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Veterans’ History – THE LEGACY OF INCLUSION

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Tom Coffman
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Tom Coffmann. (Photos courtesy of Tom Coffman)

Writer’s Note: With the help of many people, including the sons and daughter of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, I spent 10 years researching and writing “Inclusion”. The goal was to better understand how Hawai’i prepared for World War II and how the crisis of the war was handled. Why, despite intense pressure from Washington, was there no mass evacuation of the Japanese community, unlike the mass internment on the West Coast? I researched the cooperative and often heroic wartime effort that facilitated postwar political revolution, statehood, the development of an inclusive society, and Hawaii’s contribution to the country. To mark the publication of the book, I had the honor of addressing the recent 442nd RCT Annual Dinner. Here is the speech given that evening. Mahalo everyone. —Tom Coffman

I had no intention of writing about “inclusion” as a concept. On the contrary, I was guided by the conviction that the legacy of the 100th/442nd was in fact more important than had been said. I have investigated many sides of this story, from the perspective of Hawai’i, the West Coast, and Washington DC; and also pre-war, war and post-war. I concluded that the ultimate legacy of the 100th/442nd was its contribution to building an inclusive Hawaii and an inclusive America. The legacy of the 100th/442nd is not the Japanese-American story per se. This is American history. What began as a great military force has become a great moral force.

In Hawai’i, the essential question of inclusion versus exclusion was constantly at work. Under the rule of a white-based oligarchy and the Big Five Societies, was Hawai’i to be a hierarchical, segregated backwater or was it to be a multiracial democracy? This issue was compounded by a growing crisis in the 1920s and 1930s resulting from friction between Japan and the United States. Army Intelligence, Naval Intelligence and then the FBI have all conducted investigations of the Japanese community. You can imagine the tremors of apprehension this transmitted to the immigrant generation.

Meanwhile, the evolution of the Nisei generation has unwittingly acted as a sort of counter-voice, an inclusive force. The Nisei population exploded during this period. Half of the entire public school body was Nisei. Young people met across ethnic lines, not only at schools such as the famous McKinley High School, but also at the University of Hawai’i, the YMCA, progressive churches, a pan-pacific movement, the ROTC, the National Guard and, in the last year before the war, as conscripts in the US Army.

“Inclusion.”

On the cover of my book are three of the heroes of what was called the Council for Racial Unity. Hung Wai Ching was originally a YMCA youth worker; Shigeo Yoshida was a teacher and later a school principal; Charles Hemenway was a near-life member of the UH Board of Trustees, a mentor and friend to all. They led a network of people to convince American officials that the people of Hawaii would be loyal in the event of war with Japan. They shed light on the choice of inclusion versus exclusion. They determined that if war broke out, they needed to minimize victimization of the Japanese ancestry community by maximizing the participation of all groups in the war effort, including the Japanese. Simply put, “Make friends before you need them”.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, people across mainland America panicked. Fed by an irresponsible press, they believed the great lie of their time, that through espionage and sabotage, people of Japanese descent in Hawai’i were responsible for Japan’s military success at Pearl Harbor. I devote a long chapter to the history of this phenomenon of sabotage, the scapegoat of an imaginary enemy within. One of my archival findings was that Hawaii’s Congressman Sam King was desperately trying to persuade Washington that there had been no sabotage. His campaign was supported by numerous investigative affidavits to Congress, including that of a young police captain, John A. Burns.

With this in mind, the mass internment of Japanese in the West Coast states has become even more heinous than I previously thought. The reason for this was that by the time people were actually arrested, decision makers at the highest level had realized that there had been no sabotage in Hawai’i and that there was no justification for it. internment. Nevertheless, neither the president nor his entourage had the moral courage to stop the forced evacuation.

In Hawai’i, meetings to calm people down, educate them, and engage them in the war effort multiplied by the hundreds, in every nook and cranny, in every ethnic group on every island. The balance has tipped. What started as a massive disaster has become a massive mobilization in Hawai’i. Instead of being victims of history, the people of Hawai’i have become authors of history. To be sure, there have been many injustices – insults and abuse, the denial of constitutional due process under martial law, and the wanton internment of one to two percent of the population of Japanese descent, including some were US citizens. I think the best explanation was that inclusive community attitudes and practices prevailed in the absence of good government. Despite the mood swings, inclusiveness has allowed most people to more or less stick together and move in one direction.

The main impetus for Nisei service in the military came first from the Nisei themselves and more generally from the Hawai’i community. It was the Hawaiian Army command that got to know the Nisei and pushed a reluctant Washington to form combat units. When history was on the line, it was primarily Hawaii’s young men who filled the ranks crucially — not the mainland.

The Allied army was made up of millions of soldiers of many nationalities and ethnicities, from the Free French to the Italian partisans, from Ghurka warriors to the Jews of Palestine. Where you would expect the soldiers of Hawai’i to have all but disappeared, they have risen to the top.

The phrase “most decorated” meant that they suffered the highest casualty rates. “The purplest hearts for a unit of its size” meant they were the most injured and killed, prompting discussion about whether they were sometimes treated like cannon fodder. In fact, they engaged in some battles recklessly with no regard for life, but the fact is that the 100th/442nd was thrown into the most difficult situations by commanders desperate for highly motivated troops. They were cited first by General Mark Clark, then General Eisenhower, the Undersecretary and Secretary of War, and many others as the best American soldiers in Europe.

Immediately, the 100th/442nd became the post-war exhibition to heal the national wound of internment. President Truman told them on their return, “You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you won. Keep up this fight, and we’ll keep winning – for this great Republic to stand for exactly what the Constitution says it stands for: the welfare of all the people at all times. The first battle was over, the second was beginning, and the President called on the 100th/442nd to build on their record in the name of true democracy. As a shorthand for the 100th/442nd’s early post-war legacy, I think most important is how it inspired the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces by President Truman’s executive order.

The process of change began in Hawai’i in the repeated brainstorming of a more just and democratic future. These had begun in Federal Guard units, military training camps and the Varsity Victory Volunteers. They had resulted in a flow of communication between the battlefront and the home front about what the young soldiers hoped to emerge from the war. Hung Wai Ching carried one of these letters in his breast pocket wherever he went. Hemenway was a key correspondent who consistently championed the vision of a truly democratic Hawai’i. When I interviewed Governor Burns about his extensive work on World War II, the battlefield letters stood out strongly in his memory.

In short, the Democratic revolution of the 1954 territorial elections ended a half-century of oligarchic polity, and the passage of the state in 1959 ended Hawaii’s second-class status in America.

The benefits of Hawaii’s inclusion as a state spread throughout the country. We think too much about what we receive from the federal government and too little about what we have given. Hawaiian delegations led by Senator Daniel Inouye, Senator Spark Matsunaga and Representative Patsy Mink played a pivotal role in reshaping American democracy through the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964, the voting rights, a colorblind immigration law, equal access to student sports, and the Apology and Redress Act of 1988, to name the most obvious. Hawaii is a small place in the big world, but what people have done here is not nothing.

Again, thank you and aloha.

“Inclusion” by Tom Coffman is available from Native Books, an independent bookseller located in Honolulu’s Chinatown at 1164 Nu’uanu Ave. You can also buy online at nativebookshawaii.org. Other bookstores that sell “Inclusion” are Na Mea Hawai’i, Ward Village, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., Ste. 270.; Da Shop at Kaimukï, 3565 Harding Ave.; Bookends in Kailua, 600 Kailua Rd., Ste. 126; Basically Books in Hilo, 334 Kilauea Ave.; Friends of Maui Library, E. Camp 5 Rd.; and also available for borrowing from public libraries.