Robert Taira: Educator & Soldier

Hawaii Herald, 12/19/86

By Ben Tamashiro

(Also republished in the Puka Puka Parades, v.41 no.1, January-March 1987)

It all began in the hot and dusty town of Kekaha, on the westernmost edge of Kauai, where Robert S. Taira was born 72 years ago. Much of Kekaha then was dominated by miles of kiawe groves and acres upon acres of sugar cane fields, which still essentially describes Kekaha today. But, in an anomaly of nature, also rising behind the town is Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” one of Hawaii’s most breathtaking natural spectacles.

When Bob was still very young, the Taira family moved to Kapaa, on the other end of the island. Then, when he was 14, they moved to Oahu. Bob was the eldest of seven children, but only he and a brother survive today. “It was tragic,” he recalls, “one died through an accident and four by illnesses.” But, perhaps, the experience of having to undergo this depth of family tragedy helped him to bear the trying moments of his combat days in WWII.

After having attended public schools on Kauai and Oahu, Taira entered Mid-Pacific Institute and the University of Hawaii, graduating in 1937 with a degree in education. He earned his fifth year teaching certificate the following year.

Having also enrolled in ROTC, Taira graduated with a commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Reserve. So it was that when Pearl Harbor was bombed, he immediately reported for duty. The recruiting officer, however, confronted him with a strange question: “You Japanese?” he asked. “Yes, sir,” Taira replied. The officer pushed a blank memo pad toward him and said, “Leave your name and phone number and we’ll call you.” He never did.

Well, if the Army didn’t want him as a reserve officer, maybe it would take him as volunteer, no matter how long the wait. Meanwhile, a group of 1,300 young men of Japanese ancestry who were already in service at the time of Pearl Harbor had been sent to the Mainland for training.

Taira finally got to volunteer when the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was organized in February 1943, and was spared from having to start his service to his country as a buck private when, in processing his papers, someone noticed his commission.

The original group of AJA soldiers, the 100th Infantry Battalion, entered combat in Italy in September 1943. As casualties mounted, the 100th was pulled out of its drive to Cassino in March, only to be moved to another nearby front, the beachhead at Anzio. It was at this time that the first replacements from the 442nd began arriving. Lt. Bob Taira was in one of these early groups, assigned to Company D, mortar platoon.

In a subsequent group came Taira’s friend and fellow graduate from the University, Lt. Edward Yoshimasu. As Yoshimasu was also assigned to the mortars of Company D, Taira saw a chance to help his friend through the ropes of combat. During a break from the front lines, Taira (always the teacher) said to Yoshimasu, “Come, I’ll show you how we do things in combat,” and led his friend to a nearby rise.

“We’ll start with the problem of estimating distances. See that little hill over there?” Yoshimasu nodded. “How far do you think it is?” Yoshimasu squinted in the direction of the target, scratched behind his ears, did some mental calculations, and said, “About 2,000 yards.”

“Aw, c’mon, Eddie. You know that’s not right. You can do better than that.”

“Well, that’s my estimate. What do you think it is?”

Looking at the target, Taira replied, “No more than 1,200.”

“You’re crazy!” shot back Yoshimasu.

Taken aback by the challenge to his combat know-how, Taira said, “Okay. Let’s see who’s the closest. We’ll ask the gunners to fire one smoke shell. You wanna set it at your range?”

“No. no,” said Yoshimasu. “You’re the expert. Set it at yours.”

Taira cranked up the field phone and gave the orders to the mortar crew waiting in the gun pit somewhere to the rear of them. Soon they heard the familiar “Boing!” as the 81mm smoke shell shot out from the gun barrel. Both were startled as it landed, nowheres near the target, but almost right in front of them, close enough to almost shake them out of their combat boots. Any closer, in fact, and it would have landed on them. The two walked off the hill. Not a word was said between them.

(For the record, let it be noted here that, in the postwar period, as both men pursued their military careers in the Hawaii Army National Guard, Taira became a battalion commander and regimental executive officer. Meanwhile, Yoshimasu rose to the rank of brigadier general in command of the whole works!)

