A Hero in Many Respects
By: Steve Lum
Every war has its heroes. World War II was no exception, as Hawaii produced more than its share of soldiers who risked their lives under relentless enemy fire. One of those, Ralph Fukunaga, not only exemplified the typical AJA image of bravery on the battlefield, but also on the home front.
In his own way, Fukunaga, born in Kukuihaele, near Honokaa on the Big Island, was a hero of sorts even before the war had begun. When he was drafted into the 100th Infantry Battalion at 28, he was one of the older recruits in military service. But he was already a veteran in his own right, since he had to help support his family after his father passed away unexpectedly in 1923. Takuro Fukunaga and his wife Kazue were immigrants from Japan who had moved to the Big Island. He became principal of the Kukuihaele Japanese language school, where Kazue was a teacher.
Ralph was 10 years old when his father, who had become sales manager of the Hamakua Shokai general store, died of bubonic plague. Kazue, who was pregnant at the time, moved her children to Haleiwa on Oahu, where her brother-in- law, Peter Fukunaga, had started the Waialua Garage service station-the forerunner of today’s Servco Pacific conglomerate. Ralph transferred to Waialua Grammar School, but dropped out after the seventh grade to help support his family.
“I worked full-time for my uncle as a service station boy,” recalls Ralph, who was 14 years old at the time. “I earned about $30 a month, which was higher than the pay at the plantations, who were paying about $25 … based on $1 an hour for 25 hours.”
The schedule was long-10-hour work days, six-and-a-half days a week. Meanwhile, Kazue had opened up the Fukunaga Store, a dry cleaning/notions store near the Haleiwa Gym. “We all had to pitch in and help,” Ralph says. After seven years at the service station, he was transferred to the Central Service Station, his uncle’s new business located near the present site of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Fukunaga moved to his own apartment in Honolulu and attended Honolulu Business College for three years before earning his graduation certificate. “I only paid $100 to get a lifetime tuition waiver,” he says, explaining that the business school, in need of more students, gave him an option of paying a flat sum of $100 and receiving the right to attend any class in the future, or paying the regular tuition of $5 a month.
During this period he was also appointed service manager of Easy Appliance Co., another enterprise in the growing chain of Peter Fukunaga businesses.
In June 1941, Fukunaga-who had previously served three months in the U.S. Army before being discharged because of his advanced age (28), received a notice to report to his draft board for status reclassification. At Wahiawa, he received an offer to become a civilian chauffeur for a colonel but was later turned down. From Dec. 11, 1941 until June 1942, Fukunaga was stationed at Kailua Beach as a heavy weapons carrier driver-the same duty he would be assigned to during his stint in Europe. Uncertain of when he would be shipped overseas, Fukunaga married Ethel Kurosawa, whom he had met at a dance three years earlier. “Seven of the guys in my company got married on the same day,” he says with a grin.
Without any fanfare, Fukunaga and other members of the 100th Infantry Battalion were transported by train from Schofield Barracks to a waiting ship, the S.S. Maui, which immediately embarked on a seven-day trip to Oakland. Three trains then whisked the soldiers to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, where they spent their first winter in the snow. After about a year of continuous training, the 100th finally was sent to the European battlefront.
“We first had to waterproof the jeeps for ocean travel and landings,” Fukunaga recalls. “Then we had to do a lot of night driving. There were many times when I drove over mines and they never exploded. The next day, in daylight, I could see the mines getting dug up on the same road I drove over the night before. I guess that if you’re lucky, you’re lucky. We had only two jeeps, and during the last part of the war in France, the Germans could hit us from anywhere. At Bruyeres, we had to hand-carry supplies to the mountains using handtrucks. We couldn’t see in the dark; we had to hold on to the shirts of the guys ahead of us. I could tell that it was just a matter of time before the war would end because the Germans were giving up.”
When the war ended, Fukunaga returned to work at Easy Appliance Co.-this time as manager of the jewelry department. He later retired after several years as cashier with Motor Imports, ending over 50 years with the same family umbrella corporation.
These days, Fukunaga keeps physically fit by swimming 30 minutes every day off Ala Moana Beach. Yet, one thought occasionally lingers in his mind.
Because Fukunaga was originally discharged from military service in March 1941-due to his age, 28-he was declared ineligible to receive the Pearl Harbor commemorative medal presented to other veterans of the 100th earlier this year. But Fukunaga, along with several others, not only defended Hawaii’s shores following the Dec. 7 attack like the medal recipients, but also were later drafted into the 100th Infantry Battalion.
There’s still hope that the decision to deny these men the medal they deserve will be overturned. After all, like Uncle Peter Fukunaga always told Ralph when he got frequent job assignments completely foreign to him, “You can always learn.”
This article appeared in the June 19, 1992 issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the 100th Infantry Battalion. It has been reprinted courtesy of The Hawaii Herald, Hawaii’s Japanese American Journal.