Isle families trace ties to '39 Pineapple Bowl
By Lee Cataluna
The story is almost too big for Hollywood. It involves a legendary film director, an exotic setting, football heroes, a chance meeting that leads to love; even World War II is part of the plot.
All these divergent elements come together in one man, who at 63, is just now learning of his provenance.
It started with a UH football game, when Hawai'i was still a territory and much of the Mainland was still segregated.
Seventy-one years ago, the UCLA Bruins football team boarded the ship Matsonia for a 4 1/4-day trip to O'ahu to play the University of Hawai'i.
On coach Bill Spalding's team were Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, two of the first African-American athletes who would go on to integrate the National Football League. Jackie Robinson, who would integrate professional baseball, joined the team later that fall.
Also playing for UCLA were two brothers from Hawai'i, Francis and Conkling Wai.
The Wai boys, as everyone called them, were close friends of Washington and Strode. Though the team was the most diverse in the country, there was still discrimination in daily life, and the Hawaiian-Chinese-Caucasian Wai brothers banded together with their African-American teammates in a kind of shared outsiderness.
Playing for the University of Hawai'i team was the great Tommy Kaulukukui, the Rainbows' first All American. The coach was Otto Klum, for whom Klum gym was later named.
The "Pineapple Bowl" was played on Monday, Jan. 2, 1939. According to The Advertiser's story the next day, 18,000 people came out to Honolulu Stadium (not yet called the Termite Palace) to watch the game. It was a blowout. UCLA won 32-7. But Advertiser sports editor Red McQueen wrote:
"The score in no way indicates the closeness of the battle. Hardly a match physically for the towering invaders and frontiersmen, the plucky Rainbows remained a constant threat with their fast-breaking plays and devastating serious bombardment. From whistle to gun, it was a thrilling battle, one that will long remain in the memory of the fans."
The game was special to Kim Wai, the boys' father. The boys had to make their own money to buy passage to the West Coast, so the assumption was that they would not come home until they finished college. But this trip was paid for by UCLA, so it was a grand homecoming for Wai's two oldest sons.
The story goes, though, that sending talented Hawai'i athletes to Mainland colleges was frowned upon, and that UH planned its revenge, which got Strode angry.
"On the first play of the game, they ... lost Conkling Wai, who received a painful injury to his nose that forced him to retire for the afternoon. A short time later, the other of the two local Wai brothers, Francis, went out of the game with an old shoulder injury, never to return.
"Midway in the second period, Woodrow Wilson Strode, stellar visiting end, was chased from the field and the Uclans penalized half the distance to the goal for using his dukes too freely."
Kalaeloa Strode always knew that his parents met at a lū'au when his father came to Hawai'i to play in a football game, but he wasn't sure where the lū'au was held and he didn't know the Wai family was so prominent in the story.
He had heard the story many times while growing up, but he had never heard it told by the Wai family.
"My father always thought the Wai boys' father was a wealthy businessman and he hosted the lū'au for the team," Strode said.
Lambert Wai, 89, laughs at the idea of his father as a rich man. "Oh no! My father wasn't wealthy. But he had rich friends."
One of Kim Wai's rich friends was Advertiser sports editor McQueen, who hosted the lū'au for the UCLA team at his beachfront home in Kāhala.
The Kalaeloa sisters were hired to dance hula as part of the evening's entertainment. Luana Kalaeloa spotted handsome, muscular Woody Strode and set her sights on him.
"My mother always said she thought he looked like Kamehameha," Strode said. At the end of the evening, the dancers had the custom of giving away the leis they were wearing. "Her sister was aiming for him but my mother got to him first and put her lei around his neck."
The football team was to sail out of Honolulu on Jan. 6, 1939.
Luana Kalaeloa was late to the pier to see them off. When she finally got there, she saw Woody Strode with a bunch of leis from other girls around his neck.
"She took all the leis off him and threw them into the water. Then she put her lei around his neck," Strode said. She lingered and they talked until the boat was leaving and the gangplank was raised. "My dad was getting nervous, but my mom wouldn't leave, saying 'Promise me we'll see each other again.' When he finally said, 'I promise', she said, 'That's all I wanted' and dove off the boat and swam to the pier."
Four years later, they met by chance again.
