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 56 continued…
“Follow me,” Kim ordered, jumping down from the back of the truck. He walked the squad through the target zone of dilapidated cars, foxholes and cardboard men. After the impact zone inspection, the truck ferried the squad to the observation post at the end of a line of twelve alligator-green 105mm howitzers stationed atop a rise, each 20 yards apart.
How can twelve guns protect a regiment of four thousand men? Kenta wondered, although he kept his skepticism to himself.
Five-man artillery gun crews from General Bolte’s Sixty-Ninth Division stood next to each howitzer. Behind them, another five men fronted ammunition racks. A voice roared, “Commence firing!” The gunners’ synchronized movements reminded Kenta of a war dance. Twelve gunners simultaneously rammed 33-pound projectiles into the backs of their cannon barrels, and another soldier stationed at each howitzer pulled the detonating lanyards.
Charges at the base of each cannon cylinder exploded, thrusting the missiles at a banged-up Chevy that served as a simulated tank target. The earth shook and the noise deafened. A short, eerie silence followed, settling over the observers, broken only by the quacking ducks flying toward the target zone. Quick-moving gunners shoved another shell into each smoking howitzer.
The second launch fired. Two seconds of silence. Then, the sounds of the first volley’s distant rumble bounced off the low hills, followed by a smoke cloud emanating from the target zone. A third firing before the second volley landed. The frenzied action lasted three minutes. The impact sector’s sky changed from Monet blue to storm cloud gray. Wisps of smoke swirled from the smoldering jaws of the cannon. The gunners stood at attention.
The newly formed 522nd applauded and were then trucked to reinspect the target zone.
“All of the cardboard soldiers are torn apart,” said Kenta in a subdued voice.
“Once a car, now just twisted steel,” added Short Pants in the same tone.
“Notice the foxholes,” emphasized Kim. “Except for one direct hit, they’re all good and safe. Take a lesson: When under fire, either charge or stay in your hole.”
“The trick,” explained the Brooklyn gunner who had accompanied the men, “is setting the fuses on the antipersonnel shells.” He pointed toward the trees. “Those shells were set to let loose at 50 feet to convert the trees into whirling daggers. If you set the fuses to blow at 20 feet, the shrapnel will kill anything moving within a 100 yards.”
Kim held up his hand to stop his men boarding the truck. “Gentlemen, let me assure you that when we finish our training, we will put on a demonstration that will leave nothing standing or intact.” He pulled out a pack of Luckys from his shirt pocket, took one for himself and then held out the pack to Kenta. “Take one and pass it on.”
The next morning, Kenta was just sitting down to a plate of French toast in the cafeteria. Before he could even put a bite in his mouth, he heard a shout, “Private Takayama?”
Kenta shifted his body to face the entrance, where a young soldier stood looking among the crowd uncertainly. “Yo! Over here!”
The corporal made his way over to Kenta’s table. “Private Takayama, Colonel Pence wants to see you.”
The old snake woke up with a jolt in Kenta’s stomach. His voice faltered. “What’s this about?”
“No idea, Private. Let’s go.”
Kim was reading the day’s Stars and Stripes on the HQ steps when the corporal dropped off Kenta. He delivered a smart salute to Kim, who stood up and returned the salute. Kim folded the paper and stuck it in his back pocket.
“What’s this all about?” Kenta asked again.
Kim’s words came out quick and harsh. “Are you dumb, or do you just think I’m dumb?”
“I know … last weekend,” replied Kenta, weak and nervous.
Twenty minutes later, an orderly came out and asked Kim and Kenta to step into Colonel Pence’s office. Kenta spied four file folders spread out across Pence’s desk.
As Pence rose to his feet, Kenta snapped to attention and saluted. “Private Takayama reporting, sir.”
Kim saluted without coming to attention. “Good morning, Colonel.”
Pence, stone-faced, returned the salutes and sat down. The spring scents of fresh pine needles wafted through the open windows, tamping down the aromatic mix of brewing coffee and fresh cigarettes.
Pence opened the file to his far left and picked up a sheet of paper. He began reading.
“Mrs. Haru Takayama.” Pence raised his eyes and locked onto Kenta’s before resuming. “You have given a soldier to the army of the United States. He has arrived here safely, and I am happy to have him in my command. By your sacrifice, you have enabled him to enlist voluntarily and become a symbol of the loyalty and patriotism of our Japanese American population. Without compulsion or perusals, he made the brave and manly choice to exercise the responsibility of his citizenship. With the soldier you have given to us, and others like him, we shall make a glorious record for Japanese Americans in our country.”
Pence returned the letter to the file and closed it. His steel-marble eyes focused on Kenta. “I obviously wrote this prior to this past weekend.” He fingered another file.
Kenta’s mind swirled. He saw himself on a train back to San Francisco.
“Here is a report from the chief of police. You are accused of throwing a bus driver out on the street and commandeering the bus.”
Pence picked up a lettergram. “Do you recognize this?”
“Yes, sir.” Kenta had wondered what had happened to that letter. He had forgotten to mail it to Angelina. He stared at the letter in the colonel’s hand and envisioned a judge pounding his gavel, intoning his verdict. “Court-martial.” The grill of a prison door slamming shut flashed before Kenta’s eyes.
“You apparently dropped it during your scuffle with the bus driver. But prior to that, you had already gotten acquainted with Chief Ditmar. He claims you crashed the colored USO.”
“Yes, sir.” He had been wrong in thinking that the bus driver wouldn’t want anyone to know that he had lost control of his bus. Kenta saw Doi behind this.
Pence picked up another file. “Your name came across as the first member of the 442nd to have an AWOL violation, although Sergeant Doi went back to retrieve the complaint, saying it had all been a mistake. He had a bandage on his head, according to a note here.”
Pence finally flipped open the fourth and last file.
“You may stand at ease, Private,” he said, keeping his eyes on the pulled papers pinned with yellow tags. He held them up and then flipped through them like dealing a deck of cards. His voice rose in pitch and speed with each document he slapped on his desk: “President of your high school class for three years; quarterback of your football team; captain and pitcher for the freshman college baseball team; 3.8 GPA; sergeant in the ROTC; service in the Hawaii Territorial Guard and a similar rank for your civilian service working in the Army Corps of Engineers … the Varsity Victory Volunteers. Letters of commendation. Higher than average IQ.”
Pence closed all the files with exaggerated care. He raised his right fist and parked it under his chin in his great thinker mode. “Who are you?”
I’m beginning to wonder myself, thought Kenta. Buoyed by Pence’s tone suggesting his punishment would be less than a court-martial, he declared with more confidence than he felt, “I want to prove to you that I am the person you described in the letter you wrote to my mother.”
“Lieutenant Kim will decide your punishment.” Pence leaned back in his chair. “I did hear from the CO of the colored unit, who reported the bus incident from his men’s perspective.”
Did I just detect a hint of admiration in the colonel’s tone? Kenta wondered.
“I don’t approve of the way the South handles its colored people. But we are in Mississippi for one purpose. Do you know what that is, Private?”
“Yes, sir. To train to fight Germans.”
“Almost, Private. We are here to train to stay alive to fight Germans. Dismissed.”
To be continued …