Spark Masayuki Matsunaga

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, May 1990

Overview of Spark Matsunaga’s life after his death in April 1990.

SPARK MASAYUKI MATSUNAGA (1916-1990): A spark is gone! Nay … rekindled!

The seventh grade English students at St. Andrew’s Priory School for Girls had read and discussed “The Diary of Anne Frank.” To help them better understand the ordeals that the young German-Jewish girl had written about, they were told to conduct an interview with a family member who had experienced some facet of war or who had been involved in combat, and submit a paper on it.

Darcy Nishimura interviewed a member of the 100th and this is how she closed out her paper: “(He) said something very important.

He said, ‘It is the way in which you serve your country that tells what kind of person you are.'”

Spark Matsunaga, 73, died Saturday, April 14, in Toronto where he had gone to seek treatment for the cancer that was ravaging his body. Born in Koloa, Kauai, he grew up in Hanapepe, attended the public schools on Kauai, then went on to the University of Hawaii. When war became imminent for America, he volunteered for the Army in June 1941.

He was executive officer and acting company commander of Company K, 299th Infantry Regiment, Hawaii National Guard, on Molokai at the time of Pearl Harbor. Subsequently he became part of the order that recalled the soldiers of Japanese ancestry from their various posts around the islands to Schofield Barracks where in June 1942 they were banded into the Hawaiian Infantry Provisional Battalion. The name implied that the unit was a transitory thing; surely, to give authorities time to figure out what to do with the Japanese boys in uniform. The newly created outfit did however sail out of Hawaii that same month, to Oakland. There it shed its temporary status when, as with all regular army outfits, it was given a numerical designation – 100. And so it was that Spark along with thirteen hundred others became an original member of the nonpareil 100th Infantry Battalion – the first all-Nisei combat unit in the history of the United States Army.

One could say of Sparky that he himself was par excellence. His military career spanned the gamut from university ROTC, service with the 100th where he was twice wounded in action, training officer for replacement depot commands in North Africa and Italy, instructor in combat infantry tactics and public relations officer for the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Ft. Snelling, to reserve officer (Lt Col) in the Judge Advocate General Corps, U.S. Army.

Besides the University of Hawaii where he graduated with a degree in education in 1941, he graduated with distinction (Juris Doctor) from Harvard Law School in 1951, then went on to Northwestern University Traffic Institute for the ABA course for judge and prosecutor in 1957, and the Lawyers Post Graduate Clinics in Chicago the following year. As for his legal experiences, he was admitted to the Hawaii Bar in 1952, served as assistant public prosecutor for the City and County of Honolulu, 1952-54, and was in the private practice of law until 1962.

His non-legal work experiences began on Kauai while he was still going to high school. He was a stevedore and warehouseman during the early 1930s, then bookkeeper and sales clerk in a general merchandise store in Hanapepe. He was a public school teacher but only for six months inasmuch as the war soon caught up with him. Immediately after the war, he worked in the Surplus Property Office of the Department of Interior and in the claimants’ division, War Assets Administration.

His political experience began with his election to the Territorial House of Representatives in 1954, then election to the U.S. House of Representatives for seven consecutive terms beginning 1962. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976, he had been there ever since.

His list of civic and community activities fills two pages. With respect to veterans’ affairs, a special love of his, he has served with the DAV, AJA Veterans Council, MIS Veterans Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and Order of the Purple Heart. He was president of Club 100, 1953-54. It was during this period that the club adopted the motto, “For Continuing Service.”

On this score, Andrew Matsunaga, Sparky’s younger brother by four years who runs his congressional office in the Prince Kuhio Building, says that the motto reflects, in a way, Sparky’s sincere effort at trying to live out his ideals. Andrew remembers that Sparky pushed hard for the adoption of the motto; in fact, he was its leading advocate.

“His mind was full of idealistic thoughts,” says Andy. “But in truth, a man cannot do everything he wants to do in his lifetime. Maybe he tried to spread himself a little more than he actually should have. Man’s hopes and wants are insatiable. He was a workaholic.

“I had hoped that he would have a little more time to himself; time just to lean back and relax, to look back, to see his own record of accomplishments -at least get some satisfaction out of the things he tried to do during his lifetime.”

