The Nimitz Byway

The Nimitz Byway

My first professional written article was published in the Star Advertiser Sunday, Nov. 24th.  On a trip to Texas last year, it dawned on me how Hawaii and Fredericksburg, Texas, a small town just west of Austin, north of San Antonio, are directly connected by a man who helped win the Pacific War against the Japanese.  So I wrote a travel piece on visiting this small town in Texas and the significance of one of the town’s greatest sons has in the history of Hawaii.

Chester Nimitz was born to a German pioneer’s family who help settled parts of Texas.  Nimitz rose to be the US Navy Admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  His role in the defeat of the Japanese is slightly overshadowed by the US Army’s Gen. Douglas MacArthur; but in Hawaii, Nimitz’s legacy is not forgotten.  Nimitz’s name lends itself to one of Oahu’s most important thoroughfares, Nimitz Highway, along with a nearby elementary school several businesses including a yoga studio and a BBQ joint, although those might be named for their proximity to the road, not the Admiral.  At the end of the war, upon returning to Hawaii, he was given a hero’s welcome and led a parade from the battlegrounds of Pearl Harbor to the Kingdom of Hawaii’s historic Iolani Palace.  The Admiral was named “Alii aimoku,” or supreme chief, by all the Hawaiian Orders in Hawaii – a rare feat for a haole from Fredericksburg, TX.  A war museum was established in his family’s old Fredricksburg hotel and the collection of WWII artifacts rivals Pearl Harbor’s historic museum.  The Nimitz Museum actually has the Japanese midget submarine that washed ashore on the beaches of Oahu after the  Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  Quite a collection, indeed!

Please take a moment to read my first travel piece written as a professional “writer.”  I’ve never thought of myself as a writer yet I’ve written most of my adult life.  Here’s my first chance to prove I can.





Thinking in past tense

Thinking in past tense

As I put life in perspective and my career on the right path, I randomly go through my archives for creativity and inspiration.  I came across an image from Tokyo taken in 2008.  Wanderlust in Tokyo overwhelms me.  Tokyo’s facade of neon noise easily cracks open allowing the curious to see Tokyoites grasping on to ancient beliefs.  Whether its for show or true understanding is not for me to say.  But Tokyo’s religion of consumerism reigns true.

This shot, taken right outside of Shinjuku St., if I recall, had a troupe of musicians playing flutes and banging tin drums for some reason or another.  I wasn’t sure but it wasn’t religious.  But this guy in a worn rice paddy had sat smoking a hand rolled cigar.  I don’t know what he was doing, why he was there or why I was there.  Wanderlust, a lack of language, and naivety can lead to some interesting images.



Two versions, two languages.

Two versions, two languages.

Halekulani Living Magazine, the hotel’s in-house publication, published my spread on the beautiful Valley of the Temples in Kaneohe for their most recent issue.  The magazine is published both in English and Japanese hence I have two spreads in two languages published.  Its always impressive to see your work with unfamiliar text and scribbles.

Of course the top spread, my favorite, is the Japanese version while the other is the  more prominent English version.  I found my shot of the Rev. Hosen Fukuhara in the doorway graphically more appealing to me but the photo editor loved the idea of having the bokeh’d temple ceiling as the text page.  Its a hard edit to make but both spreads are fantastic.



As our jet slipped over the dark Pacific Ocean, silvery moonlight fell upon the clouds casting shapeless shadows all across the sea.  Land seem to spring up as the jet continued making me feel as if we had never escaped the land.  Theroux described the Pacific Ocean “like outerspace…a sort of galaxy,” islands, like stars, dotting and endless sky.  And although I was only looking at shadows, I felt as if millions of uninhabited islands waited to be discovered, only to vanish as night turned away.

Our military plane was bound for Midway Atoll, about 1250 miles west of Honolulu, for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.  The US military extended an invitation to fly media, veterans, and various personnel to the remote island to attend the memorial celebration.  We had to arrive before sunrise on Midway as the atoll is now a wildlife refuge.  Endangered albatrosses nest on Midway and a mid-air collision with a large adult could potentially cause major damage to an airplane .

