The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in WWII Hawaii, 1992

The effects of World War II on America have been widely explored. Historians such as Roger Lochin and Gary Nash havefocused on Western expansion and the demographic shifts that altered racial compositions in California and other states as new work opportunities provided industrial employment to previously excluded groups. Women were just such a group. The influx of women into the workforce challenged traditional masculinities while enabling women to experience the world outside of menial labor and the home. Sexual norms were also recast, simultaneously liberating, confusing, and confining individuals. Racial dynamics fueled by the aforementioned demographic changes, sparked the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s as race relations slowly transformed. Though not a state until 1954, wartime Hawaii illustrates the complexities of these various trends, providing a useful lens for understanding the direction of America.

For several reasons, some observers might argue that Hawaii remains the most atypical state in the union. A former colony in the Pacific, Hawaii’s place in the American nation stands as an obvious result of imperialism. Second, racially, the archipelago featured a population made up predominantly of Pacific Islanders and Asians, most notably significant numbers of Japanese/Japanese Americans. The absence of a white working class element or even a white majority altered dynamics, “’whitness’ was not the natural condition’” (23). Moreover, unlike much of mainland America, “racial/ethnic tensions in Hawaii were never simply bipolar. There were existing tensions among Hawaii’s many ethnic groups, and the war exacerbated them.” (7) The predominance of the Japanese population prevented internment. Finally, its presence in a war zone allowed military officials greater control over island practices and policies.

Fundamentally, The First Strange Place explores “Hawaii during World War II, [as] people of different backgrounds were brought together in a common cause. This contact – collision, even – of cultures led to struggle and contestation, and sometimes to negotiation, improved understanding, or change.” (18) Exploring these interactions Bailey and Farber attempt to understand how “Americans, within a given set of structural constraints and power relations, understood themselves and interpreted their experiences.” (18) The authors employ three basic intertwining concerns 1) what categories of identity mattered during the war and how they defined individual exchanges and societal social change 2) what role did the wartime government play in negotiating contacts and conflicts exacerbated by the war and 3) how did these events situate themselves in Hawaiian culture and how was Hawaiian culture conceptualized by arriving troops. The Hawaii of 1940 was not the Hawaii of Hollywood films or modern day tourists, rather when war came to Hawaii it resembled the colonial society it was. The white elite as represented by the “Big Five” (the corporations Castle and Cooke Ltd., Theo H. Davis Ltd, Hackfeld &Co., C. Brewer & Co; and Alexander and Baldwin, Ltd) controlled most aspects of island life. However, the haole elites power had been declining since the 1920s due demographics and internal divisions over social issues.

Thematically, issues of race and gender predominate. Hawaii’s multicultural demographics in which Japanese and Japanese Americans accounted for one third of the archipelago’s population, resemble today’s increasingly diverse population more than the America of World War II. Arriving troops hailing from the mainland carried with them a set of racial beliefs and hierarchies that often conflicted with Hawaii’s own byzantine race and ethnic relations. The introduction of black troops amidst large numbers of white southern recruits allowed for numerous racial exchanges. The multiracial nature of Hawaii enabled black troops to occupy public spaces and enjoy equal footing with white soldiers more so than on the mainland. However, their lives remained circumscribed. If Hawaiian residents had no opinions of African Americans before the war due to isolation, then many white soldiers offered their views of blacks often imbuing African Americans with animalistic features and behaviors. This discourse proved pervasive as numerous black soldiers reported incidents with residents in which soldiers resorted to physically proving they lacked tails in order to disprove rumors spread by their white counterparts. More damaging were the racial beliefs many southern white soldiers attempted to impose on the islands, the most damaging being the conflation of black soldiers with rape. The combination of this discourse and a well publicized rape/murder in Maui by a black soldier resulted in what military officials claimed was “a Negro problem … creating poor morale among Island residents.” (163) Bailey and Farber use the example of the 396th Coast Artillery (AA) Regiment more commonly referred to as “The Harlem Hellfighters” to illustrate these racial tensions. White soldiers correspondence home often derided blacks for not knowing their place and similar sentiments. Whites resented the extra room accorded blacks in Hawaii’s multicultural milieu. The military government promoted tolerance as it saw it as the only way to avoid unrest. The army’s newspaper transformed itself into a “steady instrument for racial progress.” (156) Army buses transporting troops from the base to the downtown area prohibited segregation, which in close quarters led to numerous fights. Nevertheless, blacks endured discrimination. Black war workers and sailors absorbed “a steady drumbeat of racist remarks, insults, and slights” from white shipyard workers. Moreover, Naval Intelligence regarded blacks as subversives on par with communists and the Japanese. For blacks, their opposition to racism served as adequate evidence for the categorization.

