By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
A good portion, if not all, of Hawai'i's 140,000 residents of Japanese ancestry were nearly forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Secretary of the Navy John Knox called for mass internment, as did Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered it — twice.
It very well would have happened, according to historical filmmaker and author Tom Coffman, if not for a few twists of fate, and the foresight and bravery of a small network of men here in Hawai'i.
"It's something that's usually not appreciated because people didn't realize how close we came to disaster," Coffman said. "It would have been a nightmare."
Coffman wanted the story told on film before many more of the World War II generation fade away, and thus was born "The First Battle," a 57-minute documentary film on the struggle to persuade Washington that uprooting and incarcerating what amounted to 40 percent of Hawai'i's population was not necessary or prudent.
If mass internments had been forced here, as they were across the West Coast, Coffman said, Hawai'i today likely would have been a vastly different place.
"It was an essential struggle between Hawai'i being a multiracial democracy and a model of a distant military outpost of the United States," Coffman said. "In that sense, the future was up for grabs."
What's more remarkable was that those who sought to defuse fears about the loyalty of Japanese-Americans were fully aware that their actions likely would have an impact on the future of Hawai'i, and not just people of Japanese ancestry.
During that period, Shigeo Yoshida, a key figure in the film, wrote, "What the future shall be is partly for us to determine. How we in Hawaii are going to live together after the war will depend on how we live together during the war."
By the end of the war, about 1,500 people from Hawai'i spent some period of time incarcerated and/or held in internment camps. Those made up less than 1 percent of the Hawai'i territory's total population. Practically all Japanese descendants living along the West Coast, approximately 110,000 people, were sent to the camps.
At the heart of the local network of community members who sought to forestall internment here were three men — Yoshida, a Hilo-born writer and teacher; YMCA executive Hung Wai Ching; and Honolulu police Lt. John A. Burns. Yoshida and Ching were leaders in the Council for Interracial Unity, which anticipated the war between the U.S. and Japan and began discussing how best to address the situation two years before Pearl Harbor.
Two other key figures were Robert Shivers, who was appointed agent in charge of the FBI's local branch in 1939, and Charles Hemenway, a University of Hawai'i regent who befriended and served as mentor to many of the Japanese-American students on the Manoa campus.
Shivers, who was from Tennessee, sought the advice of Hemenway when he was asked to research the possibility of espionage and sabotage on the part of people of Japanese ancestry locally. Shivers wrote to his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, predicting that in the event of war, Japanese-Americans in Hawai'i would be overwhelmingly supportive of the U.S.
The Council for Interracial Unity then invited Shivers to be part of their organization.
When the war began, Hemenway was named the only citizen adviser for the martial law government. On Dec. 16, 1941, Army Gen. Delos Emmons was commander of Hawai'i's martial law government.
Within three days, Emmons had tapped Yoshida, Ching and Charles Loomis to head the Morale Section; appointed a counsel of advisers chaired by Shivers; and gave Shivers sole authority to determine which people of Japanese ancestry were to be confined. The Morale Section immediately began implementing a three-part strategy of rooting out and denouncing unfounded rumors of espionage and sabotage, urging Japanese-Americans and others to outwardly display their patriotism and pushing for affirmation of the right of Japanese-Americans to fight for the U.S.
In the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, about 400 people initially were arrested. They wound up at camps around O'ahu, the two largest of which were at Sand Island and Honouliuli on the 'Ewa plains. Some were sent to the Mainland.
Amazingly, Emmons was able to shake off the demands of mass internments by Knox, Marshall and Roosevelt.
Coffman said he believes no one tried to remove Emmons partly because of the distance between Hawai'i and Washington, and partly because Emmons was a widely respected general who, among other things, acted as an adviser to the British during the early part of the war and was one of the planners of the invasion of Midway.
"He had all of this positive influence which he basically was banking on, vouching for the Japanese community and promoting the idea of Japanese-American fighting units," Coffman said.
Emmons held the Washington brass at bay, first by arguing about the logistical difficulty of shipping tens of thousands of people and the hardship such a move would have on Hawai'i's labor force. When Roosevelt insisted, Emmons "engaged in delaying tactics" such as shipping 1,400 Japanese-Americans drafted before the war to combat training and by sending the wives and children of those interned to camps to join their husbands and fathers.
Another pivotal moment was Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to Hawai'i in early 1943, when she learned there were no documented cases of espionage or sabotage on the part of those Americans of Japanese descent here, Coffman said. Yoshida and Ching met with the first lady at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. When they were done giving their side of the story, they were told, "I think this story should be told to the president directly."
By May 1943, the president gave the OK for Japanese fighting groups. The original call was for 1,500 people from Hawai'i. They got 10,000, including a healthy share of the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a group started up at UH by Japanese-American students in order to show their loyalty. By contrast, only 1,000 people on the Mainland signed up.
Tetsuden Kashima, a University of Washington scholar and an authority on Japanese internment camps, states in the movie that it was obvious to him why there was such a stark contrast. "You treat people well, you assume that they're loyal, and you get different results," he said.
Coffman believes that the cultural stew of Hawai'i would not mix nearly as well today if the mass internments did occur and that statehood may have been delayed, if not shelved.
"You basically would have had an enormous sector of the population that had been victimized and excluded from participation in the war," he said. "And there would have been this horrible division resulting in our community and it would have endured for generations.
"Terrible wrongs are not readily forgotten."
Jonathan Okamura, an ethnic studies professor at UH-Manoa, said he believes the potential loss of labor was the primary reason the federal government did not press more strongly on the issue of mass internments in Hawai'i.
But he agrees with Coffman that Hawai'i would be a vastly different place today had they occurred, at least in terms of Japanese-Americans. "The people in the camps, not all of them would have returned to Hawai'i," he said.
On a broader scale, the blossoming of Hawai'i following the war probably would have stunted as well, Okamura said.
The increasing labor movement, unionization and the coming of age of the Democratic Party "would have been much more difficult, I believe," he said. "Haole domination would have continued for much longer because of the absence of Japanese-Americans in the labor movement and local politics."
After tomorrow's premiere of the film, the plan is to take it to the Neighbor Islands for showing in November and then run it on television's PBS network in December. From there, it is hoped the film will find a home at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, which is presenting tomorrow's premiere.
Eventually, Coffman wants to see it distributed to schools, along with lesson plans and instructional guides developed by the center, as part of a Japanese-American history curriculum. The film also can be purchased online at www.thefirstbattle.com.
The key lesson to be learned from the movie, Coffman said, can be taken from the playbook of the Moral Section that was so instrumental during the struggle.
"At the core of everything, we have to work together and we have to look out for one another," Coffman said. "And in crisis, we're tested as to whether we can do that."
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at firstname.lastname@example.org.