Said Taira, “I always seemed to underestimate distances. For instance, in the Vosges Mountains…

The Allies had finally broken out of the Anzio beachhead in June
and began the pursuit of the retreating enemy. By mid-October, the 100/442 found itself in France in the battle of Bruyeres.

“It was cold and wet there in the Vosges. And scary, too. The tall trees obscured everything. The going was tough. Once, after we had taken a ridge, I was ordered to place a ring of fire around the ridge with my mortars to protect ourselves from a counterattack.

“At first, we used smoke shells to try to zero in on our perimeter, but was hard to see the smoke because of the tall trees. So I changed the shells to high explosives. Maybe we could get our bearing as to where to place this ring for fire by catching the sound of the exploding shells, but again the thick forest made the sounds barely audible.

“Calling for smoke again, I had to check with our troops in the forest whether they had seen any of the smoke bursting around. Yeah, they said, the enemy must be zeroing in on them, because one of their smoke shells had just landed among them.

`Oh no,’ I said, ‘that’s one of our shells.’”

Continuing, Taira told about how the men used to confide in him that they were scared. “Awfully scared. I talked to the boys to try to calm their fears. And I used to repeat to them the 23rd Psalm. You know, the one one about The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . I kept repeating it to myself until I had it memorized.

“I told the boys that there were lots of things beyond our control. Who knows what’s to happen next. Leave it up to God.

“And I would confess to the boys that I was equally scared, that I think I’m more scared than them. And they would react, Is that so?’ And it would make them feel good. Each lieutenant had between 50 to 60 men under him, but not all would be there. Perhaps 20 to 30, all from Hawaii. And even though we were scared, we tried not to show it.”

Taira was warming to his subject. “And talk about being scared, I’ll tell you something else,” he said. “This was during our drive to rescue the Lost Battalion. It was cold, and men were dying like flies. And one of the things affecting many of us was `trench feet.’ But it takes you out of battle.”

While the term ‘trench feet’ may not sound serious, it is synonymous with frozen feet. GIs with trench feet must be immediately evacuated to a hospital for treatment. It is a painful condition with serious consequences, and could lead to amputation.

“There was no fighting at night; it was too dark and we couldn’t see anything. And we were at a point where we were not making much progress. So one night I thought that if I took my shoes off I might get trench feet. So I took my shoes off and stuck my feet out into the cold night air. And you know what . . . Hey! My feet got stronger!”

Laughing at the recollection, Taira suddenly thought, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t put that in the story.” But trench feet is a part of war. Taking off one’s shoes is just one of the reactions to the fears and the struggles, to the sick, wounded and dying, to the uncertainty. It is as much a part of war as Taira’s trying to calm the fears of his men by reciting the 23rd Psalm. Like the smoke and sounds of battle, the emotional and the physical are part and parcel of the central problem of war.

They form the guts of the long trail, “From Pearl Harbor to the Po.”

When Robert S. Taira left for war, the question uppermost in his mother’s mind was, “Why should I lose another son?” But throughout the war, through the thousands of rounds of mortar fire that Taira had directed at the enemy during the course of the war, the only wound he received was a small injury to his hand, received during the battle to rescue the “Lost Battalion.” “All it required was a trip to the first aid station, and I was back in action,” he recalled.

But four decades later, Taira encountered danger of another kind. A year ago he underwent an operation for cancer of the colon, a procedure that he understood to require a hospital stay of about a week to 10 days. But, due to complications brought on by an infection, he had to undergo a second operation in the same area. That put him flat out of action for five weeks.

Teed off because he couldn’t get satisfactory answers as to how such infections could even occur in a modern hospital, Taira received only commiserations in response. He could not help but to develop negative feelings toward hospitals. “A long stay like that, something happens to you. Whenever I go by hospitals, I have a fear . . . a fear of hospitals, of surgeons.”

Taira had earlier gone through the agony of losing five brothers. Both parents passed away after the war. Then, two years ago, he lost his wife, Kuulei. He was in no mood to die; it was not that he had lost his courage, but simply felt that dying because of an infection contracted in a modern hospital seemed uncalled for.

