Feature Stories

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I am an American for Kauai Stories & Write PathI have had the honor of interviewing and writing about nearly one dozen Japanese American World War II veterans who were born and raised in Hawaii, most of them on the island of Kauai. 

When Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan 75 years ago, their lives changed in ways most of us cannot even imagine.

Even though they, and many of their parents, were legal American citizens (Hawaii was then a territory of the United States), they and their families were treated as enemies to our country. Some were jailed on false pretenses; others were locked up in internment camps for the duration of the war. All were subject to discrimination, even by people who had once been their friends.

Our Hearts Were American: Ikito "Ike" Muraoka

Ikito Ike Muraoka in front of Camp Shelby Miss barracks circa 1944 for Kauai StoriesOn the morning of Sunday Dec. 7, 1941, Ikito “Ike” Muraoka and his brother, Mitsugi, were hunting pheasants in Koloa, on Kauai’s south shore. Suddenly, they saw several strange looking warplanes flying overhead. 

“We sensed that something was wrong, so we packed up our shotguns and headed home,” says Ike. “We later learned that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor on Oahu.”

For Ike, a Japanese American, there was no question that he, his brothers and his friends wanted to help defend the United States. Their parents had been among some 200,000 people who had immigrated to Hawaii from Japan to work in the state’s sugar industry between the late 1800s and the 1920s. Another 140,000 workers immigrated from China, the Philippines, Korea, Puerto Rico and Spain.

For those who remained in Hawaii after fulfilling their work contracts, the United States became their home. (Hawaii was a U.S. territory until 1959, when it became the 50th state.)

Ike, now a 95-year-old soft-spoken man who lives in a retirement community on Kauai with Nancy, his wife of 70 years, recalls his experiences after Pearl Harbor was bombed that led to his serving in the U.S. Army.

Almost immediately after the bombing, Japanese Americans learned that other people no longer viewed them as Americans.

Charlie Edwards, WWII Fighter Pilot: Flying Felt Natural to Me

WWII Fighter Pilot Charlie Edwards on his Wildcat circa 1944 for Kauai StoriesTwo months shy of his 98th birthday, Charlie Edwards still has his World War II fighter pilot confidence. 

“It might sound cocky, but I have never done anything in my life as well as I flew an airplane,” he said during his recent visit to Kauai. “Flying felt natural to me.”

Charlie was a member of the VC-66, a U.S. Naval Air Squadron that was stationed on Oahu, Maui and Kauai during the war. The VC-66 was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its collective accomplishments during battle, and Charlie received the Air Medal for his role in sinking a Japanese submarine.

Returning to Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility for the first time in 72 years, Charlie was greeted by sailors and civilians. Several days later, sitting on the couch of a rented condo in Poipu, glass of wine in hand, Charlie recounted some of his most memorable moments during World War II.

Jeannette Blum: Energizing Kauai

Jeannette Blum for Kauai StoriesWhen Jeannette Blum was 27 years old, playing with her infant son in a train station in Switzerland, a monk who had been observing her, approached and said, “Do you know you have healing hands?” 

She was astounded, “but I knew he was telling me the truth,” she says.

“I had always been aware of energy in the human body. But in the Swiss society I lived in, it was not natural to speak about energy, it was considered ‘esoteric.’ So I just didn’t dare,” Jeannette says. The monk’s words were confirmation of her natural gifts.

Expressing herself beautifully in English, one of six languages she speaks, this lovely Swiss woman explains that her education and four decades of service in the healing sciences includes being trained in Europe as a physical therapist, neurological trainer and massage therapist, working in hospitals treating people before and after spinal and shoulder surgeries, and helping stroke survivors regain their mobility.

But what she enjoys most is combining her training with allowing patients’ bodies to speak to her.

The Kindness of Strangers

Stephen J. Brown at the helm of SouthboundOn the 13th anniversary of the disappearance of my friend and brother-in-law, Stephen J. Brown, I think back with gratitude for the kindness of the captain and crew of the container ship Horizon Reliance, who found Steve’s sailboat drifting, unmanned, 800 miles off the coast of California. 

Two months earlier, Steve had completed his second solo sail around the world on his 38-foot Northwest Southbound. He spent a month in San Diego, repainting Southbound’s hull and replacing her sails, then set sail for Morro Bay, approximately halfway up the California coast. It was a two-day trip he could have made in his sleep.

He never arrived.

Three weeks later, the Horizon Reliance, a 900-foot-long, fully-laden cargo ship, was rapidly making its way from Oakland, Calif. to Honolulu, Hawaii when its chief officer spotted a sailboat with a torn mainsail and no running lights on, a dangerous combination that far out to sea. 

The chief officer, Klaus “Nick” Niem, asked himself rhetorically, “Why would you put to sea with a hole in your sail?” He knew something was wrong.

In the first of several compassionate acts, Reliance’s captain, Rick Domnitz, contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and gave them Southbound’s position, in case someone had reported the boat missing, as one of Steve’s brothers had done.

