Earl Finch

Hattiesburg to Honolulu

“They just didn’t understand, that’s all. They were good people. I felt sorry for them. Their way of life had long gone, but they didn’t know it. They still clung to the long dead past. I was often asked why I did what I did. I was accused of being a homosexual, a draft dodger. Name it, and I was labeled. I guess I felt that those boys at Camp Shelby needed a friend. They were Americans, away from home. I had no ulterior motives. I just liked them, that’s all.”
— Earl M. Finch

Not everyone was a fan of Earl Finch. When he first offered his friendship to the Hawaii soldiers, neighbors called him a “Jap lover.” The military authorities at Camp Shelby thought he might be a Japanese spy relaying messages to Emperor Hirohito. Even Hawaii officials suspected Finch of being a con artist trying to swindle young soldiers of their money. Finch was repeatedly investigated by military intelligence and the FBI. Although he was cleared of any wrongdoing, he continued to receive threats.

By the end of the war, the soldiers’ sacrifices in battle had won them the respect of the Hattiesburg community. Partially exonerated, Finch could have remained in his hometown. But he had few friends in town and business at his store and bowling alley, both of which relied on the patronage of soldiers from Camp Shelby, was slowing down. In addition, he found himself in Hattiesburg less and less, because his “boys” were scattered across the nation in hospitals and various military installations. Most had returned to live in Hawaii and California.

While he wanted to live to Hawaii, Earl was reluctant to do so because it would give the appearance that he was exploiting his relationship with his Nisei friends. However, in 1949, the 34-year-old Finch, who could not afford to retire, made the decision to move to Hawaii anyway. He joined 442nd veterans Harold Watanabe and Ken Okamoto in forming the Asiatic Trading Company, a modest enterprise which imported candy to Hawaii and exported aloha shirts to the mainland.

Finch often used his business as an opportunity to meet with his Nisei friends throughout the territory. Four or five times a year he would deliver candies to clients on Kauai and then take a few days off to fish at Nukulii Beach, near the present Outrigger Hotel. “We would make a big camp fire and roast lobsters and fish. He used to eat with us. He never used to drink but would buy all the beer,” remembered Hawaii Democratic Party organizer and 442nd veteran, Turk Tokita.

In January 1950, Finch toured the mainland on behalf of the 442nd Veterans Club and convinced some 150 Nisei in 30 states to attend the unit’s 10th reunion in Honolulu. Finch was named grand marshal of the parade and honorary chairman of the celebration held between July 14-20, 1953.

It was a watershed event for Finch, who would increasingly find that his “boys” no longer needed him. A decade after their initial meeting in Hattiesburg, the Nisei had grown up and started families of their own. They had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights and educated themselves to become pioneers in academics, law and business. As Finch himself had hoped, the men of the 100th/442nd were poised to take their rightful place in Hawaii’s society.

Aloha, Earl

In August 1965, Finch died of a heart attack. His big, generous heart, which had given so much to so many, failed him after only 49 years. The 442nd Veterans Club handled all the funeral arrangements, and more than 300 friends attended a Central Union Church service conducted by former 100th chaplain Israel Yost and 442nd chaplains Masao Yamada and Hiro Higuchi.

A telegram was read from Senator Daniel K. Inouye who was in Washington, D.C. and unable to attend the funeral. Inouye recalled his arrival at the Hattiesburg train station in 1943, as a 17-year-old member of the 442nd:

“Ringing in the men’s ears were epithets they had heard along the way — dirty Jap. Many were still suffering from the barbs of discrimination and war hysteria.

In the back of the crowd at the station was a white man. Everyone saw him. He was standing up and waving his hat and shouting, ‘Welcome, welcome.’

The man was Earl M. Finch. He soon became known to the Nisei soldiers as the ‘One Man USO’…..

Here was a man who started his one-man civil rights movement 22 1/2 years ago without fanfare, without demonstrations, without violence. And I think in many ways he was successful. We thank God that Earl Finch was there to greet us in Mississippi.”

Finch was buried at Diamond Head Memorial Park on August 25, 1965. His headstone, a simple bronze plaque, only lists his name and the dates of his birth and death. Missing are his countless acts of kindness and the thousands of lives that he touched. But Earl Finch, who just wanted to be a good friend, would have had it no other way.

by Mark Santoki

Mark Santoki graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in American Studies and was formerly an editor at the Hawaii Herald.  He is the Communications and Community Relations Officer for the State of Hawaii Judiciary.