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.
Kenta felt a snake crawling in his stomach but managed to show a row of perfect teeth. That angered Doi, whose own mangled teeth had been ignored by his penny-pinching parents.
“You joining us for a beer, Sarge?”
“Any beer that you will be drinking tonight will be right here, Private.”
“What?! Nah, you can’t do that! The colonel just …”
“I can’t do this?!” Doi straightened up. “I can’t do this?!” His hands had bunched into fists.
Kenta stepped back and immediately regretted the retreat.
Doi gloated. He had just learned something about Kenta from the outburst: When challenged, the big-mouth Buddhahead backed away.
“Oh, I can do this. You should try listening as well as you speak. If you cleaned the gunk from your ears, you would have heard Colonel Harrison say, ‘Your sergeant is authorized to issue a pass.’”
Kenta inched forward and regained the space he had conceded. He assumed the at-ease posture with his hands behind his back and legs spread apart.
“Come on, that isn’t fair. I’ve worked hard, performed well. You know what Harrison meant. Everyone from our new unit is going into town.”
Doi wanted to end the confrontation, as nearly everyone in the room had cleared out. Pence and Harrison were on the stage talking with a tech sergeant who eyed Doi and Kenta. Doi smiled at Kenta — the type of smile that suggests there is a way out, but at a price.
“The wooden window shutters over my bed don’t fit right. But I tell you what. You fix it and I’ll leave a pass for you at HQ. You can pick it up when the window is fixed. But I’m warning you: If the shutters don’t fit snug, you’ll be cleaning latrines for so long you’ll miss the smell when we ship out.”
Doi made a flourish of printing “Kenta Takayama” in bold letters on a blank pass, then folded it and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He snuck a peek at the tech sergeant, but he had turned away. Doi figured he’d covered his ass.
Short Pants had hung back at the mess hall entrance. “So, what did Doi want?”
Kenta raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders, obviously perplexed. “He’s up to his usual nasty self.” Kenta explained the window assignment. “No big deal,” he concluded. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you later at the USO. It shouldn’t take long.”
Kenta knew exactly what was wrong with Doi’s window shutter. The kotonk sergeants botched the hutment construction. Kenta and his squad had repaired their shoddy work.
They had inserted slivers of wood into the pine board gaps and caulked smaller apertures and rehinged the front door.
Doi hadn’t helped with repairing the hutment, so the refurbishment gang passed over his window. They had only reset the latch so it would stop banging. The shutter should have fit snug into the windowsill, but the frame needed to be trimmed a quarter inch. Kenta would need a planer, a screwdriver and, to be on the safe side, a new set of hinges.
But it was already 5:00 and the maintenance and supply rooms were closed.
Had Doi known this? Had he set up Kenta to fail? Regardless, Kenta was determined to find a way to fix the window. He walked over to the nearest construction site, hoping his faith in the local crews’ sloppy work habits would be rewarded. The foreman must have been one of the fussy ones — everything had been put away. Twenty minutes later, he hit pay dirt at the second site he visited. He found a toolbox snug against a lumber pile.
Within 45 minutes, Kenta had removed the shutters from their hinges, measured, planed the edges, and put them back up, perfectly snug. He adjusted the inside latch and cleaned up any mess.
Another shower, even a cold one, beckoned. Who knows? One of the USO girls just might take a liking to him. After slipping on an aloha shirt — word had gotten around that the boys in aloha shirts were generous tippers — he raced over to the 442nd headquarters, happily kicking a few pebbles along the way and humming “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
By then, night had fallen. But at 7:00, even allowing for the bus ride to town, a full evening of revelry beckoned. He skipped up the stairs to the 442nd HQ and saluted the Nisei duty sergeant – he recognized him from the UH ROTC program. The sergeant had been a captain back then — he used Kenta and other freshman as marching fodder to practice giving drill orders. Kenta glanced at his badge to recall the name.
“Sergeant Kago, I’m Private Takayama, sir. I’m here to pick up my pass.”
The sergeant’s face registered a question mark. “Pass?”
“Yes sir, Sergeant Doi signed a pass and said he would leave it here for me to pick up after I completed an assignment.” The snake slithered loose in Kenta’s stomach.
“I haven’t seen Sergeant Doi or anyone drop off a pass,” said Kago. Seeing the anxiety on Kenta’s face, Kago checked his desk and then asked two privates typing up reports if they knew anything. Lastly, he checked the tops of all the unoccupied desks. He turned to Kenta and shook his head. “Sorry, Private, nothing here.”
Kenta’s fists clenched.
“But he promised.” He relaxed his hands and placed them on the edge of the sergeant’s desk and leaned over. “Can you help me out here, sir, and give me the pass?” Kenta replayed the meeting with Doi.
