Hapa Soldiers

For most of the Japanese soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the standard issue uniforms were uncomfortably the same. The field jackets were too baggy, the trousers too long and the boots too big. However, for some of the part- Hawaiians in the battalion, the reverse was true – they needed larger sizes. About 20 Hawaiians and Asians of other ethnicities, including those who were hapa (mixed ethnicity), were among the enlisted men of the mostly Japanese, Hawaii-based battalion. They reflected the complicated demographics of Hawaii, where European, Polynesian and Asian races and cultures had mixed for nearly a century.

In a battalion where Hawaiian names like Kaholokula and Kapuniai were intermixed during roll call with Kato, Diamond, Planas, Oba, and Goo, it was sometimes not possible to tell the ethnicity of the hapa soldiers by their names, as some of those with Hawaiian surnames were half-Japanese and others with Japanese names looked Hawaiian. For example, Goro Sumida remembers his first encounter with Sergeant William Kato whose mother was Hawaiian: “The first time I came, they said go see Sergeant Kato so I go looking for a Japanese. Then I see this tall Hawaiian who is a sergeant. I said, “that’s Kato? Who dat?”

During the first waves of the Japanese immigration in the 1880s and 1890s, there were few Japanese women, particularly on the more isolated islands beyond Oahu, where Honolulu is located. Some Japanese men joined with native Hawaiian women who became their wives and sometimes mistresses. Alvin Planas’ mother, though, was Japanese and his father Filipino.

In the case of Jesse Oba, his father Kealoha Oba was the son of an immigrant, Seiichi Oba from Ehime, Japan and a Hawaiian woman. Kealoha was the police chief of Puukolii Camp near Lahaina, Maui. He married a Hawaiian woman, Elsie Kekuewa and Jesse was the oldest of their nine children. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all the children but Jesse changed their name from Oba to Kekuewa for fear of being sent to internment camps on the mainland.

Robert Kapuniai Jr’s grandfather was an immigrant from Japan with the family name of Iwanaga. His Iwanaga grandfather and grandmother (who was also Japanese) worked as a yard man and housekeeper for Judge Issac Kapahu Kapuniai, the magistrate of Waimea, Kauai. Since the judge and his wife were childless and the Iwanagas had several children, they gave their son Tato to the couple. This was a local form of adoption called “hanai.” Tato’s name was changed to Robert Tato Fuanya Kapuniai. He lived within the Hawaiian culture and married Katie Liloa Kalema Mahalo. They would have seven children. Robert Kapuniai Jr. was the oldest.

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The Hawaii National Guard, originally called the Hawaii Territorial Guard, was federalized in October 1940 and incorporated into the Army. Earlier in the century, it was made up of primarily Caucasians, Native Hawaiians, Portuguese, Chinese, and other groups. Japanese had been discouraged from joining. But during the Depression, rules were relaxed and many Japanese joined the Guard.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, questions about the loyalty of the Japanese soldiers led to their being transferred from the 298 and 299th Infantry Regiments of the Guard to the Hawaii Provisional Infantry Battalion, formed as a segregated Japanese unit. Some of the hapa soldiers requested a transfer to the new unit as they wanted to be with their Japanese friends.

Among the soldiers in the new unit was Willie Goo.

Goo’s father ran a local grocery store in Olowalu, Maui and fell in love with Misao Kimura, one of his customers. At the time, mixed marriages were generally opposed by Japanese and Chinese immigrant families, and Goo recalls his parents saying that initially there was resistance. “The Japanese side didn’t want it.”

Goo’s Chinese father, who was born on the island of Hawaii, didn’t see why there should be a problem, but Misao’s parents were old school. “My father said (to his mother’s parents): ‘Even though we are different blood, you cut your finger there’s only one color red.’” They relented. His parents married and lived happily together. His father farmed vegetables and worked as a butcher at the Ah Fook Grocery, while his mother watched the children and helped run the family farm.

