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Among a blue background covered with yellow bright stars, a baseball player raises his large brown baseball glove to catch a baseball. On the right side, there is a WWII soldier in his uniform, standing proudly. In between them are the cursive lettering of the Aloha team logo and a map of the Hawaiian islands. On either side, the individuals are flanked by trees.
(Arantza Peña Popo
The 'Aloha Team' Brought Comfort, Camaraderie And Fleeting Fame To Japanese American Ballplayers
During WWII, Japanese American servicemen from Hawaii formed a baseball team that drew local fans nearly everywhere they played. My father was one of them.
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When I was growing up in a seaside suburb of Honolulu, one of the things I was absolutely sure of was that I would someday play for the New York Yankees. The story began long before I was born, as you’ll see, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Baseball was a big deal in Hawaii in the old days. Alexander Cartwright, who is credited with organizing the game and creating the original New York Knickerbockers baseball team, ended his career in Hawaii and is buried in a Honolulu cemetery. In the Japanese community especially, baseball was like a religion. Every Japanese American boy grew up wanting to play in Honolulu Stadium.

One of them was my father, Hideo.

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A vintage photo shows a man in a light-colored baseball uniform and glove, catching a ball.
Hideo Yamashita in June 1940, catching a ball in the outfield as a player for the Rising Suns.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

My dad was born and raised in Honoka`a, on the Big Island. He moved with his widowed mother to Honolulu when he was eight and played high school baseball at the historic St. Louis School.

Afterward, he went to work at the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, and played serious baseball on the side.

Before World War II, my dad was playing in the semi-pro Hawai`i Baseball League. It was a racialized colonial baseball league that consisted of six teams, each representing a particular ethnic group.

The “Tigers” were the Chinese team. The “Asahi,” or “Rising Suns” were — what else — the Japanese team. The Portuguese team was called the “Braves,” and the “Wanderers” were the white, or haole, team. Inexplicably, the Filipino and Hawaiian teams were just the “Filipinos” and the “Hawaiians.”

A vintage black and white photo shows three men posing together in light-colored baseball uniforms, facing the camera, with a fourth man at left facing away.
Left to right: Goro Moriguchi, Hideo Yamashita and Joe Takata in their Aloha Team uniforms.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

On the eve of the war, members of the Rising Suns included my dad, his good friend Goro Moriguchi, and his best friend, Joe Takata. All were members of the Hawaii National Guard.

From orders to leave to the 100th Battalion

On June 5, 1942, all the men of Japanese ancestry in the Hawaii National Guard were ordered to leave the Hawaiian Islands.

The War Department was expecting a Japanese invasion of the islands, and the last thing they wanted was 1,400 men with Japanese faces manning Hawaii’s coastal defenses.

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At the time my dad had been dating my future mother, Margaret. She’d graduated in 1940 from Japan Women’s University in Tokyo, the Radcliffe of Japan. When she returned to Honolulu, she was not able to get a job because of strong anti-Japanese feelings, and ended up making chirashi sushi at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in downtown Honolulu.

Against her family’s wishes, they eloped a week before my dad shipped out. Dad’s best friend Joe Takata married his sweetheart, Frances, as well.

A vintage black and white photo shows a woman in a white dress and hat holding flowers at left, and a man at right in a white suit jacket and dark slacks.
The author’s parents on their wedding day.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

Within a few days my dad, Joe, and Goro, along with the other Japanese American servicemen, were put aboard the U.S.S. Maui and shipped out of Hawaii.

Their destination was a secret, but seven days later, they arrived in Oakland, where they boarded trains and were told to keep the shades drawn. Four days after that, they arrived at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. Once there, these soldiers were reconstituted as the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate).

The designation “separate” reminds us that our military was still very much segregated during World War II. The 100th Battalion was a segregated unit from Hawaii that had white and Japanese American officers. The enlisted men were almost exclusively Japanese American.

As my dad told me the story, the Hawaii boys adjusted well to life in rural Wisconsin. After all, it was still summer.

Whenever they got leave, they traveled to the big cities: Chicago, Minneapolis, and even New York City — several of them got to see the Yankees play and met Joe DiMaggio.

My father even went all the way to Allentown, Pennsylvania to visit his brother, who was beginning his career as a surgeon after a residency in Philadelphia. Dad told me that when he arrived in his Army uniform, his brother advised him not to wear it — because he might get weird looks from locals as a Japanese American in uniform.

