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.
May 2, 1943
Pence held a tin mug of coffee in his left hand. The worried cleavage between his eyebrows pinched together as he studied the four-foot-high map on the wall to the right of his desk. The sea of red push pins identifying Hitler’s and Tojo’s armies and the blue pins representing the defending Allies reminded him of the military rationale for the December 1942 decision to create an all-Nisei combat regiment. Men were needed to fight.
The year 1942 had been horrible. The Axis powers were winning, although the final outcome was still in doubt. Except for Midway, the Allies had lost territory and ships on all fronts. In February, the Japanese navy had smashed an Allied fleet at the Battle of Java. The fight for Guadalcanal hung in the balance. The Philippines had fallen to the Rising Sun. Singapore and Hong Kong had surrendered. Japan had occupied Burma and its amassed troops near India stood ready, waiting for an expected uprising against British rule. And that was just in Asia and the Pacific.
On the European front, German troops seemed ready to enter Stalingrad, Moscow, and Volgograd. The Wehrmacht had taken Sevastopol, giving them control of the Crimea and the Black Sea. Paris, Copenhagen, Athens, Oslo, Amsterdam, Sophia, Belgrade and more – all had fallen under German rule. The British had surrendered 25,000 troops after losing the first Battle of Tobruk. Montgomery’s counterattack in Tobruk had, by the slimmest of margins, kept the Germans from occupying Cairo, but Rommel still controlled most of North Africa. Anglo-American troops had landed in French Morocco and French Algeria. Eisenhower’s armies suffered inglorious defeats in their first confrontation with Rommel’s Afrika Corps. As Churchill said of the Axis 1941–1942 European/North African onslaught: “This was their finest hour.”
Pence felt confident that the worst was behind them. As awful as 1942 had been for the Allies on the ground, the factories of America had produced 48,000 planes and 56,000 tanks, and the army had mobilized a fighting force that had grown to seven million men.
Pence almost allowed himself a smile, remembering a recent letter to his mother in which he had taken credit for the Allied turnaround since his January 1943 appointment as commander of the 442nd. RAF bombers dropped their payload on Berlin during January 30 speeches by Goebbels and Goring celebrating the Nazis’ tenth year 90,000 German troops. A week later, American Marines broke the aura of Japanese invincibility by winning a vicious victory at Guadalcanal. Pence moved the pins in North Africa. Eisenhower and Montgomery had Rommel’s Afrika Korps squeezed in a giant pincer. Pence wondered if the Allies would invade France or Italy this summer.
Eisenhower. If only he would let Pence’s men fight. But the colonel had no control over that decision. He could only concentrate on training his men for combat and dare the brass to pass over men willing to die for America. Willing? More like eager.
“Sir?” The orderly at the door had repeated the word three times before the colonel snapped out of his reverie.
Pence turned from the map. “What is it, Corporal?”
“You said you wanted to know when Master Sergeant Forte arrived.”
“Send him in.”
Forte entered, shaking his head. Despite the chill, his shirt showed half-moon sweat marks outlining his armpits.
“How bad was the boys’ first run, Sergeant?” asked Pence, interpreting Forte’s head shaking as bad news.
“You won’t believe it, sir,” Forte said in a Louisiana drawl softened by his French accent, courtesy of his parents speaking the language at home while he was growing up in rural Lake Pontchartrain. “Not one of those Hawai‘i recruits dropped out of the ten-mile run. We had the usual number stop to throw up, but they puked and then ran to catch up to their squad.”
“That might be a first, Sergeant. Tomorrow I’ll join the men on the morning run. Let’s bump it up to twelve miles and have them carry an empty pack. You said the Hawai‘i boys?”
“Yes, sir. They seem different than the Mainland boys.”
“More gung-ho, more likely to help each other out.”
Forte, used to Pence’s no-nonsense meeting style – “Just get to the nub of the topic at hand” – stopped there.
But Pence wanted more. “You’ve been going to their mess and walking around their hutments since they arrived. I want to know your impressions.”
“The mess is a good place to start, sir. The Hawai‘i boys form instant groups at the tables. They’re boisterous. Very social. Lots of talking and laughing. Everyone seems to know everyone else. The Hawai‘i boys were proud to show me pictures of their big Honolulu send-off ceremony. They had those flower garlands – leis, they call them – draped around their necks, thousands of well-wishers all around – white, Asian, Hawaiian.
“The Mainlanders, on the other hand, walk through the chow line silently. They eat alone, even at the long tables.” Forte’s voice dropped to a more somber tone. “Can’t say I spent any time with the Mainlanders. They eat, maybe have a Coke, and then shuffle out … like, like they’re going to a funeral. All that Hawai‘i exuberance must get under their skin, considering the send-off they had, if you can even call it a ‘send-off.’”
Pence stabbed his forefinger on the map of North Africa, next to the blue pins representing American forces under the command of General Mark Clark. “General Clark opposed putting all those families into camps, and I agreed with him. It’s not only morally questionable, but Tojo uses the internment as propaganda proving America demeans and brutalizes the Japanese. Given the Mainland boys’ treatment by our government, I’m surprised we got even 900 to volunteer.”
Pence raised his coffee mug toward Forte, an invitation to tell him more.
“When I talked with the Hawai‘i boys, I asked them why they volunteered. They got pretty fired up and shouted out the usual responses: loyalty to country, sense of duty, seeking adventure. Some said they didn’t want to have to explain after the war why they hadn’t fought. But the answer that really got me came from the young man they call Short Pants: ‘Respect, sir. To be regarded as an American, not a hyphenated American.’ I could see that sentiment on all those young Japanese faces. And their eyes bored into me with an intensity you rarely see in recruits.”
Pence put his coffee cup down and folded his arms. A second later, he raised his right arm and rested his chin on his fist like Rodin’s statue, “The Thinker,” a habit Forte recognized as the colonel telegraphing, “You have my attention.”
“Contrast that with what happened just before I got here,” said Forte. “I found two Mainland volunteers waiting outside my office. ‘We’ve had it. We’re resigning,’ they told me.” Forte allowed himself a wry smile. “After I explained the court martial process, they went back to their units.”
Pence took out a cigarette. “Three of a kind beats a pair.”
Forte lifted his eyebrows and moved his neck forward, looking like a human question mark.
Pence lit his Lucky and took a deep draw. “I’ve had three junior officers request transfers. They say they don’t want to command Japs. They left my office with a clear understanding that we don’t use the word ‘Jap’ and that their present assignment is their chance to demonstrate leadership. I didn’t paint the alternative, but they got the idea that it would be a lot worse than staying put.”
Forte touched his shirt pocket. “May I, sir?” Pence nodded. Forte pulled out a pack of Chesterfields, flipped out a cigarette and then stuffed the pack back into his shirt pocket.
“You know how the Mainland cadre resented the hutment repair detail.” Forte, wiggling his Chesterfield and looking at the tip of Pence’s Lucky, said, “May I?” Pence handed Forte his cigarette. “And the results show it.”
To be continued …