Heaven Can Wait

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, September – October 1979, vol. 33 no. 5

Interview with Reverend Hiro Higuchi, Chaplain, 2nd Battalion, 100/442 Regimental Combat Team, about his experiences as a Chaplain during World War II

1944. The last week of October. The Battle of the Vosges Mountains. Fighting its way from Bruyeres to Biffontaine, the 100/442 Regimental Combat Team had been pulled back for a period of rest after three days on the line. But rest was not to be. For at 2 a.m., a call came in to regimental headquarters to move out right away to help rescue a beleaguered battalion of the 141st Infantry which was surrounded by the Germans in the forests two miles east of Biffontaine – the “Lost Battalion” of the 36th Division.

For his part, Chaplain Hiro Higuchi assembled the entire battalion in a big barn and held a brief prayer service for the men before they moved out. After the service, one of them came to him and said, “You know, Chaplain, up to this moment, all the time, you’ve been talking about helping others – helping the poor, doing missionary-type work, carrying the flag for peace, so to speak . … ”

Higuchi stiffened imperceptibly. For, in the instant of the young man’s searching introduction, his mind flashed back to the early days of his servitude for the glory of Christ. Higuchi had been brought up in the lean and depressive years of the 1920s and 1930s when the poor could not have been poorer; when a coin, even of the smallest denomination, was to be treasured; when the poor of the Leeward areas on Oahu could not afford to spend even a quarter upon themselves, much less upon their kids, for a trip into Honolulu. It was a time when, even for Christians, the survival needs far outweighed their godly concerns; when human relationships were more on a lateral, or horizontal basis, which is to say that there was very little emphasis upon the vertical relationship – that relationship of man to his God.

There he stood, in his GI helmet and GI clothes, his rifle; all his worldly possessions. The young GI continued: “Chaplain, now I’m not concerned in the man-to-man relationship, brotherhood, all that kind of stuff. I’m interested in the vertical. What is God to me? What am I to God?”

In the cold of that Friday morning, the 27th of October, Higuchi thought back to a world halfway around the globe from where he stood at the moment … to a world in which the overriding gospel had been social rather than personal. And as he stood there, confronted by one of his own fellow men, he realized that he did not have an answer for him; a kin who was to subsequently fall in battle.

Reverend Higuchi recalled this incident at dinner one evening recently at his home on Halawa Heights. There were the four of us – he and Hisako, my wife Gloria and I. The home sits just below Camp Smith. The view from on high sweeps the area from the top of Aliamanu to Pearl Harbor below to the Waianae Range off to the right. Supper was charcoal-broiled steak, taape (a fish) wrapped in foil and oven-baked, and the trimmings including a bottle of Taylor’s white wine.

“What is God to me? What am I to God?” Looking deeply into his empty glass of wine, Reverend Higuchi asked the question of himself. “Well, I suppose I gave the young man some kind of an answer; I really can’t recall what I said then. But I’ve thought about that incident a lot. So when I came back to Hawaii (in 1946), I told the General Secretary of the Hawaiian Board of Missions that I wanted to resign the ministry.” “Why?” the secretary wanted to know.

I said, “Not only for myself, but everybody else. When it came to the critical moment – what am I to God, what is God to me – we weren’t preaching that. We were talking more about missionaries, sending them to Africa, to the South Pacific, to other parts of the world, picking up money for mission work. All horizontal relationships. And there wasn’t a moment when I gave thought to the vertical in my ministry. That is why I want to resign.” But Higuchi didn’t . . . not yet, anyway. Instead, he went to work for the VA (Kanemi Kanazawa was his boss there).

“Then I went to talk to Reverend Galen Weaver of the Church of the Crossroads about my problem. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you give the ministry a chance. Why don’t you go back and study and rethink the whole thing.’ So I went back to the Waipahu Church and because there was no church building, we started to build the first increment, a social hall.” That was in 1948.

Higuchi continued: “Besides being the religious leader, I was also the YMCA secretary. So I had all kinds of things going for the kids, 12 year olds. With two other leaders, we’d take 300 of them, for instance, to Nuuanu Y for a swim, then to Kress’s because that was the only big store around at that time. And I never lost a boy! I had 800 kids from the Leeward area and only a few of them had ever been to Honolulu. That was the period of my reawakening, you might say, to the GI’s question of his relationship to God.”

