Mike Malaghan
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.

CONTENT WARNING: The story below contains the use of racial slurs.

Chapter 51 continued…

“Look. Ahead,” said Little Caesar, nodding towards a colored group standing in front of the USO.

“Let’s just keep smiling,” said Kenta.

Suddenly, Chuckles threw a fist in the air.


The tallest of the Negro GIs peered down the street.

“Hey, Six-Pack! You’ve come to the right place!”

The stares along the USO’s sidewalk turned from suspicious to curious. Broad, white teeth gleamed in the flare of light shafting from the building’s entrance. Copper, brown and black hands exchanged handshakes. Lieutenant Roscoe Jones gripped longer and squeezed a welcome on the men’s shoulders with his other hand. As if on cue, the band played Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”

As Jones grabbed Chuckles’s shoulder, his eyes surveyed the group like a preacher on Sunday.

“You Jap boys are welcome here. We all need to stick together.”

“Japanese, not Japs,” challenged Kenta, his fists clenched and stomach muscles taut.

The band’s vocalist tormented the night with her sweetly melancholic notes. Jones turned to Kenta and let out a lamentable laugh. He brought his head low to peer at Kenta, eyeball-to-eyeball.

“Us n-(word)s welcome you Japanese boys. Whatever we call ourselves, whatever they call us, we sure know the white man don’t want to share what they got with no one else.”

Two colored USO hostesses pranced outside.

“Hey, fellas, whatcha doin’ out …”

Mouths fell open as they spotted the Hawai‘i boys. Then the one with the caramel complexion put her hands on her hips.

“Lordy, lordy. Where you boys get them colorful shirts?”

Chuckles took in the friendly faces. This is the way it’s supposed to work. The gals come to us.

“If you all allow us to buy a round of beers …” Chuckles glanced at the men outside to make sure they knew he meant everyone. “… I’ll tell you where.”

Halfway through their beers and well into the Chuckles-Kenta tag-team stories about aloha shirts, endless summers of surfing and fish that practically jump into boats, the band broke into Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

The stouter girl with midnight black skin and wearing the dress of a temptress, broke into the boys’ story. “Do they do the jitterbug where y’all come from?”

“Do they ever!” shouted Spud, grabbing her hand. He let her lead him to the dance floor.

Chuckles bowed low and twirled an extended hand at the tall girl, just like an English knight. He followed her to the dance floor.

The beer and the joy of being accepted did their magic: The boys put on a show. Other girls came over. Soon, all the Hawai‘i boys were dancing. They stayed on the floor for “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and thanked the girls, knowing it was bad manners to monopolize them. The band slowed the pace to Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”

The sound of approaching sirens was largely ignored by the Hawai‘i boys. In the few hours they had spent in Hattiesburg, sirens, raucous GIs, music, taunts, crowds egging on fights were but background hubbub exalting the good times of a weekend pass. They noticed the sudden change in facial expressions and the jerk of fearful heads toward the entrance, as if a thirsty vampire had winged in to choose a neck. Dracula would have been more welcome.

Chapter 52

Four policemen dressed in khaki uniforms pushed through the swinging double doors; two held snarling dogs on short leashes.

The band stopped playing. The colored MPs retreated to the back of the room.

The heftiest cop, his intimidating gut straining his shirt’s buttonholes, stepped ahead of his companions. He eyed the room like a viper sensing prey and then settled on the confused eyes of the Nisei. He pointed his nightstick at them.

Chief Jack Ditmar spoke slowly and conversationally, confident that no sound would compete with his voice.

“You Jap boys know you don’t belong here. Come along now and don’t make a fuss. We’ll escort you to the white side of town.”

Fresh sirens wailed. At least one, maybe two cars, screeched to a halt. Car doors slammed and four more sets of boots came stomping in.

No one spoke or moved.

Kenta’s short temper pushed aside his AWOL status and common sense. He stepped forward, addressing the burly uniform in a fractious tone. “Did you forget something, sir?”

The chief relished smart-ass challenges to his authority. It was a chance for a little “entertainment.” He smiled like a hangman who enjoyed pulling the rope. All eyes focused on the developing drama. Raucous sounds wafted from the other side of the tracks. Smells of perfume, sweat and fear hovered.

“And just what might that be, son?” asked the chief.

Kenta regretted his rush to dangerous humor. He could’ve ended it right then by saying, “I’m sorry. Nothing, sir.” But compulsion overcame prudence. “Your swastika. You forgot your swastika.”

Ditmar let his face slide into an indulgent smile that did not match his cold, malevolent gray eyes and ambled over to Kenta. The chief’s neck and shoulders showed no tension. One hand rested easy on his nightstick, the other hung loose on his side.