“You see, my ambition, if I survived the war, was to go back to teaching and raising a family. During the war, Kuulei was on Hawaii teaching. But I wanted to teach in Honolulu, and so I started out at Farrington. But the act of leaving the Islands . . . well, horizons began to open up. And so I left teaching for better job opportunities. Instead of thinking of myself as a teacher, I began to think of something bigger. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed teaching. I enjoy teaching. But funny how things work out. Now, instead of being a retired school teacher, I’m a retired something else.”

That “something else” included some time in the federal civil service. From there, Taira moved into the business community, becoming a vice president in charge of personnel administration and on the board of directors of City Mill Company. During this period he also ventured into a number of business enterprises. Next came some of the most productive years of his life, 16 years in the state legislature representing the Pauoa-Nuuanu district.

“Unlike today’s single member district, it was a large district then. There were four of us—Dave McClung, Howard Miyake, T.C. Yim and myself. Howard was already in the legislature and I said to myself, if he can do it, I can do it, too.

“Why politics? I’ve always had a basic interest in government and community affairs. But previously, I couldn’t afford it. You don’t make money in politics. Both the Democrats and Republicans are always looking for people who would be appealing to voters. I had a lot of close friends who were members of the Democratic Party. They encouraged me, said that I had good relationships with people, that I could reach people. So I talked it over with Kuulei and my two young boys, Neal and Dennis, and they said they would support me so I wouldn’t be frustrated for the rest of my life.”

Taira first ran for state representative in 1962. After eight years in the House, Taira ran for the Senate, was elected and spent another eight years there before retiring in 1978. He then became the chief labor negotiator for the state.

Taira served as chairman of the House Education Committee for two years, during which time, with the support of Gov. John Burns, he straightforwardly tackled the problem of low pay for Hawaii school teachers. He established communication with school districts in Wisconsin, Oregon and Los Angeles, then organized a tour of these districts with other legislators. Through his efforts, teachers’ salaries were upgraded by many times more than he had received when he taught at Farrington.

In the Senate, while Taira chaired the committee on public utilities, he succeeded in getting the Public Utilities Commission established on a full-time basis. The commission is charged with the responsibility of monitoring the utility companies on behalf of the public. Taira felt that it could not fulfill its mandate on a part-time basis.

But the legislative accomplishment that is closest to his heart is the annual conference of student leaders from high schools across the state. “I was in Hilo one day during the time that I was chairman of the House Education Committee. A bunch of kids told me they were going to have a conference with representatives from different schools. All schools? No, just a few. Purpose? to ‘talk story’ about how to improve schools. And how do you pay for the conference? Oh, washing cars, selling chocolate bars, huli huli chicken, and the like.

“I thought the conference idea was good, so I asked the students what would they think if the state picked up the idea and provided the funds, but with all schools participating. They thought that was great.

“You see, the urge to get together to discuss important problems was already there among the students. As they endure these problems, we encourage them to pull their ideas together at a single conference. Instead of communications going only from top-down, the students have a chance to submit their ideas up the line to the Board of Education, the superintendent, the legislature. After all, school is for kids, not for teachers or administrators. These conferences are still taking place each year.”

Since the death of his wife, Taira visits her grave in the National Cemetery at Punchbowl about three times a week. “You know, by the way, I walk to the edge of Punchbowl, and I can see my house. When she was alive, I never used to think about cleaning house, cooking, and the like. Now that she’s not here, I’m made aware of all these things. I miss her, somebody to scold, to pick on, to praise. I tell all my friends to be good to the wife while she’s still alive.

“She understood my idiosyncracies [sic] and moods like a psychologist. Once in a while she used to grumble that I’m not showing that I love her; that I’m like samurai, always leaving her several steps behind me. But when she wants something out of me she’d be all sweetness.

“She was like a buffer between me and the two boys. As father, I prefer to be strict, but she used to say that there is more than one way to treat them. Me, I grew up in the same way as the boys, but I forgot those things.”

Taira has rebounded well from surgery. He is still an active board member with Liberty Bank, and attends all of its meetings. He even took a recent trip to Las Vegas to test himself. He returned feeling refreshed, like new.

All his life, Taira’s preferred to wait for no one. “But, lots of times when I’d find myself walking way ahead of Kuulei, she, with her sense of humor, would call out, ‘Hey, Tokyo! Wait for me!” But that’s the way Bob Taira prefers to do things, always moving ahead.