The Battle of Midway is a historic David vs. Goliath struggle where a smaller, out-gunned and less experienced US navy took on the vastly superior Japanese and defeated them, thus thwarting their naval aggression in the Pacific and placing Japan in a defensive role the rest of World War II.  At the cost of hundreds of lives, the US sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers.  Much of the destruction caused within minutes when, by chance, Japanese pilots were caught rearming and refueling as US dive bombers attacked.  Three carriers were sunk almost immediately and a fourth one sunk the next day.  Historically, the Battle of Midway turned the tide and helped the US gain an advantage in the war.

Although Midway Atoll was regarded by the Japanese as a critical base to conquer, the Japanese only bombed the island but never landed troops.  Many US attack planes took off from the island but were quickly shot down by the more experienced Japanese aviators in their state-of-the-art fighter planes.  The memorial ceremony recognizes the significance of the battle and remembers those who died.

Because of the designation of the Northwest Hawaiian Island being a wildlife refuge,  we had to arrive and depart in darkness.   As we exited the plane, I noticed these oddly shaped shadows wiggling and moving all around the airport.  I couldn’t make out what my ears and nose were telling me but as the sun began to rise, I quickly noticed these shapes were actually gooney chicks.  THOUSANDS of albatrosses were everywhere.  Of course there were none on the runway but just about anywhere else there were thousands upon thousands.  It was absolutely amazing yet frightening at the same time.  I  felt as if I was on a Moreau-esque island where humans were cannibalized by giant, fluffy birds.  Only the birds knew the secret, and I, clearly did not.

Midway’s buildings spanned generations of architecture and structures.  From early 1900’s structures housing workers who laid trans-Pacific telegraph cable, historic war-time hangars and command posts, to post war dormitories buildings which housed military and civilians living on the small island.  Well known Detroit architect Albert Kahn also designed many of the officer’s homes on the islands lending an air of designed civility to the remote outpost in the Pacific.  However, its the feathered architecture the is the most noticeable as you wander the island.  These squawking, ill-tempered fledglings seem more gooney than bright, but have managed to outpace the more clever humans.

As the ceremony marks 70 years, only two Battle of Midway veterans were able to attend the ceremony.  Age and time take their toll on many of the vets and many believe World War II memorials will no longer have any veterans in attendance in the next few years.  The ceremony recognizes the land battle as well as the sea battle that played out just a few miles away from the atoll.  Midway was bombed and sustained heavy damage from Japanese attacks but the real fight was out in the sea.  The two vets, both who were 90-years-old, were stationed on the island and recalled, with clarity, their roles in the attacks.  One complained he wasn’t able to fire off his gun because they were ordered to be underground when the first wave of the Japanese attack occurred and the other nonagenarian counted more than 30 airplanes flying over his position.  Though he fiddled with the straps, he proudly wore his WWII dough boy helmet that kept him safe during the Japanese bombardment.

The military band played, the color guard marched, and tears flowed as the Star Spangled Banner played.  Speeches were given about valor, heroes, and those who gave their lives.  Flowers were laid and a final salute and Taps ended the recognition of a fight so long ago.  At the end of the memorial, the attendees, including a couple of dozen Thai workers who live and maintain the island, thanked the men for their sacrifices.  Both vets, along with two others who were on later stationed on Midway after the battle, stumbled with their emotions as they remembered their lives from so long ago.

Afterwards, we were allowed to explore the small island and found much of it was in disrepair and abandoned.  Not much you can do if a bunch of endangered feathered-friends have planted themselves in every nook and cranny.  More so, the island lacks the money to help restore this remote outpost.  No unwelcome visitors are allowed hence there is no outside tourist dollars to grease the economy.  There are no resorts, no dive companies, no Roberts tourists bus clogging the roads, no Hilo Hattie, no Starbucks, no fake natives dancing the hula.  It is most likely the atoll will continue to function with the help of the US government but its status as a wildlife refuge makes it a bit tough to maintain.    Only birds, the Thais, a Federal cop, and a bunch of volunteers cleaning the beaches of the world’s sea garbage.

The large runway on Midway is extremely vital to trans-pacific air travel as large jets can land on the atoll.  The importance of the trans-pacific runway was recognized in 2011 when a flight from HNL To Osaka was diverted to Midway after a major crack was noticed in the windshield of the cockpit.  Close to 400 people were onboard the Delta 747.  However, many who maintain the island are complaining about the condition of the seawall that protects the runway from strong winter waves.  Without proper federal funding, the runway could be in jeopardy.

