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The Enemy Wore My Face | Poem


The Enemy Wore My Face

by Frances H. Kakugawa


All I knew then was there was an enemy near-by. I was five years old when a birthday party in Kapoho was disrupted with news that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.

             Under the rising sun
             The enemy came
             Wearing my face.

Yes, all I knew then was there was an enemy, an enemy who would wear my face, an enemy who would not be forgotten nor forgiven in the years to come. Although we were Americans in this little village on the Big Island of Hawaii, we spelled "danger" because our faces and names matched those of the enemy. These similarities would later deny the human rights in many social situations in the sixties and seventies. Yet, we had both fought the same enemy.

As a child, I remember being told by the older children that we could help weaken the power of the Japanese army if we killed all the green Japanese bugs. I recall being extra sensitive to my surroundings. Each time I saw those dainty emerald green insects resembling a fan, I would crush them and feel the end of the war near. As children, we went around searching for these insects, believing. It didn't matter then, what my grandmothers felt seeing their grandchildren kill those insects to weaken the army of the Emperor, the Emperor whom they had left behind when they had migrated to Hawaii.

We always spoke in whispers after the sun went down. I recall vividly, a little wooden box covered with a piece of black dyed old sheet. Inside, a flickering kerosene lamp, the only light in the entire house. All of us (parents and five children) huddled around this little light. We spent our nights sitting around this lighted black box. Nearby, a new born brother, born nine days after December seven.

In the corner of the room was a paper carton of cloths, all ready for evacuation. I remember the use of the battery-run radio, used only for news. That frightening man's voice, repeating news of the war, of the crouching danger and a reminder always to listen for air alerts.

Most of the people in the village had an air-raid shelter. We had none. Our neighbor had one dug and cemented with railroad ties at the entrance, camouflaged by bushes in the doorway. Another neighbor had a shelter that was to be shared with another family. We played in those shelters, feeling the cold dampness of the dirt floor and the mildew walls. In a corner a box of canned goods: spam, sardines and corned beef waited. I hated to go near those shelters as they were a constant reminder of bombs and airplanes. I especially felt the fear of war because we did not have a shelter of our own. I never questioned my parents as I knew they spoke of a cave in the backyard of my grandmother who lived about six miles away. I wanted a shelter of my own. I felt unprotected and scared.

On Sunday, there was an air alert. An uncle came rushing in his Ford. The nervous radio announcer's voice warning of a possible air attack and to take cover. Leave the radio on! We were bundled in our uncle's car with Japanese futons (quilts) piled over us. We were taken to our grandmother's. The ride was long and silent. I was too scared to cry. We sat in the living room of my grandmother's house with the radio on. The adults saying "It will clear" to reassure all of us, the children sitting in silence. After what seemed hike hours, the all clear signal from the radio.

I began school during the war. The Japanese language schools were closed so I would not have the experience of attending Japanese language schools as did my older brother and sister before the bombing. I attended Kapoho Elementary School, a mile away from home. The army barracks were situated across from our school, so soldiers, tents, army tanks and trucks were a constant sight.

I remember walking to school with my head down whenever I passed certain homes in the village. My half-running steps would not be able to avoid the "Hey, Jap' that came from the non-Japanese children and adults. We were told to be careful because so many of the non-Japanese people carried knives for protection.

In school, we began each day with the flag pledge, then sang the song with the opening line, "I remember Pearl Harbor and how we died for liberty." We spent a few hours each day doing work for the Red Cross. We sat on the floor, cutting material into little pieces. These would be sent to the army hospitals as fillings for pillows for the wounded soldiers. I looked forward to this task. It gave me a feeling that I was doing something for my country. Patriotism was at its maximum. I remember cutting my own dress one day, thinking I would sacrifice my own dress for a wounded soldier somewhere. I got ruler-spanked on my knuckles by my teacher. I was in the second grade.

The Japanese Language School was converted into a USO hall. We knew exactly when to be there to watch the USO girls entertain the soldiers. We usually stared through the windows or sat in the doorway. Sometimes we were given refreshments.