This brief interview with Andy was held in his office in the Prince Kuhio Building on Tuesday morning, April 17, the day that Sparky’s body was flown to Hawaii on Air Force Two. Even though his mind must have been preoccupied with the ceremonies that were upcoming at the State Capitol rotunda that afternoon where Sparky’s body was to lie in state for twenty-four hours, he found time to reminisce some about the family at Hanapepe.

“Our father was a remarkable man himself. As an immigrant without any formal education, he used to practice the art of massage, acupuncture and yaito, and reset bones. He had training in the old ways, something our younger generation don’t even know about. He used to worship many gods.

“In his day, plantations had no medical, no compensation or anything like that. There was this widow with four kids. He married this hapless widow and while supporting the family raised three of his own – Sparky, a daughter, then me. He was so elated when Sparky was born. All the neighbors knew about his great love for his first-born. He carried him around, threw him in the air, played with him on the long verandah that was part of several houses joined together. The whole neighborhood used to talk about it. He was a special child. Somehow he got his father’s spirit of love in him.”

Coming back to the present – “Hawaii lost a wonderful representative of the Hawaiian lifestyle; he really loved the Hawaiian style of life.” This was evident in the Change of Guard Ceremony which began at 1:30 p.m., the start of the 24-hour vigil in the rotunda of the State Capitol. It had a distinctly Hawaiian flavor – the Hawaiian chanter waving his ti leaf as he led the casket to its place in the rotunda, the remarks by Kamaki Kanahele, the blessing by the Reverend Abraham Akaka, the presence of the Hawaiian societies in their Hawaiian regalia.

“He lived it in his personality. And I think that the nation has, lost a high caliber legislator. What he believed in was justice. Without justice, what else matters? Peace on earth, the pursuit of happiness for everyone – I think these are fundamental American assets.”

Despite his seriousness about things, there was a flip side to Sparky’s demeanor. He loved life for the joys he received out of it. Mixing it up with people, he used to crack them up with his legendary tales. The one he told, for instance, at our recent anniversary party held at the Pagoda Hotel, about the process of growing old. First, one forgets names, then faces. Soon, during visits to the urinal, one forgets to zip up the trousers. But the clincher – the one that really gives us away, that we are growing old -is when we visit the urinal and forget to unzip our trousers.

In addition to his many accomplishments, Sparky began an effort in 1981 to establish the United States Academy of Peace. As to the status of the idea, the following is quoted from the flyer distributed at the State Capitol: “The MATSUNAGA PEACE FOUNDTION, recently incorporated and made possible through the inspiration of United States Senator Spark Matsunaga, is a nonprofit public charity devoted to the support of institutions and scholars pursuing peace studies, research, and the application of conflict resolution techniques.” It goes on to ask that the Senator’s memory be honored by sending donations to the foundation at P.O. Box 1038, Honolulu 96808.

But perhaps Sparky’s greatest legacy to all of us are the thoughts outlined in his book, “The Mars Project – Journey Beyond The Cold War”, the idea of cooperation and a joint venture with the Russians into space, rather than the confrontation explicit in the pursuit of such things as Star Wars which he says are “incapable of mobilizing American ideals as a force for progressive change.” That is Sparky’s forte – mobilizing American ideals.

He backs up his ideals with the moral force of religion. He’s an Episcopalian. Andrew tells of the time early this year when Sparky was really hurting. He asked his kid brother to come to D.C. Then began a period with the three of them – Sparky, his wife, Helene, and Andrew – in vigil prayer. As they prayed together, at Walter Reed Hospital, then at home around the dinner table and at almost every waking moment, Sparky gradually regained his strength, to the point that he was finally able to return to the Senate and to vote for the first time in almost a year – not once, but four times. “And after I came back,” says Andrew, he went back to vote three more times; seven votes altogether this year. It was a certain miracle that the Lord performed for us because we prayed together.”

The way in which one serves his country tells us what kind of a person he is, Darcy Nishimura reminds us. Sparky has served his country with exceptional vigor, foresight, and distinction; his ideals will continue to carry us forward. And it is Andrew’s hope that the young people especially will come to find inspiration in those ideals.

War and peace are ends of the same rainbow. Having tasted the dregs of war, Sparky has been more than ever seeking the means to peace. There are no vague injunctions about his search; “The Mars Project” attests to that. So, as we come to a judgment of Sparky, we could say that in death his spark has been rekindled. Aloha pumehana, Sparky.