As duty officer on a Friday evening, Kago listened patiently. After all, Kenta was a fellow soldier from Hawai‘i. Inevitably, though, he shook his head again, slower and sadder.
Kenta wanted to keep talking until the sergeant could see the injustice of the situation. He finally realized, however, that Kago could not, or would not, issue the pass. Doi had screwed him over. He thanked the sergeant and trudged over to the mess hall just in case his worst fears had been misplaced. Maybe Doi was still eating dinner and just hadn’t had time to drop by the HQ.
His spirits rose when he saw a sergeant from one of the nearby hutments in the cafeteria. He rushed over to the young man’s table. “Sir, have you seen Sergeant Doi?” asked Kenta as the sergeant wiped his mouth with a paper napkin.
The sergeant dropped his napkin on his plate, which was covered with the scraps of a hamburger bun and a few skinny French fries lying in a smudge of catsup.
“Sure, he left here a half-hour ago to catch the bus to Hattiesburg. I’m meeting him at the Rainbow Club — some of the noncoms hang out there. Did you want me to tell him something?”
Kenta got the sergeant’s message. The club did not welcome the lower ranks. He also got the stronger message: He’d been duped. A lightning kaleidoscope ripped across Kenta’s brain. He saw himself in action, flipping the table, saying, “Yeah, I have a message. Tell Doi he’s a coward, a misfit, a …”
The electric arc passed. He gritted his teeth.
“Nah, nothing. It can wait until Monday.”
He turned around, wanting to board the bus and find the Rainbow Club. He wanted to call out Doi in front of his peers and thrash him. He could see it all: Doi would take a few swings. Kenta would play with him, deliver a few body shots with his fists and kick him in the thighs — enough to hurt him, but not enough to put him down. Doi would be in pain and want to quit, but with everyone watching, he would have to let the kabuki drama play itself out, one in which the audience knew the final act. When Doi could hardly stand and could not protect himself, Kenta would walk away, leaving Doi’s lack of leadership exposed to all the other sergeants.
The fantasy passed.
Kenta slumped out of the mess defeated. Without a pass, he could not leave the base. The security detail at the gates checked everyone.
What had he done wrong? He obeyed orders and never slacked. He accepted latrine duty and did the push-ups when Doi had a spur up his back. Kenta started walking to the PX to buy a case of beer and take it back to the hutment to drink while reading John Kennedy’s book, “Why England Slept.” The combination would put him to sleep. Then, he saw his salvation. This time, the flash of fantasy could be acted upon.
“Bobby! Hey Bobby!” Kenta called out to the newspaper boy hawking papers from his bike inside the camp.
Bobby rode over and pulled out a Hattiesburg American.
“You want a paper? Friday’s edition lists all the clubs.” Then he lowered his voice. “I’ll give you the names of a couple clubs that don’t advertise,” he said with a wink.
For a boy of 14, this kid has a lot of street smarts, thought Kenta — and that worked well for the plan that had just popped into his head.
“What I want, Bobby, is your bike.”
He pulled out a George Washington and explained. Bobby nodded, and then gave him an even better idea.
Camp Shelby’s immense size — nearly 135,000 acres — and its lack of a security threat made it a virtual undefended border. Perfect for his plan, strategized Kenta.
With Bobby perched on the handlebars, Kenta pumped away on the teen’s bicycle. When they reached the nearest bus stop inside the gate, Bobby jumped off and Kenta continued, turning right into an access road parallel to the fence. After pedaling for what he guessed was about two miles, he glanced back to see the lights of the last tent city fade into a yellow glow. He had bought six copies of the Hattiesburg American from Bobby to lay over the barbed wire and either crawl over or between the strands.
To add a bit of combat fantasy to the scheme, Kenta imagined himself on a mission to infiltrate German lines, knowing he had to rely only on guts and ingenuity to complete the operation. As it turned out, all that separated him from freedom — other than his naïve underplaying of the consequences of getting caught — was a four-foot-high chain-link fence. What can they do — give me lifetime latrine duty? he laughed to himself.
Kenta had planned to ride the bike into town and then leave it for Bobby at the newspaper office. But Bobby, ever the entrepreneur, suggested that for another dollar he would flag an incoming taxi and hold it outside the gate at the Camp Shelby pick-up zone.
Forty-five minutes later, the taxi dropped Kenta at the Front Street USO. He swaggered into the building like Gary Cooper playing Sergeant York, the famed hard-drinking World War I hero and Medal of Honor awardee. Friday-night “just got paid” GIs jammed the converted warehouse. The colored band was slamming “That Old Black Magic” to a jitterbug beat. Smells of beer, sweat and the USO gals’ generous applications of perfume drifted like waves, ebbing and flowing with the movement of overhead fans and countless bodies in motion. Nearly all the 50 or so USO hostesses were dancing. Kenta knew they tried to dance and chat with ten times that number of lonely GIs, so he knew he would get his shot.