Life on this remote place must be harsh but the people who work and call this place home clearly are not itching to leave.  A small convenience store selling food, beer, and other necessities is stocked from imported goods.  A bowling alley and movie house give some a way to avoid rock fever and I was told a few of the Thai workers formed a rock band and play Thai rock every so often.  I asked about satellite TV and oddly they get lots of Thai TV but when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, does the NYSE really matter?  There’s a bar overlooking a gorgeous sea and a restaurant with a rival view.  The Thais are in charge of the food and although they made a super mild curry with little spice (so the farang can eat it) the islanders are not wanting of a good time.

There is a beautiful white sand beach beach of pure white sands that words and pictures cannot clearly describe.  North Beach, as its called, is idyllic.  Perfect.  Few words could describe its colors and feel.  A beach people spend their lives trying to find.  I hate to use this word but it was pure paradise.  But to have this stunning beauty just isn’t enough at times.  Midway’s remoteness makes you feel as if you are lost in the middle of nowhere.

 But as our trip came to and end, I though of the story one of the veterans told as he talked about the struggles on the island during the war.  In full battle gear, the soldiers humped on the beautiful North beach, making  brilliantly white sand into sandbags to use as military fortifications.  With few breaks and little water, not to mention the sultry heat and sun, working in this tropical island was hell.  No one handed them a maitai and a beach chair.  Soldiering has a way of ruining a perfectly good paradise.  And as I wondered how tough life must have been, I began to think more of the young boys who had never seen a beach.  The young man who had never been on a ship.  Sailors who abandoned ship or of the aviators who were shot down and lost at sea.  I thought of both the Americans and the Japanese.  I thought about that sable blue water, that endless sea.  That blistering blue sky knowing they’d never be found.  Lost.

I recalled George Gay, a US pilot shot down during the attack on the Japanese carriers.  He survived the crash but as he floated in the Pacific for many hours, he was one of the sole witnesses to the great battle of the Pacific.  He watched two civil nations kill their best and the brightest, and mostly likely the bravest, that each had to offer.  I’ve seen clips of young Japanese sailors floating in the ocean after their ships sunk.  I wondered what their last words were…their last thoughts.

Like we landed, we escaped in darkness off Midway, avoiding the large albatross that now own the island.  As I looked down at the ocean as we flew back to Honolulu, I thought about all the lost souls who gave their lives to their country, whether they were willing or not, and whether they were doing it for the right reasons.  It isn’t the 19 year old swabby who’s creating the foreign policy but its always them who ends up in the brink.

Pearl Harbor Survivors

Pearl Harbor Survivors

Ralph Lindenmeyer, who was stationed at Ford Island during the attack, was on his way to a day of surf and sun in Waikiki after attending Church.  He saw the swarm of Japanese planes flying over the base towards Pearl Harbor.

I grew up in somewhat of an anti-Asian family.  Its not like we were totally racists and threw eggs through the neighbor’s windows…its just my father had some issues with who the US chose to go to war with most of his life.   Mrs. Hymer, our next door neighbors for most of my childhood, was Japanese and her half Japanese kids were my childhood pals.  Al was my hero, there was nothing he could do wrong.  Chris was the brain and I wanted to be smart like him and Nina, well, she was a babe.  My parents loved the family.  My super close friend in high school, Sant, (now Cheksant for some odd Buddhists reason) was from Bangkok, my NYC buddy is Yong from Korea, George Lee is Chinese, and Yukako is…of course…Japanese.   Not to mention I do live near Chinatown and can’t escape all the Asians around me here in Honoruru!

So to say anti-Asian, I mean that in a propaganda type of way because of how the US stereotyped Asians (even Bugs Bunny got into the act!)  In the 20th century, we did wage war against three, no four, possibly five types of Asians.  My father fought against two (maybe three) so I guess you could say he wasn’t fond of people who were trying to kill him.  (They weren’t found of you either, Pop!)  Of course they didn’t hit him but the pleasantries were duly noted.  I also think my father was racist in a foodie type of way because he never forgot the revolting stench of fermenting kim chee in remote Korean villages as a young soldier.  And he claimed (and believe me, he claimed LOADS of things) he encountered little kids in Vietnam gnawing on dried rat skins but, again, eh…?
But the attack on Pearl Harbor is what got him started on his anti-Asian rants.  He told me how he and his friends thought of ways to join the army as teens.  He was somewhat upset when the Japanese surrendered because he missed his chance rain revenge on those who dare to attack a military base on an American territory (that quiet possibly had been occupied by the West illegally for some time…er…what?)  But he wouldn’t have to way too long for his wish to come true.