Waipahu has played a big part in Hiro Higuchi’s life. When the present membership of the Waipahu Community Church decided to build a sanctuary rather than continue holding worship services in the social hall built many years ago, they called upon Higuchi again to plan and lead the construction program. So, despite having retired from the active ministry in 1970, Higuchi once again responded to the call. Thus it was that last year, in the windup phases of building the sanctuary, he called upon his former members of the Manoa Valley Church to come over and give Waipahu a hand. I was part of the Manoa group. There, in between weeding the hilahila and other weeds on the sanctuary grounds, he first told me about the one and only time that he had heard the voice of God.

“After I finished Waipahu in 1950, I went back to seminary, to the graduate school of theology in Oberlin College (Ohio) for two years, with plans to return to Waipahu. While at Oberlin, I received a letter from Dr. Leslie Duns tan, General Secretary of the Hawaiian Board of Missions (predecessor to the current Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ). He asked me whether I would go to Waimea, Kauai, to take over the church there. I had been to Waimea, visited there after my return from the war. One big store, a couple of markets, one movie house, a couple of saimin stands. Waimea, to me, was the end of civilization! You die there! So I said no to Dr. Dunstan.”

One of the primary functions of a minister is to take care of the dying and the dead. But a chaplain often becomes intimately wound up with the dead. Like the time, Higuchi says, when the 100/442 was in the Arno River campaign, near Florence. “One of the F Company boys got killed but his body lay on the other side of the river, in enemy held territory. So the company commander asked his men for volunteers to recover the body. It was at this point that I happened to walk into the gathering. As a chaplain, I immediately raised my hand. At that, four others also volunteered. So then I went to the Engineers and asked for a mine sweeper. They assigned a recently arrived kotonk to my group. This was to be his first trip into the field.

“My helmet and clothing were conspicuously marked with the distinctive Red Cross emblem. I also carried a large Red Cross flag. The group crossed the river and I was scared as we moved out. I kept waving the Red Cross flag as we moved forward. Then suddenly, it dawned on me that I was leading the group . . . where’s the engineer who should be sweeping the path ahead of us? I looked back. There was this kotonk, the last man in line, swinging his mine sweeper back and forth – across the path we had just trod! I nearly cried!

“Well, anyway, we finally got to the body. I tied a rope to it and from about a hundred yards away pulled on the body. There was no explosion. We then picked up the body and brought it back.”

Why the rope test? By then, everyone had heard of the unfortunate experience of the 100th under similar circumstances. Earlier, near Rome, an A Company group had gone to retrieve a dead lieutenant’s body. But the Germans had planted a booby trap, a mine, under the body so that when the group lifted the body to carry it away, they were blasted by the mine planted underneath the body. The story of Tamotsu Shimizu who lost his left arm in that incident and whose body today still carries dozens of pieces of shrapnel from that blast is told in the April 1979 issue of the Puka-Puka Parade under the title “An X-ray Of One Man’s Spirit.”

To continue with Higuchi’s touch with God: “At Oberlin, I used to go to chapel every morning. Now, this was the winter of 1951, about January or February. I trudged through the snow and went to the chapel as I usually do and knelt down to pray.

“And this is so real to me! Somebody’s talking to me! It was the voice of God! The voice said: ‘Up to now, you’ve been running your own life. You’ve, had a good time, you did what you wanted to do, you made many mistakes, but also did some good. But now, from here on in, I want you to leave your life to me!

“Then the clincher: ‘Go to Waimea!’ the voice said.”

Higuchi was shaken. He went home and told Hisako of the encounter and said that he was going to call Dr. Dunstan to tell him that he was going to Waimea.

Waimea, of all places! Why? Hisako was in thorough agreement with Hiro that Waimea was the end of civilization. And who would see to it their young son, Peter, would go to Punahou? Besides, everything was set for their return to Waipahu so why not return there? But Hiro was determined. So in 1952, after completion of his studies, the Higuchis went to Waimea.

