Honoring heroes

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Visitors look at an exhibit spotlighting the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center welcomes thousands of visitors and receives hundreds of research requests every year. The center’s archive is home to an extensive collection of artifacts, photos, documents, books and oral histories. A nonprofit organization, the NVMC’s mission is to “ignite human potential by inspiring people to find the hero in themselves through the legacy of Nisei veterans.” MELANIE AGRABANTE photos

Leonard Oka remembers the moment it all began. The year was 1981, and the clock on his bedside table read 2 a.m.

A restless Oka lay awake, thoughts tumbling through his head. His mind was occupied by a question: What would be the perfect gift for his young son? And then it hit him. “I wanted him to hear his grandfather’s stories,” he said.

Oka’s late father, Clarence “Hekka” Oka, was a master storyteller. Seated at the kitchen table in his Kihei home, he would vividly recount his experiences serving in World War II as a member of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an Army unit made up of Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the Mainland — and the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. “I grew up in a 442nd family,” said Oka, whose father-in-law also served in the 442nd.

In the weeks following that sleepless night, three generations of Okas would meet for lunch every Sunday. Son and grandson would sit at the kitchen table and listen with rapt attention as the eldest Oka shared riveting and inspiring stories of loyalty, courage and sacrifice. Oka says he soon realized there were other nisei soldiers with tales to tell — and more children and grandchildren who needed to hear them. That’s when a plan began to take shape. He decided to start a first-of-its-kind organization that would provide a platform for 442nd veterans to share their stories with family, friends and fellow soldiers. He brought the idea to his father and the members of Maui’s 442nd Veterans Club, who wholeheartedly endorsed it.

A few months later, after a flurry of preparation, the newly minted Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the 442nd held its inaugural event with nearly 20 members in attendance (there are now close to 100 members). At first, the then-fledgling group organized and hosted camaraderie-building social events, but it eventually took on a different role. Oka says veterans started bringing him memorabilia — everything from service uniforms to old newspaper clippings to wartime photos.

Kahului resident Leonard Oka has worked tirelessly over the years to preserve and share the stories of Maui’s nisei veterans.

As the membership roster grew, so did the number of donated items. Soon, Oka and his fellow Sons and Daughters had a trove of artifacts stored in a rented apartment in Wailuku. (An air-conditioning unit and dehumidifier ran day and night to protect the apartment’s precious contents.) It quickly became evident the group needed a permanent facility to properly house the historical treasures they’d collected. “We told them we’d take care of these things,” Oka said. “We owed them something better.”

And not just the members of the 442nd.

In 1991, Oka teamed up with representatives from several other veterans’ organizations to form a nonprofit and raise funds for a memorial center to honor the nisei soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 100th Infantry Battalion, Military Intelligence Service and 1399th Engineering Battalion. In 2013, after many years of planning and fundraising, the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center made its public debut. The much-longed-for building houses an education center, exhibit space and archive with more than 200 special collections. It is also home to an intergenerational center composed of Kansha Preschool and Maui Adult Day Care Center’s Oceanview facility, one of only a handful of intergenerational centers in the state, and the Stanley Izumigawa Pavilion.

Oka served on the NVMC’s board of directors since its formation in 1991 until 2014. In 2015, he was given the honorary title of director emeritus in recognition of his tireless devotion to the center. Today, he continues to serve as president of the renamed Maui’s Sons and Daughters of Nisei Veterans (which, among other things, sponsors the annual Chrysanthemum Festival to raise money for scholarships and historical preservation programs) and routinely lends a helping hand at the NVMC.

Oka credits the NVMC’s continued success to the community’s support and the partnerships forged over the years. Building a memorial center from scratch was clearly no small feat, but Oka says he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. “I spent half of my life working to get it to where it is today,” he said. “We did it for the veterans . . . it’s always been about them.”

The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center is located at 1 Go For Broke Place (“Go for Broke” was the motto of the 442nd) off of Kahului Beach Road in Kahului. The NVMC’s current exhibit, “Toyo: Behind the Glass Eye,” an exclusive collection of photographs by renowned Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake, runs through June 14. Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans hosts free movie matinees every second Saturday of the month at the NVMC’s Education Center. To learn more about the matinees or for more information about the NVMC, call 244-6862, email info@nvmc.org or visit www.nvmc.org.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.