The First Battle
The Battle for Equality in War-time Hawaii
Perhaps the single most significant documentary film on modern race relations, The First Battle chronicles the experiences of the Japanese American population after Pearl Harbor and the formation and actions of the Council for Inter-racial Unity that was organized in Honolulu in 1939 in support of Hawaii’s large Japanese-ancestry community during the critical WWII years. Whereas 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on the continental West Coast were relocated and interned, a behind-the-scenes battle for justice and equality—reaching as far as the White House—set Hawai`i on a different course. The First Battle portrays people of all racial backgrounds working together under extreme stress and against great odds. With various champions against the prevailing force of relocation that included the military governor of Hawaii, Lt. Gen. Delos C. Emmons, and Hawaii’s FBI representative, Robert L Shivers and later attracting the attention and support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Japanese Hawaiians were spare the cruel fate of internment. Instead, Japanese Hawaiians became a part of the Hawaiian home guard, contributed over10,000 volunteers towards the American army to fight in Europe and lead the way in a new post-war attitude and pride as fellow Americans. It will change how viewers see Hawaii.
The First Battle is about a previously untold struggle for freedom, equality and full citizenship in America. This struggle was waged unconventionally behind the scenes in Hawaii during the two years leading up to World War II and the first several years of the war. It pitted fragile inter-ethnic relationships and untested nisei leadership against the full weight of the United States government and its anti-Asian elements who saw its own loyal Japanese population as enemy aliens.
Five years before the onset of World War II, the President of the United States had directed the construction of camps for the mass internment of Hawaii’s Japanese-ancestry population in the event of war with Japan. After December 7, 1941, the President, the Army Chief of Staff, and the Secretary of the Navy all pressed for and at various times sent orders directing for mass removal from the island and internment on the continental mainland.
The First Battle is about the networks of people, principally nisei, their acquaintances and allies such as the military governor of Hawaii, Lt. Gen. Delos C. Emmons, and Hawaii’s FBI representative, Robert L Shivers and other local officials—who resisted the pressure for internment. At the heart of the story are two previously unheralded individuals: educator Shigeo Yoshida and YMCA executive Hung Wai Ching. As such, it is a David-and-Goliath story, a reminder that the contest does not always go to the obviously powerful, but sometimes to those of humble status who are clear-minded and focused.
The efforts of Yoshida and Ching, in concert with many others, helped Hawaii through the immediate crisis, helped preserve the right of the nisei to serve in the U.S. military, and eventually resulted in fateful encounters with Eleanor Roosevelt, whose impulses lay in the direction of inclusion, and Franklin Roosevelt (until his conversion by Lady Roosevelt) whose impulses lay in the exclusion and relocation. As such, the story sheds new light on both Roosevelts.
Along the way, The First Battle also puts internment in a new light, as well as the unreliability of constitutions in times of crisis. It will answer the unanswered question: Why was there no mass internment in Hawaii, where the large Japanese community potentially posed a security threat, in contrast to the West Coast, where the tiny Japanese community posed none? It will show that Hawaii not only was shaped by the war but helped shape post-war America. The first battle, that of the home front in Hawaii, will become known as the seminal story of contemporary multicultural Hawaii.
The First Battle is an implicit lesson on how varied people, working together, can change the course of events and thereby change history
Filmmaker, Tom Coffman is an independent researcher, writer, and documentary producer. His documentaries include Nation Within, The Annexation of Hawaii by the United States (1998); May Earth Live (2000); Arirang: The Korean American Journey (2002); and most recently, The First Battle. He has written books, including: With Obligation to All with former Governor George R. Aryoshi; Nation Within, the Story of America`s Annexation of Hawaii and The Island Edge of America; as well as contributed to such magazines as New Republic, Motive, and Honolulu.
*to order a copy 1.800.862.6628 or visit www.thefirstbattle.com
by Judith Ichisaka