A third of Hawaii’s population in 1941 was of Japanese ancestry, so it should be no surprise that many of the 68 civilians deaths resulting from the attack on Pearl Harbor were of Japanese descent. Comments were made about the irony of Japan killing so many of its own people, but there was an abundance of irony in the air that day and would be for many days after.
Top Hawaiian athletes, national AAU swimming champion Takeshita Hirose and standout amateur boxers Henry Oshiro and Richard Chinen among them, served in the military, helping to defend the United States during WWII. This while members of their families were held in “custodial detention,” a Honolulu Advertiser headline reading “G-Men Start Rounding Up Japanese Here.”
Twelve people died from one bombing at the Cherry Blossom Sweet Shop on South Kukui Street, a saimin stand about eight miles from Pearl Harbor, an hour after the attack ended. Seven of the twelve were young men involved with the boxing program of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO).
Inamine had the most potential of this group, probably the most potential of any young boxer on the islands. He had won national AAU tournaments and beaten future world professional champions Dado Marino and Harold Dade as an amateur. Paul Inamine had recently turned professional and won his second fight on Friday, December 5th, two days before his death.
He had moved to Honolulu from his home on the Hilo side of the island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island, for increased opportunities in boxing. Inamine was so loyal to the CYO that on the Monday before his November 14th, 1941, professional debut, he fought in an amateur tournament that was important to his CYO team.
He died while leading amateur CYO boxers to an afternoon weigh-in for a show to be held that night. They were invited to stop at the Cherry Blossom by popular professional flyweight Toy Tamanaha, who lived behind the shop, to talk for a while before the weigh-in.
Kikuyo Hirasaki ran the Cherry Blossom, owned by her mother. Born on Kauai and raised in Hawaii, her uncle had arranged a Utah marriage with her husband Jitsuo in 1932. Their first child, Jackie, was born in 1933. The parents worked in restaurants for four years before moving the family to Honolulu. Two more children followed, Robert and Shirley, as Kikuyo took over her mother’s restaurant while her husband worked for a local soft drink company.
The Hirasaki children stayed with their mother at the restaurant during the day, becoming friends and playing with the neighborhood kids. On the morning of December 7th, after the Japanese had withdrawn, radio programs reported on the war with Japan having begun, warning residents to stay inside as much as possible. Mrs. Hirasaki told her children and husband to wait in the dining area as she worked in the kitchen.
Inamine, , Masayoshi “Freddie” Higa, and James Koba were standing just outside the Cherry Blossom, while the four other boxers were inside the front door, playing pinball when the shop was destroyed in one blast. Inamine died instantly, Higa and Koba within a few days.
Tamanaha and Mrs. Hirasaki were badly injured, with Mrs. Hirasaki being knocked unconscious, waking in pain, and bleeding from the chest. She was taken to Queen’s Hospital. “It was just a big pile of people at Queen’s,” Mrs. Hirasaki said. “The doctors and nurses didn’t know what to do. They were running around crazy. The ones that talk, they pick them up and treat them. I was able to talk.”
Tamanaha could not speak. In and out of consciousness, he was declared dead in hospital and taken to the morgue, where a police officer assigned to assist in the processing of casualties heard a moan and located Tamanaha among the bodies.
On the verge of death for weeks, Tamanaha was in hospital and rehabilitation for over a year, enduring eight surgeries and the loss of both legs above the knee. Once described by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald of Hilo as “The most promising professional flyweight in the islands,” Tamanaha’s boxing career was over.
The transition to a new life was not easy. Having received his draft notice shortly before the bombing, Tamanaha had been waiting for his induction into the Army but, with his disability, was considered incapable of active duty. “I couldn’t get over it during the first four months, and it bothered my mind a lot,” Tamanaha said. “But, I found out that I had to learn to take it…”
Tamanaha returned to Hilo and opened a package liquor store with a few friends. He married and had four daughters, with his family moving to Honolulu to open a bar and restaurant named the Alice T. in honor of Mrs. Tamanaha. His friend George Costa, a mechanic, outfitted a 1948 Dodge so Tamanaha could operate the vehicle with his hands.
Mrs. Hirasaki was not allowed to cry when told her husband, three children, and nephew for whom she had been caring were dead, and she was tranquilized, her family fearing that hysteria might lead to a longer time in hospital.
The Cherry Blossom, with the help of Mrs. Hirasaki, re-opened within a month. WWII activity provided steady business, but Mrs. Hirasaki would be haunted by the loss of her family for the remainder of her life. “I should have let them [her husband and kids] go home, and they would have been safe,” she said. Her daughter Shirley had wanted to stay with her grandmother that morning, but Mrs. Hirasaki pulled her away, saying, “No, no, no, you stay with mama.”
“I should have let her go, but I didn’t know it would be like this…,” she said.
Mrs. Hirasaki would remarry but not have more children. “I just love children,” she told the Honolulu Advertiser in 1991 but found it too painful to hold someone else’s baby in her arms. Whenever she heard of another mother losing a child, she would “think of my family right away.”
The boxer Oshiro was stationed in England as a sergeant when he sent a letter to the Honolulu Advertiser. Oshiro wrote that with the preparation for battle, he did not have much time for boxing, but, “You’d be surprised how similar boxing is to bayonet fighting. The Army does not teach feinting in bayonet training, but I improvise my own steps to confuse my opponent.”
Inamine’s younger brother Joe served with Oshiro, who observed that Joe “…fights something like Paul but hasn’t got the speed like him.”
It would be years before the U.S. government acknowledged that less than ten of the civilian deaths on that day could be directly attributed to the Japanese. The great majority died due to what is now called friendly fire, with the Cherry Blossom explosion likely the result of an anxious sailor firing anti-aircraft shells long after the attack was over.
This was not known during the course of the war, of course, and Oshiro, in his letter, admitted to being restless, with revenge on his mind. “Our boys in this outfit are just asking for action, and it can’t be too soon before we’ll see it,” he wrote. “We’ll probably have to swim the English Channel to get to Berlin, but we’ll get there. Then on to Tokyo, and we’ll make Tojo pay for Paul Inamine’s death.”