Nisei Soldiers of Hawaii

Many of the bright young men who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion looked more like mild-mannered schoolteachers than soldiers. But their sheer courage in battle earned the respect and admiration of army commanders such as General Charles Ryder, who called them “the finest fighting unit I ever knew.”

Generally slight in physical stature, their feet — sometimes called “luau feet,” a reference to their barefoot youth in Hawaii — were almost always too small or too wide to fit the standard issue U.S. Army boots. Most of the men excelled in sports, baseball especially, and could speak an efficient kind of local English called “Pidgin” that most certainly left German radio receivers confused and scratching their head after listening to an intercepted transmission.

Although the men in the unit had Asian faces, there was never any question in their minds of who their enemy was: Germany and Japan. Not surprisingly, wherever the Nisei soldier traveled, whether on the Mainland or in Europe, their appearance sparked questions from townspeople and enemy troops alike: “What are you?” “Where do you come from?” “Why do you fight for America?” they were asked.

With a few exceptions — some Caucasians, Hawaiians, part-Hawaiians and Asians of other ethnicities — the  majority of the 1,432 original members of the 100th were Japanese Americans who were born and raised in Hawaii. They were the sons of Issei, or first-generation immigrants, who, hoping for a better life, had fled economically depressed Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s to answer the call of Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

With the native Hawaiian population dwindling in large numbers after Western contact, recruiting and retaining cheap labor for the sugar industry had become a problem. In the decades following the arrival of British Captain James Cook in 1778, the Hawaiian people suffered greatly from imported diseases such as measles and from social upheavals that were an inevitable result of a different values and belief system. For instance, once-shared natural resources harvested from the mountains to the sea were now considered commodities to be bought and sold. Gods of old were replaced with a strange new one with a different interpretation of life in the Islands.

In his 1985 book, “The Japanese in Hawaii: A Century of Struggle,” author Roland Kotani quotes prominent Hawaii industrialist Walter Dillingham commenting on his perception of the difference between whites and nonwhites: “When you are asked to go out in the sun and into the canebrake . . . you are subjecting the white man to something that the Good Lord did not create him to do. If He had, the people of the world, I think, would have had a white pigment of the skin, and not variegated colors.” It was a statement that indicated the point of view of many of the plantation era’s social elite.

It was into that kind of social milieu and superior-inferior attitude that the plantations imported “variegated colors” by the thousands — first Chinese immigrants, then Portuguese, Japanese and Filipino.

In 1900, the Japanese numbered just over 61,000, or about 22 percent of Hawaii’s total population of 154,000. By 1920, however, of Hawaii’s total population of 256,000, approximately 109,000, or nearly 43 percent, were Japanese.

Thus, in order to understand the Nisei soldier, it is important to understand the environment that shaped his life in Hawaii and his perspectives — the hardships his family endured and the prejudices and stereotypes with which he grew into manhood.

Like other immigrants who settled in America, the Issei held tight to the traditions and beliefs of their homeland. Those traditions gave them some measure of comfort in an oftentimes harsh new world. Their Nisei children inherited many of their parents’ traditions and tastes, such as a love for simple Japanese food, and participation in annual Obon festivals to honor the souls of deceased ancestors. Their identity, however, was unquestionably American.

Unlike the men, most of the Issei women were not in Hawaii by choice. Many were wives who had accompanied their husbands from Japan, or “picture brides” who came to Hawaii later as wives for lonely bachelors. Willing immigrants or not, the women’s contributions were enormous: working in the fields; raising children; and performing physically grueling labor from morning to night, including washing, ironing, preparing meals for not only their own families but for camp bachelors as well. The families struggled to survive under primitive living conditions, including cramped quarters, poor sanitation and lack of proper health care. Those who dreamed of returning to Japan with money lining their pockets soon realized that it would always be only a dream, for in reality there was little or no money left to save.

“Strike” became the catchword in the early 1900s as workers organized rebellions against oppression and low wages. In 1909, 7,000 Japanese workers went on strike at six Oahu plantations. By 1920, however, they realized that in order to make an impact and be successful, they needed to unite with other ethnic groups and strike as one group rather than separately.

The Nisei came of age helping their parents in the sugar or pineapple fields or on family farms and in small businesses. Some of the more entrepreneurial Issei men left plantation work to become tailors, shopkeepers, barbers, fishermen, carpenters and the like. Many emphasized the importance of education to their children, so it isn’t surprising that the Nisei took to heart the lessons in democracy that they learned in public schools. By 1920, nearly 20,000 Japanese American children were in Hawaii’s public schools — a figure that more than doubled to 41,000 by 1930.

McKinley High School in Honolulu, which many detractors referred to as “Tokyo High” because of its large Japanese student body, was a place where many Asian students were exposed to the ideals of justice, equality and democracy. But what they learned in the classroom was contradicted by what they witnessed and experienced in the real world. The Nisei saw qualified and capable nonwhites excluded from positions of power, and they heard stories of injustice — of nonwhites who were severely punished, even executed, for murdering whites, as in the 1928 case of the mentally ill Myles Fukunaga, who killed a young Caucasian boy.

And they saw contradictions, such as in the infamous Massie case of 1932. Four Caucasians — Navy Lieutenant Thomas Massie, his mother-in-law Grace Fortescue and two Navy enlisted men — were convicted of murdering a young Hawaiian man, Joseph Kahahawai, one of five nonwhite men who were accused of allegedly beating and raping Massie’s wife, Thalia. The four were defended by renowned Mainland criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Their 10-year prison sentence for murdering Kahahawai was commuted to one hour, which they “served” in the office of then-Hawaii Governor Lawrence Judd.

In spite of these inequities, the Nisei and other minorities in Hawaii were determined to become “Americanized.” Believing that America, not Japan, was their country, many Nisei saw no need to learn Japanese, the language of their parents, for they had no intention of ever living in Japan.

Still, no matter how much they tried to “be American,” no matter how well they excelled in school or how hard they worked, the Nisei were always seen as “Japanese” and second-class people.

Their lives were a daily struggle, but the Nisei found comfort in their large numbers and in the friendships they had forged in childhood. They knew each other’s families and communities. They were related by blood and marriage, through school and jobs.  Although American in identity, they were imbued with the character values of their Japan-born parents — values such as on (a debt of gratitude) and giri (a moral obligation).