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Hawaii's nisei vets were crucial in achieving statehood for Isles
Japanese-Americans' heroism in WWII eased congressional suspicions

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Bob Katayama

Robert Katayama is in the second row, second from left,
in this photo of Farrington High School volunteers who
fought in World War II. Japanese-American volunteers
were instrumental in Hawai'i's quest for statehood

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Robert Katayama still vividly remembers the day he and hundreds of other young Japanese-American men departed Hawai'i for what would be a historic display of valor and patriotism in the European theater of battle — a demonstration of national loyalty that would one day help to revive the then-territory's dream of statehood.

Just 18 years old, Katayama took his place among the group of anxious would-be soldiers as they were dropped off at the old Iwilei train station.

Each volunteer brought with him two bags loaded with clothes and other essentials, which they then had to lug to Pier 11 for boarding on the S.S. Lurline.

Family and friends crowded around trying to help with the bags and say their farewells, but military police forced them back.

"It was understood that we probably wouldn't return home," Katayama said. "But that was part of the sacrifice."

Katayama was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Within weeks, Katayama and his Japanese-American peers, most of them nisei, were mobilized as part of a movement to protect the land of their birth and silence questions of their loyalty to the United States.

Members of the University of Hawai'i ROTC had helped to guard vulnerable areas of the island immediately after the attack, but on Jan. 19, 1942, the Army discharged all Japanese-Americans from the ROTC and labeled them "enemy aliens."

Undaunted, the cadets, at the urging of community leaders, reorganized as the Varsity Victory Volunteers to help the military with repair and construction work.

A year later, the War Department announced the formation of an all-nisei combat team. An estimated 10,000 Japanese-American men from Hawai'i volunteered.

"When you're 18, your thinking is not that profound," Katayama said. "We just thought, 'OK, we'll prove our loyalty and volunteer,' knowing full well that we would probably end up in combat somewhere."

The recruits joined their Mainland counterparts in extended training at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and Camp Shelby in Mississippi before shipping off to war.

The 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team would become the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, honors earned for exemplary performance in some of the bloodiest campaigns of the war.

Approximately 14,000 Japanese-Americans served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations.
success redemptive

The success of the nisei soldiers proved redemptive not just for Japanese-Americans, whose World War II experience was characterized by forced internment, government investigation and broad discrimination, but for Hawai'i, whose ongoing bid for statehood was stalled by southern legislators suspicious of the territory's nonwhite majority.

The drive for statehood began almost as soon as the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown. Robert Wilcox, the territory's first congressional delegate, was elected on a pledge to advocate statehood for Hawai'i. In 1919, Prince Kuhio Kalaniana'ole introduced the first Hawaiian statehood bill to Congress, which referred it to a committee to study.

The movement picked up momentum in the late 1930s, culminating in a territorial plebiscite in which 67 percent of Hawai'i voters expressed their support for joining the union.

But the attack on Pearl Harbor effectively quashed the drive as Hawai'i's large Japanese population — nearly 40 percent of the total population at the time — raised the collective eyebrow of already suspicious lawmakers in Washington.

After the war, Southern Democrats in particular continued to question the wisdom of admitting a territory with a large immigrant population and an active labor movement then suspected of communist sympathies.

Yet, the meritorious service of the 100th Battalion/442nd quelled immediate fears of subversion within the territory and, just as importantly, provided a springboard for returning nisei soldiers who would go on to hold influential positions in the local government and community.

Four months after the end of World War II, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes endorsed Hawai'i statehood as the official position of the Department of the Interior. A month later, the U.S. House Committee on Territories began 11 days of hearings on Hawai'i statehood, the first since 1937.

As the statehood movement got back on track, Katayama and thousands of other returning soldiers turned their attention to resuming their education with the help of the GI Bill.

Katayama would go on to graduate from the University of Hawai'i, complete a law degree from Yale and earn a commission as an Army officer with the Judge Advocate General.

"We understood that education was our ticket to making it in life," Katayama said. "And it was available to us through the GI Bill."
war hero status

While Katayama remained on the Mainland, others, like future U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, would parlay their education and their status as war heroes to make an impact on local and national politics.

The veterans made their most indelible imprint on Hawai'i politics in the so-called Democratic Revolution of 1954.

Japanese-Americans were already firmly established in the Territorial House and Senate, but most were part of the Republican majority. With a new round of elections on the horizon, the Democrats identified, though perhaps not in any concerted way, the advantage of recruiting the nisei veterans.

