Nisei Veterans Memorial Center

Nisei Veterans Memorial Center

Entering 2014, only two people had served continuously on the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center board of directors since its formation in 1991.

Now there is one.

At the directors’ annual meeting in March, Leonard Oka resigned from the board and as its secretary “It took a guy like him (Oka) — he’s the guy who really made this Nisei Veterans [Memorial Center],” said Hiroshi Arisumi, the last of the original directors. “I was president [of the board] for many years, but I give Leonard the credit for all the good things that happened.”

Arisumi is a 232nd Combat Engineer Company (of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team) veteran, a co-founder of Arisumi Brothers Inc. construction company and a pillar of the Japanese American community on Maui.

Oka, a sansei, is not likely to disagree in public with Arisumi, but he feels he gets too much credit for the NVMC. Regardless of who was supporting the NVMC over the years, “it was not what we were doing, but who we were doing it for,” he said.

“It’s because of the veterans. It always falls back to: It’s the veterans.”

THE BOLD IDEA

Laurel and Leonard Oka (standing) on Easter Sunday with their 3-year-old granddaughter Merahi Oka and her parents, Szhameen “Meena” Vasquez and Brandon Oka.

Laurel and Leonard Oka (standing) on Easter Sunday with their 3-year-old granddaughter Merahi Oka and her parents, Szhameen “Meena” Vasquez and Brandon Oka.

Oka does accept credit for being the founder, in 1981, of Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the 442, the first organization of Nisei veterans’ children in the nation. Later, the name was changed to Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans.

The group wanted to perpetuate the accomplishments of the veterans. As they began to do historical preservation work, they saw that many veterans or their survivors had memorabilia, documents and other artifacts that could end up lost or discarded.

They solicited donations, but realized a repository was needed.

“I always use the phrase, ‘I cannot ask people to give me things from their garage to put into our garage.’ We needed someplace to put it,” Oka said of the wartime treasures.

The decision to build a repository “was a board decision,” Oka emphasized. “Once a concept came up, it wasn’t like Leonard did this or Miles did this.”

Miles is Miles Kawasaki, a Sons and Daughters board member back then. “And if you know Miles,” Oka said, “he doesn’t think small.”

The repository could have been a 500-square-foot, hollow-tile, air-conditioned, bug-proof building.

“We could have done that,” Oka said, “but Miles — give him credit — from the board, saying, ‘No, we going the whole shebang.’”

There was “discussion, discussion, discussion,” among the Sons and Daughters, Oka said. “I might be off-base, but my recollection is that I give him full credit for the bold idea and moving us in that direction.”

With that, Oka counters a misconception among some that the NVMC was his “baby.”

PLANTING THE SEED

Leonard Oka (left) and architect Earl Kono of Riecke Sunnland Kono Ltd. look at one of the books in the library of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. This photo was taken in March 2007 at a temporary archive and workroom on Lower Main Street in Wailuku, space that was provided by 100th Infantry Battalion veteran Miles Shiroma. (Photo courtesy of Nisei Veterans Memorial Center)

Leonard Oka (left) and architect Earl Kono of Riecke Sunnland Kono Ltd. look at one of the books in the library of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. This photo was taken in March 2007 at a temporary archive and workroom on Lower Main Street in Wailuku, space that was provided by 100th Infantry Battalion veteran Miles Shiroma. (Photo courtesy of Nisei Veterans Memorial Center)

Actually, his baby was Brandon Masaichi Oka, who was born in 1977 to Laurel and Leonard Oka. Both of Brandon’s grandfathers — Clarence “Hekka” Oka and Masaru Tanaka — were 442nd veterans.

When Brandon was young, “we often drove out to Kïhei for Sunday lunch with my parents,” Oka said. At the kitchen table, “Hekka” Oka would share wartime stories and his thoughts on the legacy of the 442.

Leonard began thinking about another legacy: what he could pass on to his son. He decided it would be to ensure that Brandon knew what his grandfathers and their fellow soldiers did for their families in World War II — and why.

That led to the idea of a sons and daughters group. Oka discussed it with his father, who took it to the Maui 442nd Veterans Club. The parent club gave its blessing, and the first meeting of the Sansei group was held March 16, 1981.

The first officers were sworn in Feb. 13, 1982. Oka was president, and Gary Nakama and Floyd Nagoshi were among the directors. The three are still on the Sons and Daughters board. Each has taken a turn or more as president, and Oka is the current president.

