Varsity Victory Volunteers

On the Army base, under the direction of Chinese American Lieutenant Richard Lum, Native Hawaiian former football star Tom Kaulukukui, two haole sergeants and civilian supervisor Ralph Yempuku, the young men organized themselves into work teams that painted buildings, constructed field iceboxes for combat units, dug ditches and quarried rocks. But they also participated in Army life on the base, playing respectably in basketball, football and baseball leagues and competing well in boxing tournaments. They also held their own competitions, including golf and tennis. Some of the VVV members kept up their studies with instructors brought in for special lectures and by enrolling in some courses providing college credit. Most of their interaction with the regular Army troops at Schofield was fine, although there were a few racial incidents.

Teruo Himoto recalled one humorous exchange: “One said, ‘I know when I see a Jap. . . They all get slant-eye!’ I said, ‘You dumb haole. You go in the battlefront, you never going find slant-eye Japanese. By the time you recognize, you’ll be shot.’”

The Morale Section and the military governor’s office had created the VVV not simply to make these young men feel better, however. The VVV was part of a larger strategy to secure the racial fabric of Hawaii society after the war was over, when all of the ethnic groups had to resume civil and civilian lives. To that end, it was important that the large Japanese American community — which made up almost 40 percent of Hawaii’s population at the time — be encouraged to participate in the war effort as patriotic citizens and that the other ethnic groups understand that they were to be respected as contributing neighbors. To their everlasting credit, the Morale Section and other leaders understood just how vital this goal would be.

The Varsity Victory Volunteers, as part of its war effort, not only worked on the Army base. Its members also donated blood, raised funds from their modest paychecks to purchase war bonds, helped construct furniture for preschools, and supported summer programs to keep youth involved and away from gang activity. All of these efforts were publicized by the two local daily newspapers and provided human interest stories and good “models” for behavior on the part of the beleaguered Japanese American population.

At exactly the same time, the 100th Infantry Battalion was racking up an outstanding training record at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and making good friends with the local white population there. In one memorable incident, Hawaii GIs rescued several Wisconsin natives from drowning in an icy lake. The combination of 1942 occurrences — the 100th in training and the VVV contributions — impressed leaders like first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited Hung Wai Ching to the White House to confer with her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In January 1943, the U.S. Army finally ended its official policy of discrimination and opened the Army to enlistment by Japanese Americans. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed as a result. Eventually, the 100th was incorporated into the 442nd as its 1st Battalion, although it was allowed to retain its 100th Infantry Battalion designation to honor its battlefield accomplishments.

Many of the VVV members volunteered for the 442nd; others became members of the now-famed Military Intelligence Service, rendering critical Japanese language skills to translate documents and interrogate prisoners of war. After the war, many of the VVV members used the GI Bill to attend the University of Hawaii as well as other universities, including Northwestern, the University of Chicago and law schools at Yale and Columbia.

The story of the Varsity Victory Volunteers is rich and complex. Many of the men used the experience and went on to careers in politics, law, business, social justice and labor movements, education and research and public service. Their histories, individual and collective, help tell the many stories spanning the second half of the 20th century and the legacies they have bequeathed.

by Franklin Odo

Franklin Odo, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized scholar and historian who was born and raised in Hawaii. He is the author of “No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawaii During World War II,” which was published by Temple University Press in 2004. The book details the story of the Varsity Victory Volunteers.

Dr. Odo was the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program, which was established in 1997. Odo retired from the post in January 2010. His retirement was short-lived, however. Soon thereafter, he was appointed Asian Section chief at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where he and his wife reside.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Odo directed the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is nearing completion of a book on Hole hole bushi plantation work songs which will be published by Oxford University Press.