The influx of servicemen onto the island drastically altered gender ratios. Men outnumbered women by some reports 100 to 1. Moreover, racial prejudice shrunk this ratio further as some men refused to consort with nonwhites. Downtown Honolulu’s vice district known as Hotel Street bustled with activity. The streets were crowded and the servicemen often drunk, “Men stood in lines everywhere, for everything. The district had been crowded before the war swelled Hawaii’s population but during the war Hotel Street pulsed with money, sex, and occasional violence.” (96) The combination of disproportionate sex ratios, racial biases, and the pressures of imminent deployment led many servicemen to frequent the brothels located in the vice district, which was situated in a corner of the city’s Chinatown. The mix of black and white enlisted men and the multicultural entrepreneurial class, “most of [local street merchants] were Chinese … With few exceptions, every person on the street selling or posing or hawking wares and services to haoles from the mainland was of pure or mixed, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, Portuguese or Filipino descent.” (96) Though this diversity made Honolulu unique in its day, today it resembles the increasingly diverse mix of America’s mainland urban centers which the authors point out in the introduction is the point, “Hawaii was at the margin of American life as well as of the war. But sometimes it is at the margins that the messy definitions and complicated interactions are pushed to extremes and made visible; far reaching changes sometimes germinate in marginal places.” (19)

Though illegal as on the mainland, in reality prostitution remained a regulated industry. The May Act passed in July of 1941 was created to prevent the spread of venereal infections by eliminating prostitution but Hawaiian military leaders chose the course of regulation, “most of those in control of the police and the military decided to ignore the act, as they had long been ignoring local laws against prostitution that should have applied to the regulated brothels.” (99) Having existed as a perceived sexual outlet for plantation workers, the influx of soldiers only reinforced beliefs that Honolulu needed “its buffer of whores more than ever.” (99) However, war workers and enlisted personnel upset the delicate class and racial balance that haole elites had enforced, one that separated the island’s “respectable white women” from the lower class white and darker hued residents, “Already the hordes of working class white soldiers, sailors, and war workers had damaged the racial equilibrium that gave stability to the island’s ruling white families who had seem nearly indestructible for some forty years. Now the white prostitutes made further mockery of the whole racialist set up. More ominously, the invasion of the “whores” indicated how easily the tables could be turned – a foreshadowing of what could happen on a larger scale after the war.” (120) Moreover, though many mainland cites had passed Progressive reforms attempting to eliminate prostitution, Hawaii’s system survived though it remained intertwined with police and government officials. Conservative businessman George Sumner, who also served as Chairman of the Police Commission summarized his view of the situation, “There were too many men in Honolulu, he said, who were ‘just like animals, to even think about closing down brothels.” (100)

As Ruth Rosen, Joanne Meyerowitz, and others have illustrated, the gendered economy failed to provide lucrative employment for women. Even in wartime Hawaii this proved true. Though women found employment in the USO and some shipyard work, prostitution emerged as shockingly profitable. Even with required weekly gynecological examinations and VD testing, prostitutes could make “a killing.” (101) By 1943 and 1944, more than a few madams and prostitutes had parlayed their earnings into other entreprenurial investments on the island, thus expanding their public presence, “Madams began diversifying, buying up beauty parlors, commercial property, restaurants, and stores. In Hawaii’s go-go wartime economy, they became important players.”

The paucity of white women resulted in many mainland imports. Liners coming out of San Francisco frequently ferried one or two prostitutes a voyage though during the war this became more difficult resulting in some women posing as war workers or entertainers. This knowledge also placed suspicion on both groups. Ironically, if before the war, prostitutes public life remained severely circumscribed, during the great conflict they enjoyed far greater freedoms. Obviously, between the sheer demand for their services and the divided authority between the local police department and the military government, the stricter regulations maintained by local government prior to war, abated to a large degree. Conflict between local and military actors grew more common. In general however, many military leaders viewed prostitutes as a necessity. Bailey and Farber point out that “many high ranking military officers believed that ‘any man who won’t fuck, won’t fight;; they saw the women of Hotel Street as useful in maintaining morale and a manly spirit among the boys.” (121) By 1944, anti-prostitution forces finally gained some traction. Behind the leadership of FDR appointed Govenor Stainback (he had been struggling since 1942 to regain civilian control of the islands), the anti-prostitution front pushed back, ordering the shuttering of brothels in September of 1941. With Hawaii no longer under the threat of invasion and the invention of penicilian, the military offered little resistance, though as Farber and Bailey note, anti-prostitution could be viewed as in part “a further attack on military control, since it was the military that acted as guardian angel of the women of Hotel Street.” (130)