A vintage black and white photos shows a group of soldiers in uniform walking down the sidewalk of a busy street. At far left, a bystander in a hat looks at them.
A group of 100th Battalion soldiers in Minneapolis, left to right: Tokuichi "Heavy" Koizumi, the author's father Hideo Yamashita, Masayoshi "Mushy" Miyagi, Goro Moriguchi and Shigeo "Joe" Takata. Note the expression of the bystander at left.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

The residents of Sparta, Wisconsin, the town closest to Camp McCoy, had more “aloha” for the Japanese Americans from Hawaii.

“The Hawaiians are welcome in the business places, and recreation centers in Sparta and neighboring cities,” wrote a reporter for the Sparta Herald, “not only because they are good customers but because people find them friendly, honest, and very interesting to visit with.”

Members of the 100th Battalion participated in the life of Sparta and nearby towns in another way. They formed several sports teams, which competed with local teams. One of these, naturally, was a baseball team — dubbed the “Aloha Team” — that included the three Rising Sun players: my dad, Joe, and Goro.

Origins of ‘The Aloha Team’

My dad was a catcher and played in the outfield; Goro pitched, and Joe played outfield.

The local press gave the “Aloha Team” a distinctive Hawaiian identity, rather than a Japanese one, describing its members as “Hawaiians” or occasionally as “Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry.”

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This appears to have been carefully thought out: Calling them “Hawaiians” was a way to deracialize and exoticize them, and to prevent locals from using the “J” word to refer to them, and the strategy seemed to work.

The following from the Vernon County Register, a local newspaper, was typical:

“The Hawaiians, a group of America’s soldiers who are natives from the South Pacific land of pineapple and palms, are at McCoy for special military training and have already appeared in many exciting sports contests in neighboring cities.”

The Aloha Team played up its “Hawaiian” identity: Players often were accompanied by a small group of 100th Battalion musicians who played Hawaiian music before games, danced, and handed out leis.

That summer, the Aloha Team traveled around Wisconsin and Minnesota, playing semi-pro and amateur teams from all over both states in exhibition games. They compiled a 6-4 record, beating teams from half a dozen small and big towns: Viroqua, Cashton, Whitehall, Madison, Baraboo, and Greenwood. They even got to play a minor-league team, Wisconsin’s Green Bay Blue Jays.

They became locally famous. Nearly everywhere they played, local fans turned out to see them. They cheered when the boys from Hawaii made good plays, and left the field convinced that they had seen some good baseball. At some games, farmers in overalls took to expressing their approval by handing out $5 bills to Aloha Team members who made good plays.

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In early August, the Aloha Team played a team from another segregated unit, the “Dixie Bombers” from the 732nd, an all-Black unit that was said to include several Negro League standouts. It was heavily promoted. Before the game, the “Hawaiian Serenaders” and “Dixie Singers” performed Hawaiian music and rhythm and blues, before the Aloha Team drubbed the Dixie Bombers 21-0.

This game took place just as steps were being taken to break down the color barrier in professional baseball. It was the all-American sport, played by American soldiers who America did not like or trust.

Life at Camp Jerome

In January 1943, the 100th Battalion left Camp McCoy and moved south to Mississippi for more training. That spring, the Aloha Team began to practice again.

Over that July 4 weekend, they traveled to Denson, Arkansas to play teams of internees at the Jerome War Relocation Center — one of the 10 concentration camps where Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast and Hawaii were incarcerated.

There were more than 800 inmates here from Hawaii. Most had been branded as “enemy aliens” and arrested in the days after the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Aloha Team played two Jerome teams, selected from the camp’s three baseball leagues. They lost two games and won one. The only high point for the Aloha Team was an epic home run that its best hitter, Joe Takata, hit in the third and last game — a fastball that Joe blasted farther than anyone could remember a ball being hit at the Camp Jerome diamond.

A vintage black and white photo shows a group of baseball players posing as a team on a playing field.
The 100th Battallion’s Aloha Team during their visit to play at Camp Jerome in Arkansas, one of the many concentration camps where fellow Japanese Americans were being held during WWII.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

During that game, my dad heard someone calling out from the stands. It was a family friend from Honolulu who had been on the FBI’s enemy aliens list.