He wandered around the haoles for a while. It didn’t take long for his confidence to melt away as he pretended to not notice the stares, not all of them friendly. There were a few Asian faces in the place, but none that he knew. Had his guys given up on him joining them? As he started to walk out, he spotted a Hawaiian-print shirt — and then a half-dozen Hawaiian-print shirts — behind the bandstand. He slung his shoulders back and reset his swagger.
“Hey, you pineapple bumpkins,” he said. Kenta nodded at the beer in Chuckles’s hand. “You guys drinking by yourself? I made the mistake of thinking you losers would be on the dance floor.”
“OK clever one, now that you’ve sucked up to Doi by fixing his window, why don’t you ask one of those haole girls to dance?”
Kenta swiveled his hips twice, hula style. “Watch me, Short Pants. Take notes.”
He strutted toward one of the few haole girls without a dance partner. He had taken only a few steps when a panic attack mugged his bluster. If not for his boasting, he would have walked right past the girl and gone to the bar for a slug of courage. He didn’t need eyes in the back of his head to know that his squad was watching his every move. He approached the plain-Jane dishwater blonde girl, careful not to get too close. She gave no indication that she had even noticed his presence. Aware of his skeptical beer-guzzling audience, Kenta radiated his cocky smile.
“Hi, my name is Kenta. I’m from Hawai‘i.” He nodded toward the gyrating dancers. “We have an island version of the jitterbug. Want to try it?” He offered his hand to take her to the crowded dance floor.
She considered him coldly, as if he were a menu and she wasn’t impressed with the dishes being offered. “I’m resting at the moment,” she replied in a clearly bothered voice and turned her back on him.
Kenta tried his luck with another girl. Netting the same result, he slinked back to his buddies.
Less than a minute later, both girls were on the dance floor. A group of GIs standing at the bar gave Kenta’s group the stink-eye.
“Let’s get outta this place and catch some action at the railroad bars,” Buster suggested.
At that moment, Kenta spotted a girl standing alone, leaning against a pillar. Her long dark hair fell over her shoulders almost in a Japanese way. Her slim figure resembled that of a silhouette. When she caught his stare, she dropped her eyes demurely, again, more like a shy Japanese girl than an American one.
Men see what they want to see. Kenta approached fantasia. She stiffened but managed a faint smile. He heard sincerity in her words.
“I’m sorry. I really…I just can’t.” She felt the eyes of the haole group at the bar openly staring at her and Kenta. Rather than be put off by the rejection, a rejection not of the girl’s own making, Kenta concluded that this gentle girl really wanted to dance, but the stares of those goons were intimidating her. Well, the hell with that.
He reached out his hand. “Let’s just finish the dance,” he said.
Just then, the band switched to the Rodgers and Hammerstein cheek-to-cheek dance from “Oklahoma,” “People Will Say We’re in Love.” It didn’t matter that the guys and gals rarely touched cheeks at these well-chaperoned USO dances. Slow dances gave the couple a chance to actually talk to each other, which was impossible to do during the upbeat numbers. The girls focused on giving as many young men as possible a chance to chat with them. When the young USO girls ran into a soldier with more problems than they could handle, they passed him off to the older matrons. These kind women listened to and often counseled the young GIs who needed to cry their heart out over a “Dear John” letter, or just to talk about their deep loneliness at being away from home, often for the first time.
The girl talking to Kenta held up her hand and softly placed it on his chest, almost like a caress, but definitely to put the brakes on Kenta’s advance. She murmured a plaintive, “I’m sorry.” The girl’s innocent gesture gave the pretext that the beer-guzzling white boys at the bar had been waiting for — a chance to defend a white woman’s inviolate Southern decency from a stinking Jap.
Chests out, the defenders of white women’s honor marched into what promised to be a wonderful donnybrook.
Patrons cleared a pathway.
At that moment, Kenta, totally smitten, would not have noticed the Titanic sinking. He peered into the girl’s pleading green eyes and uttered a strained, “I understand.”
With fists clenched and eyes radiating “let’s beef,” Kenta’s squad strode toward the haole “saviors.”
The USO was no stranger to fights. Seeing the converging combatants, two burly MPs blew their whistles and shoved their way through the crowd. Gawking drinkers, talkers and dancers parted like the Red Sea, giving the charging warriors an arena to settle their differences.
The commotion jerked away Kenta’s attention in time to see the haoles closing in from just ten feet away. Kenta prepared himself, knowing he would get in the first blow with his legs. Then, as suddenly as he prepared to fight, he bowed to the girl.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you.” He turned to face the angry men, arms bent at the elbow, palms facing outward, giving the universal “take it easy” gesture. “My mistake, guys. Don’t worry, we’re leaving.”
To be continued …