I remember Easter. We dyed our eggs the night before, the oldest child being able to take the most eggs to school. We used the coverings of the round onion for dye. The following day our teachers would hide the eggs in the school yard for a great Easter Egg Hunt. The entire stone wall of the school would have soldiers sitting on them, watching us, telling us where to look and the teachers getting irritated at the soldiers. It was a fun time. At the end of the day we would exchange our eggs for oranges and apples which the soldiers seemed to have in abundance. Often, while walking home from school, the soldiers would toss us apples and oranges from the back of the trucks.

I went to bed every night during the war years with a special prayer. I prayed to be alive. I wanted to live until the 7th grade. I pulled weeds in the garden praying the same prayer. Why 7th grade? Because that was the promised year...I would go to Pahoa High and Intermediate School on a bus, I would have my first hair permanent, and I would be able to wear shoes to school. And no war was going to deprive me of these three things. And so I prayed every day to be alive a few more years. I promised to be good. I continued to kill the green bugs.

The village men were trained to guard and patrol the village. I still see them marching in the ball park. I remember an old Japanese man who spoke no English, saluting every soldier he saw. We imitated him a lot.

We had to be careful of lights during the nights. The soldiers and village men patrolled the streets looking for rays of light escaping through walls of homes. They threw rocks on rooftops to warn residents of penetrating lights. Any light seen at night would draw enemy planes to bomb the village, we were told. We had a rock thrown on our roof once. That sound of the rock shattering the silence of the night sounded like gunshot. We shook with fright. Every night, our father took a walk around the house to check to see whether any light could be seen., He'd rap the wall where light cam through and these cavities would be filled with putty.

We were given gas masks; ugly, heavy, masks with the strong rubber and medicinal odor kept in a green and brown canvas bag which we slung over our shoulders. Infants like my baby brother were not given any until they discovered a way of protecting them. My mother never took her gas mask with her, saying she would not carry it until my brother was given one.

It was later that a little gas mask, in the form of a sleeping canvas bag, was given to my brother. We had practice sessions regularly in school. We were timed to see how fast we could unfasten our bags to get the mask on our faces. We also had our masks checked for any flaws. A room was filled with tear gas. We entered this room with our masks on. I remember my big brother checking our eyes for tears. Any sign of tears meant a malfunctioning mask and we were given new ones.

We had evacuation practices. We were timed walking from school to home with soldiers following us in their army trucks. I hated these sessions. It made war seem so close and I felt safer in school with all the children and teachers. Somehow teachers seem indestructible. We all wore a little home-sewn bag around our necks with a piece of smelly camphor-like asofetida inside for protection against germs.

We lived near the train station and the post office so traffic was constant out side out home. Our father had befriended four soldiers who came to our house whenever they were free. I remember one soldier with an Italian name wanting to eat spaghetti and he and my mother in the kitchen preparing real Italian spaghetti. I remember the soldiers playing cards in our living room.

We often saw truckloads of soldiers being shipped out to the war front. One day, one of the trucks stopped by our yard long enough to have the soldiers drop off a great wooden barrel. They quietly waved good-bye and drove off. We were scared and were warned to stay away from the barrel until our father returned. It could be some explosives. (In war, trust gets reduced to its minimum.) My father opened it carefully. It was a barrel of beautiful white flour. The soldiers' last gesture of thanks before going off to war. We later heard of the death of three of the soldiers. Years later, after the war, one of the soldiers would meet an aunt of mine by accident in front of a movie theater.

Hubba hubba, soldier bait and hapa-haole babies would become part of my childhood vocabulary.

I remember the MP's and that red and white band around their arms. I still see them entering our neighbor's house searching for signs of loyalty to the country of Japan. First generation Japanese homes were searched for any Japanese item. They were confiscated or the men were taken away to camps. Although our parents were second generation Japanese, we took no chances and destroyed all our Japanese records, books, toys, and spent time tearing the red dots (Japanese flag) off our Japanese medicine packages. During this time, there were many bonfires in backyards as people burned family antiques, family treasures brought from Japan. These were signs of disloyalty to the United States. I knew of a friend's mother who buried their books in the ground. The soldiers parked some of their tanks in their yard and caused much anxiety lest they discover the buried books. The soldiers were feared, never questioned by the village people.