Born on July 27, 1911, Goo had five brothers and one sister. They were raised partly by his Chinese aunt Lillian and two Japanese aunts, his mother’s sisters who came to live with them on the farm. He had a typical plantation upbringing – hunting and fishing with friends of all races. He graduated in 1938 from Maui High School and went to work as a groundskeeper at the local golf course. One year later, he joined the 299th Infantry Regiment along with his close friends, Ed Nishihara who was Portuguese-Japanese and Jesse Oba who was Hawaiian-Japanese.

There was no question they looked different. Goo was 5’4″ and just over 100 pounds, while his good friend Jesse was 5′ 10″ and weighed 240 pounds. Goo remembers that no one thought much about the multi-ethnic makeup of the unit.

Goo left Maui in 1941 and was shipped with other members of the Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion, now called the 100th Infantry Battalion, to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. There he befriended James Kaholokula and his cousin Edward. James was half-Japanese. His brother Edward was full Hawaiian, but pretended to be half-Japanese so he could go along with James. No one raised any objection.

He remembers the Kaholokula brothers playing the ukulele and dancing hula in front of the troops. The presence of the Hawaiian musicians in their ranks such as the Kaholokulas and Charlie Diamond playing local songs reinforced the unique sense of place they felt as being Japanese, but part of multicultural Hawaii.

Sumida remembers the Native Hawaiian soldiers as: “ All nice guys –play cards, shoot dice. They were musicians. They played craps with us.” Once in combat, however, the smaller Japanese soldiers had to make adjustments. Sumida recalls that when the Japanese – Hawaiian Walter Gora was wounded, it took three soldiers to carry him down a hill, not two. But the soldiers of the 100th didn’t mind because these were their friends.

Goo was seriously wounded in Anzio while attacking a machine gun nest. A German mine exploded, nearly cutting off his arm and wounding his leg. He had to be carried down the hill to the aid station by German prisoners of war acting as stretcher bearers. He remembers every time they asked to take a break, the bearers purposely dropped him on the trail even though he was in great pain.

After spending a year undergoing multiple surgeries on his arm and leg on the mainland, Goo was able to return to Hawaii in 1945. When his father and mother met him at the ship, he remembers that “they didn’t say anything, they just cried.” Goo went back to work as a groundskeeper for Maui County and then got a job working for Matson Navigation Company as a shipping clerk.

In 1948 a shipping strike took place. One of the young Japanese women, Janet Yoshida, who worked in the office needed a ride. They started dating. It turned out that she was the sister of Rudy Yoshida, one of his friends from the 100th. When they wanted to get married, the same problem that Goo’s father had experienced now happened to him. He was half-Chinese. Janet Yoshida’s parents were, in his words, “old style Japanese”. But Rudy spoke up for Willie, the Yoshida parents gave in, and Willie and Janet were soon married. They have three children, all of whom have Japanese spouses.

Goo worked for Matson for 15 years as a clerk and then was laid off when the company mechanized many functions. He spent the rest of his career as a groundskeeper until he retired from Maui County.

Since the war, Goo has stayed in close contact with veterans of the100th Battalion. He feels sad each year when they hold the annual memorial service because he remembers all of his friends who are gone.

The Hawaiian-Japanese families made their own decisions after the war as to how much they were culturally Japanese. The Kapuniais, although largely Portuguese and Hawaiian, regularly ate Japanese food. Out of the five Kekuewa brothers, only Jesse’s brother Rodney chose to change his name back to Oba at war’s end. However, the Kekuewa family retained strong links to Oba cousins and relatives.

Some of the members of the 100th may have looked different, but as Goo puts it, everyone knew they were all on the same side. “We not thinking Hawaiians or Japanese or whatever. We were fighting for our country. We never thought about race.”

-by Mike Markrich

Michael Markrich is a Honolulu-based researcher, writer and editor. He and Monica Yost, the eldest child of Chaplain Israel Yost, co-edited her father’s memoirs, which were published in 2006 by the University of Hawaii Press as “Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion.” He spoke with Goro Sumida and Willie Goo in 2011.