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Wartime Wailuku: A Kid's Perspective

Kengo & I.jpeg

It must have been around 1944, because Maui seemed to be overrun by servicemen: soldiers, marines, and sailors of all different sizes, color, and behavior. Until the war, the only Haoles (Caucasians) we saw were the plantation managers, wealthy businessmen, and doctors. Seeing Haoles getting drunk and fighting amongst themselves was unbelievable at first. Weren’t they the special people who were all professionals of the highest caliber? These Haoles were different; they swore and were very friendly even with us kids. Were it not for the differences in physical appearance and regional accent, they could have easily been our uncles.

We were afraid of the Negros (the socially accepted term then) because they looked different. There was one black family in Wailuku, the capital of Maui County, and Joe Louis was our hero; but we had never seen black men up close.

And a black serviceman had just killed our neighbor, Sato-san1. Like many of the plantation housewives, she supplemented the family income by doing laundry for servicemen. We didn’t know anything was wrong until the MPs came by and started to ask questions. Taniguchi-san who lived next to the Satos reported the crime. He saw a Popolo (black in Hawaiian) man hit Sato-san over the head with a brick.

A suspect was brought in to be identified; he was terrified. The charge was very serious. When asked if he was the one who hit Sato-san, Taniguchi-san said, ”I don’t know, they all look the same.” To Taniguchi-san and the rest of the neighbors, they did all look alike.

After two days in the hospital, Sato-san died. The man who allegedly killed her was arrested and supposedly shipped to Honolulu for trial. Everyone was convinced that justice was not done and would never be done. “They” would go through some formalities, and like the Massie case2 in Honolulu, the suspect would be released and sent back to the mainland.3 Wailuku, the capital of Maui County, Territory of Hawaii, was no longer a peaceful little town.

But to the servicemen from afar, it must have still seemed a quiet town. To the local residents their presence meant everything from an intrusion on their lifestyles to opportunities to make a quick profit. Everything took place so quickly that it is difficult to remember what happened first. My earliest recollection was my aunt crying, because there was war. Issei, first generation men, were saying Japan would not lose the war—they never lose. Nisei (second generation) women were crying and telling the older generation to stop that kind of talk, because they would be arrested.

A few months later these same Issei would be telling their sons to serve their country loyally, and not bring shame on their families and community. The Nisei sons were American citizens, and were expected to give their lives for their country if necessary—and many did. There wasn’t a family that didn’t have a family member or close relative who was not serving in the armed forces. The daily talk was about how so and so was doing overseas: “Kotoku was wounded again, or Mamoru is OK and was transferred to a hospital.”

I was proud that my cousin Arata was never wounded, even after serving so long. But then it happened. We got word that he was killed in action in France. My aunt was devastated. It was bad enough that Arata, her only son, volunteered to join the Army at age 19. Auntie was widowed while in her twenties or early thirties, and had a rough life providing for three children alone. She was totally unprepared for this tragedy. She was not alone, many families went through similar experiences.

Yet we were more fortunate than the Kimuras. Their father was taken away somewhere. We later learned that the Maui Japanese community leaders (mainly ministers and teachers) were moved to camps in Honolulu or the mainland. We were not all relocated like the Japanese Americans on the West Coast, because key supporters of the Japanese Americans in Hawaii convinced the military that removing the Japanese Americans would deplete the necessary manpower needed to keep the economy going, and winning the war.

But to us kids, it was life as usual. We didn’t know any better, and had nothing else to compare it to. We went to school like any other American child with the exception of always carrying our gas masks along with our books. (The requirement of carrying gas masks lasted only a few months.) But the sting of prejudice, usually racial name calling by other races, hurt. There were, however, many decent people who did not consider us anything other than kids.

The corner of Vineyard and Market Streets was “my corner.” I had no power, but it was understood by all the paper boys that this prime selling piece of real estate was my corner, and no one challenged it. During one miserable, cold rainy day, I was drenched, and all of my papers were soaked. Since no one would buy wet newspapers, even at my corner, I was about to call it quits when a “savior" appeared. A drunken sailor bought all of my newspapers.

My neighbor, Steven, also a paper boy, had given up and was on his way home. He asked me what happened to my papers. I said, “One dumb, drunken, sailor bought all of them.”

We proceeded to go home through one of our many shortcuts—through a local bar. I saw the “drunken” sailor sitting at the bar, cold sober and talking to another sailor. As we walked out of the bar, Steven said, “You crying?” I wiped my face and said, “Raining, stupid.” (Boys don’t cry.)


1. All names except Arata are not real.

2. In 1933, Thalia Massie falsely accused four local men of rape. Two of the accused, a Nikkei and a native Hawaiian man were badly beaten by Massie’s mother, husband, and two navy men. The Hawaiian man was also shot and killed. The two navy men were convicted, but the Governor of the Territory of Hawaii commuted the 10-year sentence to one hour to be served in his office, and within a few days, Massie’s family, the accused, and lawyers returned to the mainland.

3. The suspect was convicted and executed for murder on August 1, 1945, and is buried in the Schofield Barracks Post Cemetery on Oahu.


© 2016 Hiroshi Kato

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