Without warning one night, a friend's father was taken out of a meeting and sent off to a camp in California. He was not allowed to say goodbye to his family. His family, wife and six children, had to fend for themselves, not knowing whether their father would ever return.

Hiroshima

                   He sliced the chrysanthemum
                   Off the stalk
                   And left it naked in the sun.

The bombing of Hiroshima became the cause of many loud discussions in our house. My father would never hear from his relatives ever again. Some of my mother's relatives survived the Hiroshima bombing. Years later, my father would question my mother whenever she prepared to mail money or clothing to her family in Hiroshima, somehow resenting the fact that he could not do the same for his family. Hiroshima was real to both my parents as my mother spent part of her childhood in Hiroshima and my father spent some of his bachelorhood days there.

We had a big garden of sweet potatoes and peanuts in our backyard, our father's preparation for that day when there would be no food because of the war. I remember my mother going out to get liquor and cigarette permits for my father. Our neighbor who must have been about fifteen then, left every morning in the back of a truck with her hoe and gloves. She belonged to the Victory Corps. Victory garden was just a term I heard, and didn't understand.

My uncle was drafted sometime during the war. I had somehow gotten the idea that without a President of the United States, there would be no war. I wished for my uncle to shoot the President as soon as he was in the White House. My child's mind thought all soldiers got to meet the President. I wanted my uncle to assassinate President Roosevelt. Throughout my uncle's years in the army, I kept hoping for such an end. My brothers and sister and I had even worked out a plot on how our uncle could fulfill such a wish. The scene was quite clear in my mind.

Although we were treated like the enemy sometimes, we lived, believed, and felt as Americans. A young eighteen year old neighbor came to our house one day before being drafted. His last words to my mother: "I'll return a Lieutenant." He died in battle a few months later. I remember his flag-draped casket, the village women cooking for people who came to express their sympathies, the two American Caucasian soldiers in uniform escorting the casket to its military burial grounds. And the dead soldier's mother's concern: With the casket closed, how can she be sure it was her son in that casket? Many stories would follow of how these caskets were returned home empty. Again, the distrust of the United States government.

I remember the day President Roosevelt died. I heard it from a first generation Japanese woman who said "Zuluzulubelu" (Roosevelt) had died, maybe the war would now end. There were many whispered exchanges that day - happy and hopeful sounds.

I don't recall the end of the war except for the constant loud voices in our kitchen, as my father argued with his friends over the question of who had won the war. It was a familiar sound whenever the first generation men and my second generation father gathered under one roof. The first generation men claimed Japan had actually won the war and the second generation men saying no. It was the second generation men who had fought under the famed 442nd and 100th Battalion infantry. I always thought these exchanges were simply passing arguments among men who had too much beer or sake until a few years ago. My over 90 year old grandmother, a bit confused with age, confided in me that she had heard from the Emperor of Japan that he had confessed to her that Japan had really won the war. This, more than thirty five years after the end of the war.

My dreams during those years were big. I wanted to become a writer. Margaret Higgins, the war correspondent, was my idol. It was my favorite pastime to sign my name along with Margaret Higgins; a dream that someday I too, would become a writer. The fantasies in my mind were at their height. Limestone that is all that's allowed a child suddenly thrown into a constantly changing world of fear and destruction interlaced with ignorance. (This dream would someday become real as the child who practiced her autograph would someday have her own autograph parties for her published books.) I read a lot. A good escape into a world that promised almost nothing. I wanted to believe that I would live happily every after. Books, I felt, would be the only survivors in a civilization and I wanted to survive.

Emperor Hirohito's Visit to Hawaii

             A Sansei, wearing denim jeans and zoris
             Meets the eyes of the Emperor,
             An Issei, bows
             And sees only her feet
             As the Emperor passes by.

Note: Kapoho was a small Japanese village on the Big Island of Hawaii. There was no electricity. There were four little grocery stores and one theater. Telephones were available only in the four stores. Only after the 1966 eruption which destroyed Kapoho, and only after our house was relocated in another village, would our house be lighted with the turning of a mere switch on the wall. That kerosene lamp is still kept somewhere in the house for when the lights go out.

Ironically, the first copy on my first published book
arrived on December 7.


First published: Bamboo Ridge, The Hawaii Writers' Quarterly,
# 9, December 1980-February 1981




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