Luana Kalaeloa had moved to Hollywood, where she was performing in a Hawai'i-themed night club show.
One night, Woody Strode walked into the club, and Luana recognized him instantly.
She jumped off the stage, went up to him and asked, "Remember me?"
Six months later they were married in Las Vegas in a union that broke barriers. Woody Strode was African American and Native American, Luana Kalaeloa was pure Hawaiian. They always said theirs may have been the first interracial marriage in Las Vegas. That was in 1940.
Woody Strode was drafted into World War II, and Kalaeloa, a true baby boomer, was born in 1946 when his father came home.
At one point, all four Wai brothers, Francis, Conkling, Robert and Lambert, lived in Los Angeles together, sharing a room the size of a two-car garage.
Lambert is the youngest. He was still in school at Punahou when that infamous 1939 Pineapple Bowl was played. Lambert attended Santa Monica Junior College and was set to transfer to UCLA. But then Pearl Harbor was bombed, and he had to come home. Brother Robert Wai, who is about to turn 91, also played for UCLA.
In those college days, the brothers got by on what little money they could earn. Lambert remembers cleaning the schoolyard, cleaning the clubhouse, cleaning the gym.
"At Christmas, my father sent $100. That was for the four of us, and that was the only money we got for the whole year," Lambert said.
Woody Strode was a frequent guest in the Wai brothers' close quarters.
"We invited him to our house because he loved music. We would sneak in beer on the side," Robert Wai said.
Strode nods hearing this about his father. Sounds just like him.
"My dad loved to sing," he said. "He would play guitar. After a few drinks, he would go into a falsetto."
The Wai boys knew Woody Strode and Luana Kalaeloa before they ever met each other.
They knew Woody Strode before he became a movie star.
And they knew John Ford before he started making movies with Woody Strode.
The other common thread running through this epic is legendary Hollywood filmmaker John Ford, the man Orson Welles called the greatest American director. Ford won six Academy Awards and directed classics such as "The Grapes of Wrath," "Stagecoach," "How Green Was My Valley" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Val-ance."
The Wai brothers' father was having drinks with friends on Waikīkī Beach when he saw a lonely figure wander past on the sand. Kim Wai called out to the man and invited him to have a drink.
John Ford accepted the invitation and a deep bond between the families was forged.
Later, when the Wai boys lived in Los Angeles, John Ford looked out for them, even sending his Rolls Royce and chauffeur to take them around.
When Ford's son attended Punahou, he lived in the Wai house. Ford's daughter also went to Punahou, and she was a friend of Luana Kalaeloa.
"I'm still in touch with John Ford's grandson almost daily," Lambert says.
Woody Strode acted in many of John Ford's movies, including starring in the title role in the film "Sergeant Rutledge." More than that, he was Ford's dear friend. Late in his career, Ford was injured in a fall on a movie set and Woody Strode took him in for months while he recovered.
"My dad slept on the floor at the foot of his bed," Strode said. "Every night, they would read two or three books."
All these connections, and the Wai brothers had never met Woody Strode's son.
Then Kalaeloa Strode decided to run for Congress. Though he was not a top vote-getter in yesterday's special election, a story about his campaign led Lambert Wai to contact him.
"My brothers Francis, Conkling and Robert all played football with your father and Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson," Wai wrote in his introductory e-mail. "... I and my three brothers knew your father quite well."
Wai invited Strode to lunch and said, "I am 89 and still drive and my brother Robert is 91 and he still drives."
Last Saturday, Strode took up the "younger Wai boys" on their offer. Over sandwiches and photo albums, they connected threads of the story that made up a larger-than-life tapestry.
Conkling Wai died in San Francisco 25 years ago. Francis Wai died young. He was killed in 1944 in Leyte and received a posthumous Medal of Honor. Woody Strode died in 1994.
"The last time I saw your father, John Ford was opening a home for disabled veterans in Simi Valley," Lambert Wai told Strode.
Ford died in 1973.
But Lambert and Robert Wai have long, sharp memories, and Woody Strode, Luana Kalaeloa and John Ford were memorable people.
And so the stories were passed around the table about a movie star, four brothers, a football game and the connections between people that may always be there but take a lifetime to be revealed.
"And now, I've only just met you and I'm 63," Strode said. "I've had so many untied knots in my life, and here we are."