"What strikes me is how haphazard the whole thing was," said Tom Coffman, a historian, filmmaker and author of "The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawai'i."

"(Future territorial delegate and Hawai'i Gov. John) Burns was put in charge of recruiting them because no one else had time," he said. "It had kind of an off-hand quality to it. But the Democrats got the war veterans and that swung a lot of Republican voters to the Democrat side, and a lot of Japanese Republicans were voted out of office."

The shift in power would ultimately establish Democratic control of the Legislature for the rest of the century.

In that 1954 election, the Territorial House of Representatives went from 11 Democrats and 19 Republicans to 22 Democrats and eight Republicans; the Territorial Senate went from seven Democrats and eight Republicans to nine Democrats and six Republicans.
overnight revolution

Among the new faces in the Legislature were future U.S. Sens. Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, as well as future Gov. George Ariyoshi.

The overnight revolution reflected not just the influence of the nisei war veterans coming of political age, but a broad dissatisfaction with a plantation economy still controlled by the de facto oligarchy of Big 5 companies.

Yet, the new Democrat-controlled Legislature was still handcuffed by the veto power of the presidentially appointed Republican governor. It was a situation that was not likely to change unless Hawai'i became a state, empowering residents to elect their own governor.

That was just one of many considerations that drove the statehood movement over the next five years.

Japanese-Americans, still stinging from their experiences during the war, were among the most vocal in pushing for statehood.

"They had been put through a terrible ordeal, had been subjected to a lot of scrutiny and criticism and some level of discrimination since they first arrived (in Hawai'i)," Coffman said. "During the war, they were threatened with internment, threatened with losing everything they had. They were subjected to investigation and were pressured enormously to serve in military units that were put into really brutal, prolonged combat situations.

"What happened was a quiet version of 'never again,' " he said. "They wanted to get their constitutional rights secured. They didn't want to be considered second-class anymore."

Matsunaga expressed what was a widely held position for Japanese-Americans and other territorial citizens in an oral history recorded by the Smithsonian Institution: "We were born on American soil, consequently, under the Constitution, we were Americans by birth. Of course we couldn't vote for the president because we were not a state. We had no representation in the Congress of the United States, so after the war we thought we should be recognized fully and full recognition would mean making Hawai'i a state of the Union."

By the late 1950s, the issue of Japanese-American loyalty had largely been put aside. More pressing to the issue of statehood, Coffman said, were the interrelated issues of the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War perception of the U.S. as a racist nation.

"Eisenhower was refreshingly candid about how Hawai'i (statehood) could improve the American image in the world," Coffman said.

Southern Democrats worried that Hawai'i inclusion would shift the balance of power in Congress, paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

"Statehood for Hawai'i was framed as a civil rights issue," said UH ethnic studies professor Jonathan Okamura. "The Southern Democrats threw out communism — this was still the McCarthy era — and other red herrings, but it was really about civil rights. (The rise of Japanese-Americans in Hawai'i politics) generated more concern for Southern Democrats, even though they were in the same party, because they knew about Hawai'i's liberal stance."

Still the experience of the nisei veterans proved valuable in pushing the statehood cause — sometimes in unusual and amusing ways.
LBJ connection

In "The Island Edge of America," Coffman recounts the story of how Chuck Mau, a staunch statehood proponent and delegate to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, talked his way into a meeting of the platform committee and, once there, ingratiated himself to Texas Gov. Lyndon Johnson by retelling the story of how 442nd soldiers had rescued the "Lost Battalion" of Texas National Guardsmen.

Johnson promised his support for Hawai'i statehood and said he would lobby other Southern Democrats who opposed the measure.

It would take another 11 years of tortuous deliberations and negotiations before the Hawaii Statehood Act reached Eisenhower's desk. For Katayama and his fellow veterans, the passage of the measure, and the subsequent territorial plebiscite in which Hawai'i voters overwhelmingly approved acceptance of the invitation to statehood, was worth the wait.

Katayama cites Inouye's long tenure and high rank in the Senate today as a constant reminder of the way in which the state of Hawai'i has assumed rightful participation in national decisions.

Katayama was in Virginia when the statehood bill passed, but he remembers his initial reaction.

"My first thought was, 'Now we can do something as part of the United States,' " he said. "We now had a voice in Congress. We could show what we had to contribute and be productive for our country."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.


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