
“Let’s all get a tube of toothpaste and get in line,” said Kenta.
The half-dozen juiced-up drinkers quickly noticed the strutting Nisei as they entered the PX. A beefy soldier with a skull and crossbones tattooed on the back of his neck jumped up and roared, “I had a brother die in Guadalcanal. Let’s teach those Japs a lesson!”
His tablemates jumped up and hollered, “America for Americans!” They scoured the eyes of their beer-guzzling buddies at the other tables as if expecting support.
Nobody else stirred.
A master sergeant, drinking alone at a table in the corner, opened his mouth and was just about to say something but held back as he watched the Hawai‘i boys queue at the checkout, their jaws set and eyes steely. More interesting to see how this plays out, he thought.
Short Pants led the toothpaste brigade to the same clerk who had earlier denied him service. He thrust the tube of toothpaste and a dollar at the clerk, a bald, fortyish, squinty civilian sporting a wrestler’s physique. The man pivoted from the cash register and leaned over the counter.
“I guess you Japs don’t hear so well. I don’t have to sell to your kind.”
Short Pants reached across the barrier, grabbed the clerk’s shirt with both hands and jumped like a kangaroo. He headbutted the man’s shiny dome twice. The double kotonk bong, immediately followed by the clerk’s bellow, brought the PX patrons to a shocked standstill.
But only for a second.
Blood sprang from the clerk’s right eye and streamed down his face. He stumbled backwards, knees buckling and crashed into the iron railing separating the cash register lines. His dazed expression morphed into fiery rage. Like a boxer hit hard—but not hard enough to send him to the canvas—the clerk launched himself off the rail and swung a muscular arm, his whirling fist smashing Short Pants’s left cheekbone. Short Pants’s admiration of his handiwork caused him to duck a fraction of a second too late.
Short Pants fell backwards like a fifty-pound sack of rice falling off the back of a pickup truck. In his fuddled state, Short Pants didn’t hear the stomping, beer-drinking Yankee yell, “Remember Pearl Harbor!”
The rabble charged the checkout counter. Their flushed faces, clenched jaws and eager strut said they expected their short, skinny, brown opponents to fold in fear.
That was their first mistake.
Behind them, the enraged clerk stepped around the cash register and picked up Short Pants. He hoisted the now-limp figure over his head, roaring like Tarzan, “Get out and stay out!” and then tossed him toward the front door.
Short Pants hit the pinewood floor and rolled over until a pair of gleaming boots stopped him.
In that instant, the tallest Yank charged Stonehead like a raging bull. A Golden Gloves boxer, Stonehead ducked while his practiced hammer to his attacker’s gut doubled him over and a fist to the back of his ear put him on the floor and out of the fight.
Kenta, Spud, Fats, No Ticket and Chuckles formed a circle, their backs to each other like the gang in the Charlie Chan movies. All except for Spud and Fats had earned black or brown belts in karate. The last three white boys came flying in for the kill, not a bit worried about being outnumbered by little runts with slanted eyes who were only as tall as their Adam’s apple.
Kenta delivered a kick to the shin of the short, would-be thug, swiveled three hundred and sixty degrees and landed a second kick to his jaw. The man stumbled backwards into a table, flipping it over and landing hard on his butt. No Ticket used the momentum of the skinny one to spin him into a metal pole, his slide to the floor punctuated by a savage kick to his gut. The third attacker, the one with the crew cut, swung at Chuckles who easily stepped aside and delivered a devastating chop to the back of the man’s neck, sending him to his knees. Behind them, the clerk closed in on Short Pants, flailing like an upended cockroach at the base of a man’s shiny boots.
A voice at the top of the boots boomed. “Who wants a court martial?”
A John-Wayne-built master sergeant loaded with chevrons stood over Short Pants, still dazed, and eyeballed the crowd.
“These Japs attacked me!” said the lone standing assailant, somewhat shakily.
Kenta wheeled around and kicked the man in the groin with his heel. The six-foot-four-inch-tall soldier crumpled back to the floor.
The master sergeant stepped over Short Pants and stopped abreast of Kenta. “Do you want to try that on me?”
“Only if you call me a ‘Jap’ and refuse to sell me—an American soldier—a tube of toothpaste … sir.”
The sergeant gave Kenta a long, cold stare. “Get your toothpaste and go back to your unit.”
“You’re not going to call the MPs?” challenged the clerk.
“I could call them and you could file charges. I watched you refuse to sell toothpaste to that soldier. How far do you want to go with this?” He surveyed the battered Yanks. “I saw you guys charge these men.”
“And you didn’t stop it?” asked the clerk.
The master sergeant answered the question while staring at the triumphant Nisei. “Well, I’d heard stories that these Nisei wouldn’t stand up in a fight. I thought I’d see what would happen.”
A tall, gangling staff sergeant walked into the PX and surveyed the damage. He spotted Kenta and broke into a malevolent smile.
“Crockett!” shouted Kenta.
“No, jackass! Sergeant Crockett,” Kenta’s Schofield nemesis smirked. “You dumb pineapple picker, you believed that charade about me being busted to private? When I knock out one of your teeth, I bet you’ll put it under your pillow expecting the tooth fairy to leave you a quarter.”
Crockett surveyed the shambles before bringing his eyes back to Kenta.
“I’ll see you later when your gang isn’t here to back you up.”
To be continued …