“That’s just the kind of thinkin’ we expect from a Jap. I could arrest you for disturbin’ the peace, insultin’ a police officer and violatin’ city ordinances on racial mixin.’ But I’m not gonna do that, ’cause I am a man who likes to give a troublemaker a second chance.” He stopped talking and turned around. Seemingly pleased with the positioning of the dogs and his officers, he addressed the tall, lanky one. “Ain’t that right, Earl?”

The only skinny cop in the group broke into a nasty smile, matching his boss.

“Captain Jack, sometimes I think you show too much compassion to the riffraff. But I admit you do one thang right.”

Police Chief Jack Ditmar raised his eyes and stood a little taller. “Remind me, Earl.”

Earl scratched his groin. “You always be sparin’ the judge of the nuisance of gettin’ out of bed for night court. You always say, ‘Instant justice is the best justice.’”

Ditmar nodded, as if reminded of a truth of biblical proportions. “Why yes, Earl, I do believe I have been known to say that.” He turned to Kenta and smiled as broadly as he could without showing his teeth.

The dogs growled low and strained their leashes.

The night truncheon came out so fast that Kenta had no time to respond. The cop jabbed it deep into Kenta’s gut. He fell forward, giving the police chief a chance to whack his back twice before he hit the floor.

A cultured voice rang out.

“You can’t strike an American soldier.” Lieutenant Jones stepped forward. “I am a lieutenant in the Air Force, and I will be reporting this.”

Ditmar lived for confrontations like this — just him and a small group of police officers staring down a crowd of n-(word)s. He could hardly wait to regale one of the town hookers with the story.

“My, my. A smoooooth-talkin’ coon. I bet you even graduated from a u-ni-ver-sit-ee, you be readin’ and writin’ so good. You must be one of them Tuskegee flyboys. I just imagine Hitler’s about ready to surrender now that he knows we be lettin’ n-(word)s fly airplanes.”

Jones stepped closer, his long jaw jutting out. “I don’t have to …”

“Boy … if you want trouble, you’ve come to the right place. Earl, give them dogs a little more leash.”

Both German Shepherds were brought to their hind legs as officers twirled their wrists to let out the leash a dramatic yard. The dogs lurched forward, testing the arm strength of their handlers, one almost breaking loose.

Women shrieked. The room scattered.

Jones jerked back, his fifteen seconds of defiance over.

Pleased with the show of mass cowardice, Ditmar slithered his eyes to the reception booth where an older Negro woman sat with her hair wrapped in a yellow bandana. Her ample body was draped in an oft-washed purple dress with a white gardenia print. The woman’s violet-painted lips quivered under the scrutiny.

“Miss Beatrice,” addressed Ditmar, “I’m a mite disappointed. We let you open this place to cater to the colored boys in uniform. Yes, I’m disappointed you be a-breakin’ the law, lettin’ these Jap boys in here, especially with me hirin’ your daughter to cater food to the city prison.”

The woman rose — she was even bigger than the captain. “Yessuh, Captain Jack. I make a plenty-big mistake. No more Jap boys in here.”

The captain ambled over to the woman and leaned forward, his mouth almost kissing her ear. He grunted softly.

“How about you tell your daughter to be bringin’ a sandwich by my office around midnight?” He pulled back, giving her a knowing grin. “We understand each other?”

The woman’s loud, trembling voice filled the room. “Yessuh, Captain. I sure don’t want to break any laws.”

Ditmar pointed his nightstick at Jones.

“Make sure you don’t go over the speed limit, y’hear?” He didn’t wait for an answer, turning his gaze instead to the Nisei. “You boys follow me.” He slow-pivoted and sauntered out like he owned the joint, which, in a way, he did.

Short Pants extended an arm to Kenta and helped him up from the floor. He whispered hoarsely, “You forget you’re AWOL?!”

Kenta did not acknowledge the rebuke. He kept his head up and his back stiff. His shuffle behind the strutting cops reminded the crowd of who had won.

Outside, Ditmar reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a hand-sized notebook, the kind housewives take to the supermarket with their grocery list. He thumbed the worn edges of the blue cover until he found an empty page.

Kenta stifled his urge to comment, “Since your little book is almost full, ever think of thumbing from the back?”

Ditmar took out a nub of a pencil and licked the lead tip. “Now what I need is your names and units. Here’s what I’m gonna to do, me bein’ a compassionate man and all. I’m gonna report you to your Colonel Pence.”

Kenta’s eyes widened.

Ditmar picked up on it. “Of course, we know who you boys belong to. Why do you think we have half the police department workin’ tonight? First night they let you Jap boys out in the town is sure to cause trouble.”

Ditmar enjoyed watching the strain on the boys’ faces and knowing his police force saw how he could control a situation.