The man invited him to have dinner in his cramped 20-by-10 one-room “apartment,” living conditions that shocked and saddened my father. Over dinner, the man fumed about a “dirty dog” — the nisei informant who had accompanied the FBI agents when they arrested him.

Off to war in North Africa

In August 1943, the 100th Battalion completed its training. The Aloha Team and the rest of the battalion left the U.S. later that month.

They reached North Africa that Sept. 2, and joined the 133rd Regiment, replacing a battalion that had lost more than one-third of its men fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

When the 133rd heard that the 100th Battalion had some good ballplayers, they quickly recruited them to play for their team in a game against a rival team that had beaten them.

It was a hard-fought game, but first baseman “Turtle” Omiya hit a double that drove in the winning runs. My dad kept one of the balls from that 4-0 victory.

A photo composition shows three different sides of a weathered baseball with writing on it, including the words "North Africa."
Three angles of the baseball used by Aloha Team members in their first game after arriving in North Africa.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

A few days later, the Aloha Team regrouped to play the 133rd’s team and walloped them 26-0 in a no hit, no run win. It would be their last game.

On Sept. 19, 1943, the 100th Battalion left North Africa and went ashore at Salerno, Italy. The next day, they moved out and headed north. They were ordered to take control of the highway that ran between the towns of Avellino and Benevento.

On the morning of Sept. 29, as they approached the hillside town of Chiusano, they suffered their first casualty — Joe Takata, the Aloha Team’s slugger.

Joe had been leading his squad when he was hit by shrapnel from an artillery shell. He died a short time later. Members of the platoon dragged Joe’s body back to safety. He was sent back for burial to Hawaii, where many years later, a baseball field at Fort Shafter on Oahu would be named in his honor.

Over the next two and a half years, six more Aloha Team members would die, among them second baseman Masayoshi “Mushy” Miyagi. Several others would be wounded. Turtle Omiya, the star first baseman who brought home the winning runs in their first North Africa game, was permanently blinded.

When the 100th Battalion reached Rome, the surviving members of the Aloha Team took their baseball gear to a stadium that Mussolini had built and played some ball.

I know this because my father was one of the surviving ballplayers.

A vintage black and white photo shows an aerial view of a sports stadium.
The Foro Italico (once known as Foro Mussolini), the stadium that the author believes is where his father described playing ball with other surviving Aloha Team members after the 100th Batallion reached Rome.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

The return home

My father returned home safely from the war in early 1946 and went back to work at Hawaiian Pine, as locals called it. I was born in November of that year.

Baseball remained a part of my dad’s life. He taught me how to play and carefully nurtured my childhood baseball career. He coached briefly, then became a professional umpire, calling games nights and weekends.

A photo montage shows a color photo of a man with gray hair at left, and a newspaper article with the headline "Mr. Umpire" at right.
The author, at left; a 2008 local story about the author's father, Hideo “Hide” Yamashita, headlined “Mr. Umpire.”
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

When I was 9, the Yankees came to Honolulu. My father was one of the umpires chosen to call the game.

He arranged to have my picture taken with the Yankee greats, including Casey Stengel, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. I’ll never forget it.

A vintage black and white photo shows a baseball player in uniform, kneeling on one knee, showing a baseball bat to a little boy in a Hawaiian shirt.
The author with Mickey Mantle, 1955.
(Courtesy Sam Yamashita)

Many years later, I discovered a box in my bedroom closet filled with what looked like old baseball photographs. When I found them, the pictures were folded in half or rolled up. Intrigued, I put each into a plastic photograph sleeve and identified the player in each photograph. It turned out that they were American major leaguers who played baseball in the islands during the war, including Joe DiMaggio, Pee Wee Reese and many others.

The photographs, I learned, were sent to my dad by Sam Uyehara, an old family friend who owned Smile Cafe, a favorite Waikīkī haunt of the major leaguers. Sam’s brother was a press photographer, and he’d take pictures of the ballplayers and have them sign and dedicate them to my father.

Dad appears to have carried the pictures around in his U.S. Army duffle bag as he moved from North Africa to Italy, and then eventually on to France.

They are priceless and rare mementos of an extraordinary and very personal baseball story.

  • Samuel Yamashita, the eldest son of Aloha Team member Hideo Yamashita, is the Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

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