Miles Kawasaki led a committee to seek a permanent home for donations of historical artifacts and documents. Alexander & Baldwin Inc., a major Maui landowner with deep business roots on the Valley Isle, was approached. With the help of Maui County Mayor Hannibal Tavares and Phil Vierra, A&B’s vice president of community relations on Maui, a meeting was arranged with Robert J. Pfeiffer, A&B’s CEO and chairman of the board.

The March 14, 1985, meeting was attended by veterans Zuke Matsui, Suguru Takahashi, Toshio “Nancy” Endo and Arisumi, along with Oka and Kawasaki.

In March 1987, A&B donated a roughly 2-acre parcel along Kahului Beach Road for the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center.

The original concept for the NVMC included a community center, office space for nonprofits and a gallery to display the veterans’ memorabilia that would be stored on-site.

“The idea was that people going to a community event held at the center would see the displays and ask, ‘What’s this?’ It would draw people of all different backgrounds into the Nisei veterans’ story,” Oka said.

JOINING FORCES

The fundraising kickoff was held June 29, 1991, at the Maui Inter-Continental Resort in Wailea. More than 1,000 people attended, including many veterans. Absent, however, was “Hekka” Oka. He had passed away earlier that year.

“But his influence was there,” Oka said, and it continues to guide him to this day. He credits his dad with getting the veterans to support the concept of the Sons and Daughters group.

The Sons and Daughters realized that building the NVMC “might be biting off more than we can chew,” Oka said. And they realized it was “the ones who had gone to fight the war” who could influence the community.

In its first bylaws, the NVMC had member organizations that were represented on the board. The original member-groups were the veterans clubs of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd RCT, Military Intelligence Service and Maui AJA Veterans Inc., and the Sons and Daughters. Later, the West Maui AJA Veterans Club would be added.

“These veterans organizations had the credibility, the respect of the community,” Oka said. “They also had made their mark in business, politics and community service.”

For example, Arisumi was already well known for his community work with organizations like the March of Dimes.

Oka lists other veterans — Masao Sato, Richard Kibe, Mitsuo “Jimmy” Hozaki, among them — who “had this credibility in the community.” Sato had earned a Purple Heart as a member of the 100th Battalion.

Oka notes that at the time the center concept was taking flight, the name of the Sansei group specified the 442nd.

Sato “was very, very, very supportive of the idea that we need to perpetuate the history,” Oka said, and he played a “key role” in the support given by the Maui Club 100.

“And for us, being the Sons and Daughters of the 442 at the time, it was important.”

In 1995, the name was changed to Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans to reflect its membership, historical preservation work and what it was doing to support the NVMC.

Oka’s role in that change is recognized by David Fukuda, whose father was Mitsuyoshi Fukuda, commanding officer of the 100th Battalion and executive officer of the 442nd.

Now an NVMC board member, Fukuda said he got involved when Oka asked him to help with the fundraising kickoff.

“After a while, we began to notice that there was Jill (Ross, nee Izumigawa), Janice (Toyama, nee Miyagawa), there was me that were 100th” who were taking active roles, Fukuda said — as were children of veterans of other units.

“There was recognition that we had to go broader. And he (Oka) readily saw that and worked to widen the umbrella. In addition to making the Sons and Daughters the first sons and daughters group [in the nation], and then willing to expand it was another first, in the state. It helped us move along” toward the creation of the NVMC, Fukuda said.

DOING IT RIGHT

Along the way, there was a major change in the NVMC concept. In 2003, the board decided that instead of a community center and space for nonprofits, there would be an intergenerational center composed of a preschool and a day care for adults with Alzheimer’s and other conditions. The children and elders would share mutually beneficial activities.

Led by the NVMC’s first executive director, Barbara Watanabe, the planners saw that financial and demographic situations had changed and that more community centers had been built in Central Maui over the years. Rent from the preschool and adult day care could help pay for operating and maintenance costs of the center, and the intergenerational program would address an element of the NVMC bylaws: to recognize the young and elderly “as our greatest resource and to provide for them as a necessity.”

Oka bought into the change, but insisted that the historical preservation component — what would become the Education Center — remain intact.

He also was adamant about a cultural issue.

Over the years, several native Hawaiian burial and cultural sites had been unearthed. Building and property plans had to be changed, costing time and money. But Oka believes it was the only path to take.