“I’m goin’ to report that a bunch of his … nee-says … crashed the colored USO.” He smiled, mimicking a grandfatherly countenance, and then twisted his face in triumph. “Against his orders!” He let that sink in, watching them squirm. “But,” he said, waving his little book, “I am not goin’ to give him any names. No sireee. This here is my first offender’s book. No one in this book wants to be stopped a second time. Do we understand each other?”

The Nisei heads moved up and down. Faces relaxed, none more so than Kenta’s.

Ditmar focused on Kenta. “OK, big shot, you first.”

Once he completed the name-taking, Ditmar ordered the boys into three of the patrol cars and instructed his deputies to follow him in his lead vehicle. He ordered the dog handlers back to the station. Ditmar then draped a fleshy arm around Kenta’s shoulders.

“You’re ridin’ with me.” The chief got into the backseat with Kenta and nodded his head from the back window at Chuckles, hovering nearby. “You … ride in front with Earl.” He tapped Earl on the shoulder. “I think we need to show these boys where they can have a good time without causin’ a disturbance.”

“You mean …”

“Don’t go dense on me, Earl. Of course, that’s what I mean.”

In the back seat, Ditmar’s arm once again found Kenta’s right shoulder, his meaty fingers pinching the muscle tissue. He noted that the kid didn’t wince. A good sign, he thought.

“You’re Ken.”

“Almost, sir. Kenta.”

“You boys are all Americans, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

The chief relaxed the pressure. “Then you are right familiar with nicknames. So, it’s Ken. Now, Ken, I am appointin’ you one of my ambassadors. You know what an ambassador is, doncha?”

Kenta twitched the aggravated muscle. “Yes, sir. Like a representative from one country to another, but I think you want someone to represent you.”

“I knew that under that smart-ass temper, there just might lie a brain. You see, Ken, we got colored folks and white folks. Everybody knows their place; everybody gets along. Once in a while, an agitator comes a-callin’, tryin’ to stir thangs up. We deal with that. But you Hawai‘i boys … you don’t quite fit, do you?”

“We are Americans, sir.”

The chief dug his fingers deep and squeezed the muscle near Kenta’s neck.

The suddenness of it caused Kenta to flinch.

Ditmar’s tone turned rough. “I said you were smart. Now don’t go and disappoint me. You get to talkin’ to these colored folks and get them all riled up. Then you know what happens?”

Ditmar did not wait for an answer. His voice rose. “We have to come down hard.” He twisted Kenta’s neck even harder, ignored Kenta’s yelp and twisted it again.

“Maybe next year, you’ll be in North Africa shootin’ Krauts. But we still got some of our colored folks all hot and bothered and we have to take …”—another twist—“… strong measures to put thangs right. You hear what I am sayin’?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ditmar loosened his grip on Kenta’s shoulder. “It’s good that you do. Now you tell the other boys. You don’t want to be responsible for people like that nice lady Miss Beatrice fallin’ onto bad times now, do you?”

Kenta remained silent until the chief slowly raised his arm.

“No, sir.”

By then, Earl had crossed the rail tracks. Instead of turning left toward the railroad station and downtown, he swung right.

The chief pulled out a cigar from his shirt pocket. His words turned friendly. “Well, now that that’s settled, you keep an eye on those houses ahead.”

Chapter 53 

Kenta spotted the blinking lights maybe a quarter mile down the road. The parade of cop cars passed warehouses and the railyard. The acrid smell of coal filled the air, prompting a sneeze from Kenta. The car slowed as it neared a patch of two-story houses framed with Christmas tree lights.

The chief took the wrapping off his cigar. “We’ve got some fine girls here, most from Jackson or Mobile, but a few from as far away as Atlanta. I passed the word. You will be welcome.”

Earl stopped the car at the third house. The chief reached back into his shirt pocket, wiggled his fingers, and pulled out a matchbox. “Earl, wait a spell while I introduce Ken and his boys to Miss Lillian Delight.”

The chief, Kenta and Chuckles got out of the car. Behind them, the opening and closing of the deputies’ patrol cars disrupted the Dixieland jazz sounds coming from the antebellum home. Ditmar lit his cigar and then noticed the hesitation on Kenta’s face. His voice hardened.

“You’re not a puff, are you?”

“No, sir, it’s just that …”

The chief laughed, grinned at his deputies, and boomed, “We got ourselves a cherry!” He took a deep draw on his cigar and then pointed it at his deputies. “You boys run along and patrol downtown.”

Like a pudgy pied piper, the chief led his army of aloha shirts up the wooden stairs to the veranda, forlornly populated with a mismatched assortment of empty wicker love seats.

To be continued …


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