Jack Gushiken: From sugar to guavas, via Iraq & Iran

Jack Gushiken for Write Path PublishingWhen Norio “Jack” Gushiken began working for Kilauea Sugar Plantation on the island of Kauai at the age of 18, he never imagined that his job as a field hand that paid $6.36 per day would evolve into a career in agricultural management that has spanned six decades, allowed him to travel the world, and even gave him the opportunity to develop his own variety of guava.

Now 76 years old, Jack looks back with his characteristic sense of humor and understated pride at how far he came since the days of attending elementary school barefoot, as did all the children in those years.

Gushiken family history in Hawaii began when Jack’s grandfather emigrated from Okinawa to work in the sugar fields in 1909. When Jack turned 18 and needed work, it felt natural for him to turn to the same sugar plantation that employed both his grandfather and father.

But Jack’s career with Kilauea Sugar hit a speed bump almost as soon as it began.

My name is Yoshiko: Susan Matsumoto recalls imprisonment during World War II

My Name is Yoshiko published by Write Path PublishingSusan Matsumoto was 10 days shy of her 20th birthday on the morning Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, plunging the United States into World War II. 

In that moment, life changed for Susan, her three siblings, and for their parents, who had been farmworkers in rural Southern California for nearly 20 years.

Four months after the bombing, Susan’s family and 120,000 other Japanese Americans across the country, were imprisoned, perceived by the U.S. as threats to national security solely because of their Japanese ancestry.

Now 94 years old, Susan looks back at the trajectory her life took as a result of these momentous events, in her newly-published memoir, “My Name is Yoshiko.” Her book title honors the name her parents gave her at birth, Yoshiko, meaning “good child” in Japanese.

Kevin Donald & The Spirit of Honopu

Kevin Donald climbing Mount Hood for Kauai StoriesKevin Donald has had his share of adrenaline-pumping adventures in his 30-year career as a movie stuntman, aerial rigger, producer and director, but it was during the summer of 1972 in Honopu Valley when he lived on Kauai, that he had his eeriest experience.

After paddling his one-man kayak by moonlight along the Napali Coast, a region of Kauai’s north shore accessible only by ocean, or by hiking the challenging 11-mile Kalalau Trail cut high into the cliffs, Kevin spent the night under the stars at Hanakapiai Beach.

Honopu Beach by Scott Hanft for Kauai StoriesHis goal was Honopu, a stretch of two pristine white-sand beaches separated by a natural arch about 90 feet tall. The arch is the underside of a huge arm-like rock formation that begins in the valley behind, splits the beaches and culminates in a “fist” of bluffs that extends 300 feet into the ocean.

“I had heard that Hawaiians once lived in upper Honopu Valley,” Kevin says, adding that in those years, few people on Kauai knew anything about it.

Kevin had been told there was a route into the upper valley by scaling the iconic arch, and that a rope was still in place hanging down the arch. An experienced rock-climber, Kevin knew if there was a way into the valley, he could climb it.

The next day he paddled down the gorgeous, cliff-lined Napali Coast with his binoculars at the ready. “Hours later, I came-upon the huge arch that separates Honopu’s two beaches. I found the frayed remnants of an old rope — I was excited to say the least. Here was what I was looking for: a feasible route into the upper valley of Honopu.”

From Kauai to Kanton: Bill Akana has always found fun & fortune on islands

Bill Akana at Lumahai 1960 for Kauai StoriesWilliam “Bill” Akana has had a lot of adventures in his life, and all of them have taken place on islands. 

From catching four-foot wide sea turtles off Kanton Island in the Republic of Kiribati during World War II, to meeting his future wife, who was a tourist when she first came to Kauai, the Hawaiian island where Bill was born and raised, everything exciting that has happened to him has taken place on an island. 

Now 91 years old, Bill recalls being drafted by the U.S. Army in 1945 to serve in World War II on Kanton Island, a 25-square-mile atoll about 1,500 miles south of Hawaii. With its 6,230–foot long airstrip, the island was used for refueling U.S. military planes during the war.

Bill had three jobs on Kanton, all of which were a lot more fun than the average Army assignment. He ran the radio station on the island, broadcasting news to soldiers stationed as far south as Fiji. He took care of the air conditioning and refrigeration on the island, “making sure the food was nice and cold and that nobody was going to die.”

Loyalty Proved: Clinton Shiraishi served in WWII; came home to live his American Dream

Clinton Shiraishi WWII vet 442nd for Kauai StoriesAs a boy growing up on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Clinton Shiraishi’s only aspirations were to become a sugar plantation laborer like his father, who had immigrated to Hawaii from Japan in 1915.

 

“I remember my father telling me what was good enough for him as a plantation laborer should be good enough for me,” says Clinton. “My scope was very limited at that time.”

 

But through a series of fortuitous events, and Clinton’s native intelligence and determination, he became a decorated World War II veteran who was among those who liberated the Dachau concentration camp; a successful lawyer and judge on Kauai; and in 1960, founded one of Kauai’s first and largest real estate brokerages that is still thriving today.

 

Slim and trim, at 93 years old, Clinton mentions his accomplishments only when specifically asked about them, typical of his generation of Japanese Americans who are notoriously humble. He speaks in perfectly-structured sentences, with only a hint of the Pidgin English accent that reflects his sugar plantation roots.

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