“Those years I spent in Waimea were the happiest years of my life!” declares Hiro. His face beams when he talks of having built the swimming pool there. Because there are no good swimming beaches around, the town had long been wanting to build a swimming pool and was waiting for money to be made available through the sale of some Japanese school property. But the money was subsequently diverted for scholarships. So Higuchi said to the townspeople, “Why don’t we build one anyway?” He had a hard time convincing them that it could be done but they finally approved. With the help of donated labor and materials, a pool estimated to cost $115,000 was built for $28,000!

Why were the years in Waimea his happiest? “The people were so nice and friendly,” Higuchi exclaims. Meanwhile, the church membership rose, from 35 to 160, which added to his happiness. But surely, there must be more to it than that?

One day while, passing through the town of Lihue, he was stopped by a cop who said that Governor Sam King was trying to get hold of him. So Higuchi went to a phone and called the governor who asked him to establish a prison ministry in Oahu Prison. The governor went, on to explain that funds were not available for a ministerial position so Higuchi would be filling an educational officer’s slot. Higuchi said OK but it would have to wait until he finished his Waimea ministry. That is how the first prison chaplaincy came to be established in 1955.

Recently, I had been rereading some of the stories of William Faulkner. “The Sound And The Fury”, for instance, which he wrote 50 years ago is recognized as probably the most outstanding piece of story-telling in American literature. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, Faulkner said that the award was in recognition of a “life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. It is (the writer’s) privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

To help man endure by lifting his heart . . . for almost all of his adult life, Hiro Higuchi has been engaged in something along that line, concentrating on youngsters, for instance, then taking care of their spiritual needs as they grew to manhood; providing leadership to groups so they could build their own churches or other edifices; and generally serving the community in a multitude of capacities.

As for the experience of war, his spirit sonared [sic]. Higuchi volunteered for the army because he could not remain behind while all his young charges went marching off to war. But then his spirit took a downturn; afterwards, he wanted to resign from the ministry. But he did not, for which we who have felt his hand and his heart are a bit better off.

“I never wanted to go into the ministry in the first place,” he says, “after having seen what can happen to a minister’s family.” There were eight children in the Higuchi family in Hilo. The father’s name had been stricken off the family’s scroll in Japan when he became a Christian minister in Hawaii (his name was subsequently restored when Higuchi’s grandfather in Japan became an Episcopalean) [sic]; a father often characterized as the “St. Francis of Hilo” but who paid little attention to the needs of his own family to the extent that Hiro feels that the death of two of his younger brothers is partly attributable to malnutrition brought about by his father’s neglect even as he saved the lives of others.

Why were the years in Waimea his happiest? As with Faulkner’s ideal, Hiro is always at his best when he is creating something which did not exist before. He says that he is not the preacher type; why should he be telling others about conduct when he is not sure of his own? But one thing he admits to – if he has any kind of a gift, it is his ability to get along with anyone, with everybody – whether they be to the right or the left or middle; whether Christian, Jew, Fundamentalist or Liberal, or whatever. There are many roads to God, he says; we are all being led by God and each is entitled to his own belief.

“Take Lazarus, for instance,” says Hiro, “he who was raised from the dead by Christ. Whether one believes in the miracle or not is not important. The important thing to keep in mind is that the story signifies the resurrection of life: belief in resurrection is what matters. The same goes for the Virgin Birth. Whether one believes in the Birth or not is not of significance. The event signifies that God was in Christ and this is the belief that is fundamental to the Christian.”

Hiro continues. “If I had to do my life all over again, this is where I would start, by establishing a firm relationship with God, a vertical relationship.”

So to the question of happiness in Waimea, it appears that Waimea was a kind of denouement; in a place which Higuchi once characterized as being the end of civilization, a place to die, it is here that the voice of God led him . . . and to the realization that perhaps he was worth something to man.