“We have been through a lot with the Maui Läna‘i Island Burial Council, but I think that all parties benefited by this mutual understanding of each other’s desire to honor and respect each other’s history and culture. I still feel strongly that the NVMC could not step on another person’s culture trying to preserve our own.”

THE TIME WAS RIGHT

Clarence "Hekka" Oka, father of Leonard Oka Photo courtesy of the Oka family

Clarence “Hekka” Oka, father of Leonard Oka
Photo courtesy of the Oka family

Masaru Tanaka, father-in-law of Leonard Oka, father of Laurel Oka Photo courtesy of the Oka family

Masaru Tanaka, father-in-law of Leonard Oka, father of Laurel Oka
Photo courtesy of the Oka family

The NVMC was completed more than 30 years after the first Sons and Daughters meeting. The final piece was the Education Center, which Oka calls the NVMC’s “cornerstone.” It opened in April 2013.

The completion is part of the reason Oka decided it was time to resign from the NVMC board.

Early on, there was much discussion about involving other community groups — groups that could have lent valuable help, but that were not necessarily tied to the idea of perpetuating the veterans’ legacy, Oka said.

Without that commitment to the veterans, “then by the time the building is complete, the direction of its mission could turn,” Oka feared.

He decided he would stay on the NVMC board at least until the campus was completed and he was comfortable knowing that the purpose remained historical preservation and education.

Another factor in the timing of his resignation was his appointment to the University of Hawai‘i Regents Candidate Advisory Council.

“It showed me that there’s other things that I can do and want to do, and contribute to the community. The nature of these other things excited me.”

But he realized he couldn’t do them with his all-in commitment to the NVMC.

About the same time he was appointed to the UH advisory council, he was getting more involved — and joyously — with his only grandchild, 3-year-old Merahi, who is the apple of her grandfather’s eye. Also, Leonard is the only one of his siblings to have remained on Maui, so he spends much of his time with his mother, Jenny, who moved into Hale Makua for long-term care.

“All those things happened about the same time,” Oka said. “Everything just culminated.

“I really seriously started thinking about resigning late last year, maybe after the Chrysanthemum Festival,” a Japanese cultural event presented each December as a fundraiser by the Sons and Daughters.

“Throw in all those things that take up my time and I decided I had to do something.”

It finally hit him one day while talking story with Wendy Higa, an active member of the Sons and Daughters.

“Wendy is good at giving you a slap on the side of the head without being physical,” Oka said, laughing. “She told me I had to set my priorities. I appreciate that she set me straight. It’s my life, and I gotta control it.”

Earlier this year, Oka also resigned from the board of the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui.

“IT’S BECAUSE OF THE VETERANS . . .”

Leonard Oka carrying his granddaughter Merahi at the grand opening of the NVMC Education Center on April 13, 2013. Being able to spend time with Merahi was a major consideration in Oka’s decision to resign from the NVMC board.

Leonard Oka carrying his granddaughter Merahi at the grand opening of the NVMC Education Center on April 13, 2013. Being able to spend time with Merahi was a major consideration in Oka’s decision to resign from the NVMC board.

“It’s been a long journey,” Oka said. “It’s something I feel good about — not to brag about.

“I always think to myself that the veterans, that generation, proved themselves [as soldiers and as citizens]. What did our generation do?”

It’s not that the Sansei are slackers, he said, but “we weren’t thrust into this like the veterans,” coming from plantation camps or internment centers and being distrusted after Pearl Harbor.

“So if I can say my contribution is that I helped the veterans’ story to continue, then that’s it.”

And he gives credit to the veterans, sons, daughters and others who have supported the center through the years.

“Everybody has their roles that they played,” he said. “It’s typical of a board of directors: If everybody plays their roles, that’s what makes a team.”

And what does Brandon Oka have to say?

“I’m very proud to be the grandson of two 442nd veterans,” he said.

They proved their loyalty by fighting for a country “that had very little trust in them,” he said. “The respect I have for my grandfathers” cannot be measured. “They are true heroes in my eyes.”

And, he is “very proud of my father for all he has done. When people approach me and say ‘You’re Leonard’s son, yeh?’ I smile because it’s always followed by something positive about him.

“Every time I pass by the memorial center, I think about how hard my father worked. . . . I feel honored and proud of all his hard work.”

He said that while not everyone will know who helped build the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, “I’ll always know that was my father’s dream, and it’ll be there for a long time, where generations of my family will be able to visit.”

Roy Tanaka spent more than three decades as a journalist with The Maui News. He now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

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