For the many women not involved in the sex industry, the island’s sex ratio proved simultaneously exciting and overbearing. Though due to conscription, men were in short supply on the mainland, they overflowed in Hawaii. However, their constant attentions to the fairer sex often overstepped respectful boundaries resulting in unwanted touching or groping. Some soldiers who had befriended women, feared for their female friends safety such that they upbraided them for traveling alone at night. The war, as other writers such as Alice Clement and Marilyn Hagerty have noted, changed sexual behaviors and attitudes, as Farber and Bailey acknowledge, “Sexual boundaries were also renegotiated, and people who had never thought it possible had extramarital affairs. Teenagers married in haste; Victory girls groped in alleys and the back of seats of cars with soldiers they scarcely knew. More babies were born out of wedlock. Men and women struggled to hold their families together in the face of distance and fear, or simply sought some measure of security or pleasure.” (167)

Still, many women on the island resented the overly masculine atmosphere that implied the women should give up something in return for the soldier’s own sacrifices. Even young adolescent’s endured/enjoyed the attentions of servicemen as Bailey and Farber recount the experiences of 11 year old Eloise Ornelles, “The whistles made her feel grownup and a little bit sexy as she rode her bike around Wakikiki in baggy shorts and an aloha shirt. Sometimes, though, men scared her. On crowded buses, a couple times, men pinched her bottom, and once she found herself jammed so tightly against a soldier that she could ‘feel his manhood.’ ‘I’m not sure if he was doing it deliberately or not,’ she says in retrospect, ‘but it upset me so much that I burst into tears and the diver stopped the bus and made him get off.” (184) Another similarly aged girl, remembers both cat calls and whistles and waves and smiles as adolescent’s girls experiences with servicemen varied. However, the public whistles earned a special enmity among the island’s female population as many grew tired of this “promiscuous sexual claiming.” Yet, though women endured these daily frustrations, many noted that thy understood the stresses and difficulties these men operated under.

Soldiers own prejudices also interfered with their romantic lives. Many envisioned blond blue eyed Hawaiians to greet them, an image no doubt encouraged by films. When they encountered a Pacific Island and Asian women instead, some reacted negatively as one man explained his dating preferences, “I guess I have too much pride to be walking with a Jap, a Chinese, or the black girls. (Hawaiians are really black). I think the marriage situation in Hawaii is about he worst that could be found anywhere in the world.” (193) Of course, plenty of soldiers viewed dating Asians and other nonwhites as “unobjectionable” considering the circumstances and some welcomed the opportunity with few or any prejudices. Marriage proved another issue. First, the nature of military service meant many men were not considering marriage at all. Second, mainland America forbade interracial marriages, though a territory, military officials had to approve pending nuptials. As such, they banned interracial couplings or at the very least severely discouraged them since many believed these marriages would not be acknowledged on the mainland. Furthermore, socially not only haoles opposed such marriages, local Japanese American also viewed them unfavorably. Haoles viewed the practice as degrading, conflating non-white women with promiscuity and like characteristics. In contrast, Japanese American women usually took one of two justifications 1) race consciousness and 2) the uncertainty and instability of such couplings.

Throughout the duration of the war, Hawaii’s society experienced a dense intertwining of race, gender, and sexuality. As Farber and Bailey note Hawaiian race relations were a dense maze of multiculturalism, “The distinction between haoles and locals was the most important one to most Caucasians, but the term “local” obscured the class distinctions and the complex ethnic hierarchy that obtained within each group. Further, the members of different ethnic groups, no matter that their place in the social hierarchy often looked at other groups with suspicion or disdain.” (199) Gender issues collided with this ethnic/racial diversity to create an atmosphere of excitement, sexuality, tension, conflict, and anger, not necessarily in equal parts at any one moment. While some like African Americans and some women experienced greater freedom than they might on the mainland, others felt burdened or violated, as many Hawaiian women of numerous ethnic backgrounds claimed. Yet, even with this knowledge, some residents believed servicemen generally deserved the benefit of the doubt considering their sacrifices and the uncertainty of it all. In many ways, Hawaii’s wartime experience illustrated the possibilities and limitation of the mainland’s future. .

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