But a measure of happiness is suffering. “Ministers are as human as anyone else,” Higuchi says. “They have the same human frailties as everyone else. But perhaps they suffer more.” Ministers are like transmitters; they pick up the sufferings of those whom they serve. And in Higuchi’s case, it is also personal for, over the years, he has had a bout with cancer which took away his colon (it takes him an hour-and-a-half each morning to clean out his colostomy) and through slips and falls has fractured his backbone (twice) and broken an ankle (once). Hisako has had her tribulations, too. She’s had her bout with lung cancer, a hysterectomy, gall bladder removed, the big artery on her right leg removed, and has serious cataract problems. Hiro’s bald; has an upper plate; is deaf in his right ear.

Hisako is deaf in her left ear. Of the deafness of both, Hiro says it’s a blessing at times, especially when he’s driving and Hisako’s sitting next to him, meaning he can shut her off at will! But it is an advantage which Hisako can also claim!

His brother Etsuwo, 76, to whom he was very close died last December in Hilo of a heart attack. And early this year, he learned through friends that his sister, Kazuko, who had been a volunteer art curator at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (she had been art curator at Princeton University and at the Philadelphia Museum) had returned to her former post at Princeton and that the reason for her return was that she was ill. When Hiro wrote to her as to why she had not informed him of her illness, she replied that he had enough troubles of his own and that she did not wish to burden him with hers. But he sent for her; she came home in May to live with Hiro and Hisako. Then she had to be hospitalized. She died of cancer last month.

How is a man supposed to react to all this? Hiro Higuchi continues to display a remarkable degree of the unfailing spirit of man. In fact, he seems to be taunting the angels in heaven to come and get him; if “they don’t, they will have to wait a little longer, and maybe much longer . . . for, tomorrow, someone may be coming around to ask for his help in building yet another church, or embark on another mission for mankind. Many have ventured that Higuchi’s reputation as the number one church builder in Hawaii comes from his love of building churches. “No, that’s not it,” he says. “I build a church because it is needed.”

The need was there in 1934 when he started the Junior Church of Ewa, Waipahu and Pearl City. Then as the juniors grew up, he started to build worship centers for the adults. Between the years 1938 through 1955, with a break for the war years, he started the Waipahu Community Church building program, the Ewa Church, then the Pearl City Church. He also built the Manoa Valley Church in 1967.

Hiro Higuchi is 72 today. How much time is there ahead for him? For one who has already gone through and survived the vicissitudes of several lifetimes, it seems that he is forever pulling his rank on the angels.

And not surprising . . . for even here on earth, Higuchi has been accused of pulling rank; he of all people. He tells of the time when the 100/442 was in Nice (sometime after the combat team had rescued the Lost Battalion) in a phase of war appropriately dubbed “The Champagne Campaign.” One of the GIs from Company G had gone to his commanding officer to ask permission to marry this French girl because she had told him that she was pregnant. The CO called in Chaplain Higuchi who, when given the circumstances, told the GI to forget the whole thing because they had been in the area only three weeks. And to the CO’s suggestion that an investigation be conducted nevertheless, Higuchi recommended against that also.

Then he got a call from the battalion commander proposing an investigation but Higuchi managed to nix that one also. But when the regimental commander asked him to conduct an investigation, all he could reply was, “Yes, sir!”

The GI told Higuchi that he had met the girl in Room 206 of the Hotel Habatique. Dutifully, Higuchi went there and as he suspected, there was a line of GIs outside Room 206. So he proceeded to the head of the line and knocked on the

door. And even as he did so came a voice from somewhere in that waiting line, for all to hear – “There goes the chaplain, pulling his rank again!”

Again! Flustered though he was by that call, he went in, undaunted. There were a number of girls present. He asked for the one in question, then sat down beside her to discuss her charges. At that, one of the other girls came to sit on the other side of him and kept roaming her hands up and down his body! But he managed to overcome the unministerial ministrations, completed the interview, then submitted his findings to the regimental commander absolving the GI of the charges.

To this day, Higuchi would still like to find the guy who made that remark about him pulling his rank. And that charge – again! – makes him wonder how chaplains do survive. Chaplains are human? Maybe Higuchi is wrong!

Chaplain Higuchi was assigned to the 100th (the first battalion of the 100/442 Regiment) towards the end of the war, during the time when Mits Fukuda was commander of the 100th. He says his proudest moment in his life came in 1975 when the Club 100 made him an honorary member. To which we of the Club 100 say Amen because we are proud of him, too.