Hawaii World War Two

1941 - 1945: Martial law and the Japanese-American dilemma

World War II  

In the 1930s, the United States government became concerned about Japan's attempts to expand its empire in the Pacific. Knowing Hawaii would be a prime target, they had strengthened military facilities on the islands.

December 7, 1941 was a Sunday. No doubt many troops had enjoyed a busy Saturday night in Honolulu and weren't prepared for an attack. At 4:00 a.m., a mine sweeper sighted a periscope off Pearl Harbor, but the sighting was ignored. At 7:00 a.m., two privates manning the radar detected a plane squadron approaching. When they consulted an officer about it, he thought they were American planes, either on maneuvers from another base on Oahu or coming from the mainland.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that morning claimed the lives of move than 3000 people and destroyed many of the fleet's planes and ships. Many believed a land invasion would follow shortly.

Martial Law

Soon after the attack, General Short ordered Hawaii's Governor Poindexter to declare martial law. Poindexter consulted President Roosevelt, who agreed with the idea; Roosevelt thought that if more attacks didn't come, martial law would end quickly.

But despite the lack of further attacks, martial law continued until the end of the war. A military Governor replaced Poindexter, and the civilian government's power was dissolved. Military tribunals supplanted the court system. The tribunals didn't require a writ of habeus corpus, meaning anyone could be arrested and jailed without reasonable cause presented to a judge.

The military controlled daily life to an incredible degree. They froze wages, set working hours, and regulated bars and restaurants. They instituted curfews and declared blackouts. They censored the press. They even controlled rent prices.

To ensure martial law worked to their advantage, the Big Five companies wined and dined high-ranking military officers at their social events. Their advice and concerns influenced the military in their favor.

Under martial law, citizens' basic rights were violated. Any criticism was deemed unpatriotic, however, and censorship of the press assured no public journalistic debate on the issue.

The Japanese-American Dilemma

On the U.S. mainland, Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps during the war, due to fears that they weren't loyal to America. Two small internment camps opened in Hawaii. They were Sand Island, in the middle of Honolulu Harbor, and Honouliuli, on the southwest shore of Oahu. With more than 160,000 people of Japanese descent living in Hawaii, it quickly became obvious that interning them all would be problematic. For one thing, there wasn't enough space to isolate all of them and with the damage caused during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military didn't have the time or resources to move them to the mainland. Most importantly, if the Japanese population was removed, Hawaii's economy would suffer greatly. They provided highly skilled labor, as well as owning many small businesses.

Officials and politicians on the mainland considered the group much more of a threat than those stationed in Hawaii did. Only issei, original immigrants from Japan, held private sympathy for their homeland. Their children, nisei, had been born in Hawaii and attended schools that had instilled American values in them. Many wouldn't speak Japanese with their parents, wear traditional Japanese clothes, or otherwise honor their Japanese heritage. Nisei considered themselves American through and through.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, large numbers of nisei flocked to recruitment offices to enlist, only to learn that the military wouldn't admit them. However, those already serving in the National Guard couldn't be dismissed from duty. Wanting them gone, the military sent them to Wisconsin for training, where they became the 100 th Battalion.

In January, 1943, the military opened enlistment to Japanese-Americans. Thousands of nisei in Hawaii eagerly joined. They trained in the United States as the 442 nd Infantry.

While the 442 nd was still training, the 100 th was deployed to help finish off General Rommel's troops in North Africa. They continued on to Italy, where heavy fighting resulted in higher-than-average casualties. The 442 nd landed in Naples in early June, 1944, and merged with the 100 th soon after. The combined units fought hard throughout Europe, earning numerous medals and honors. In the U.S. Army's history, few units have earned more decorations than the 100 th and 442 nd. When they returned to Hawaii, they were hailed as heroes.

After World War II ended in 1945, the G.I. Bill provided nisei veterans with new opportunities, allowing them to play an integral role in Hawaii's political future.

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