It is not easy being an American of Japanese descent in Hawaii in 1941. Sixteen-year-old Eddy Okubo has been raised as an American, and his hopes and dreams are very different from those of his parents. His father, a boat builder who came from Japan twenty years earlier, still clings to elements of his Japanese culture and wants his sons to return to his homeland to learn its traditions. Eddy, however, wants to join the army like his best friends, Chik and Cobra, who are both eighteen and have just been drafted, but his father would be devastated if he did.
Eddy's father has just finished work on the Red Hibiscus, a custom-built sampan for a "haole" customer. On the night before it is to be turned over to its new owner, the boat is destroyed by fire. It is the second incident involving the burning of a Japanese boat under suspicious circumstances within a year. Eddy is angry, but his father responds with the typical stoicism inherent in his culture. Accepting without question that "it can't be helped," Pop salvages what he can and begins to rebuild the boat so that he can keep his commitment to his American customer.
It is true that Eddy wants to be with Chik and Cobra, and that his wages will help his family financially, but it is the injustice of the destruction of his father's boat that drives him to alter his birth certificate so that he can enlist in the army. Eddy's main reason for taking such a drastic step is to prove that he is an American and not part of a "Japanese problem." Mr. Okubo has long had other plans for his eldest offspring, however, and when Eddy tells him what he has done, he initially stops speaking to him. As far as Mr. Okubo is concerned, his son no longer exists.
Eddy begins basic training on the island, and during his first weekend pass to visit his family, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Mr. Okubo is crushed by the cowardly behavior of his home country and brokenly tells his son:
You go...back army...No make shame for this family. Fight for your country. Die, even, but die with honor.
In the chaos following the onset of the attack, Eddy, Chik, and Cobra persuade a haole to take them back to their base at Schofield Barracks; they must work hard to convince the white man that they are not the enemy. The "island boys" are anxious to do their part, but are left waiting at their tents while the soldiers from the mainland are shuttled off to combat. Finally, an officer, Lieutenant Sweet, arrives with tools and an assignment. The group, which is made up of men of Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese, and Filipino descent, are ordered to dig ditches, and are warned that if they "step out of line," they will be thrown into the stockade. Lieutenant Sweet addresses the men collectively as "Japs." It is clear that they are "second rate soldiers," not to be trusted.
It is not long before the Japanese American soldiers are singled out and separated from the rest of the recruits. Their weapons are confiscated, and they are confined to tents in a segregated area. Eddy awakens one morning to find that their bivouac is encircled by soldiers manning machine guns, facing inward. The next day, the machine guns are gone; no explanation is offered for their sudden appearance nor their subsequent removal. All training of the Japanese American GIs ceases; in Cobra's astute observation, to the army, "We all look like Hirohito...got the eyes of the Emperor."
Through notes smuggled in from relatives, the imprisoned soldiers learn that the FBI has been going into Japanese homes, arresting the men and taking them away. Eddy discovers that his own father, deeply shamed by his homeland's actions, has gone to Immigration of his own volition to turn himself in. Many of his contemporaries are being detained, but Pop is released a short time later. His services are needed to help fix the boats damaged in the attack. Military Police have come to the Okubo home and searched Eddy's room. They have not taken anything, except for the family's radio.
A new officer arrives at the bivouac, and Eddy is relieved to see that it is Captain Parrish, who is the mechanical drawing teacher at his high school, "a haole who under[stands] local guys like us." Captain Parrish apologizes for the machine guns, calling them a "mistake," and the Japanese American recruits are reissued their weapons and ordered to move out to Waimanalo Beach, where they will help guard against enemy attack.
Eddy and his friends are spread out along the water as a first line of defense; behind them is a second line, with orders to shoot anyone in the front line who might step out of his machine gun pit should the enemy arrive. Lieutenant Sweet, who has designed the arrangement, tells the Japanese American soldiers, "I don't trust you," but when Captain Parrish sees the set-up, he orders the first line to move out of the second row's line of fire, observing, "We don't want to be shooting our own men." At dawn, a Japanese submarine is spotted, stuck on a reef. A lone soldier swims away from the stricken vessel and is saved from drowning by an American GI, Sergeant Aku. Shamed by his capture, the enemy soldier, Sakamaki, begs to be killed. Eddy realizes that he lives by the code of ancient Japanese warriors, "exactly like Pop."
After a month at Waimanalo, Eddy secures a twenty-four-hour pass to return home. There, through newspaper accounts, he learns that on the mainland, "persons of Japanese ancestry" living in the coastal states have been taken from their homes and placed in camps. In a moment of uncharacteristic candor, Mr. Okubo tells his son that what he is doing now, serving his country by having enlisted in the army, is "right." Eddy returns to Waimanalo, and after an additional four months spent "guard[ing] an empty sea," he and his buddies are ordered to "ship out."
In June of 1942, Eddy is sent with over fourteen-hundred troops to board the USAT Maui, a transport ship. It is the first time he has been away from the islands, and as the vessel steams away, there is news from Honolulu about a huge battle on Midway. If Japan wins that bloody confrontation, Hawaii will be next in its sights. The island boys are miserably seasick on the crossing to San Francisco, but are eventually buoyed by word that the Battle of Midway has been won by the Americans.
In Oakland, the island boys are herded onto a train. Sweet instructs them to pull down the shades so that people will not panic upon seeing "a train full of Japs." Pushed to the limit, Eddy asserts to his superior that they are not...
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