Anyway, as a kid, we watched all those old war movies where Filipino or other non-Japanese actors portrayed the mean, cold-blooded Japanese.  They always seem to laugh when they killed a poor, unsuspecting, fresh faced, white American soldier.  (Funny, there were no black actors in those movies…and the only Latinos were, uh, well…ah Anthony Quinn…yeah…but, he covered his Mexican-ism.)  That mocking, sinister laugh that only murderous non-Japanese Filipino or slanty-eye Latino actors (Ah! That’s where they all were!) make when they portrayed those blood thirsty Japanese soldiers.  I recall my father saying once…or maybe I saw it in one of those movies…the Japanese laughed when the bombed Pearl Harbor.  They laughed as they killed all those milk-fed boys from Iowa.  I grew up thinking “those dirty Japanese rats!”  forgetting that I just spent a good long summer afternoon playing with that “half-dirty Japanese rat” Nina, who, as I must confess, my first Asian love.  I think she was about five years older than me but it didn’t matter.

I digress…it was just stupid propaganda films my father watched when he was a kid and then made my brother and me watch when we were kids.  Propaganda is powerful.

Seeing how Pearl Harbor was dramatically attacked on film, I developed a special spot for a place I had never seen.  I never gave much thought to the men aboard those sinking ships as they were always actors and in the back of my mind, I knew they’d be all right.  So when I first came to Hawaii on a work trip back in the 90′s, the first place I visited was the Memorial.  It was stunning.  Unbelievable to see the dreams of my childhood, from film/video to reality.  I though “wow.”  What else could I say?  From the Memorial, there, swimming just about 10 yards away…the smokestack of the USS Arizona!

But what was more unbelievable were the real, live, in living color, survivors!  Not those young actors I saw in the movies.  Grizzled old war vets in cheap aloha shirts.  Tough old guys who made it through the attack.  Some smiled gleefully when approached by tourists while others seem to suspiciously eye those young Japanese tourists who probably failed to understand the chaos created by their grandfathers.  The survivors were living history right before my eyes.  I think I might have talked to one or two of those guys but it was just small talk and we went our ways.  Still, it was like seeing George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, at least for me.  As I said, from cellulose to reality.

So years go by and somehow we end up permanently living in Honolulu.  I went to several Pearl Harbor ceremonies for work and realized many of those survivors I saw about eight years ago were gone.  I knew at that point I needed to make portraits of some of these guys before it was too late.  With the help of Daniel Martinez, the National Parks Service historian at the USS Arizona Memorial, I was introduced to the right people to start my documentation project.  He and Lisa Ontai share responsibility for helping me create these images.

The project evolved over the years since my first tries in 2006 and 2007.   My technique and vision have evolved from the beginning as well.  This last session in 2010 took place at the Hilton Hawaiian Village during a ceremony dinner for the survivors.  Jamm and Erica, my best assistants for the day, helped do lights and wrangle veterans to stand for my camera.  Again, there is no way I could have created this work without them.

During the session, I could tell Jamm choked on a few of the stories the vets told and Erica seemed visibly moved by what she saw and heard.  They are a little younger than me and grew up in Honolulu so they probably didn’t think much about Pearl Harbor as much as I did, but I think they walked away with a bit of history and understanding.  I’m glad they helped and participated in this project.

When talking to the survivors, its as if these men still live in the past.  I don’t mean that to disparage these men but they surely cannot escape the past that defined their lives.  Its hard to image being 17 years old and seeing friends dying horribly.  Seeing bombs blowing up all around you.  Seeing your world torn asunder.  We Americans always have that we-are-the-best attitude and nothing can stop us.  Before the war, propaganda portrayed “…the Japanese as nearsighted, bucktoothed, harmless children…” How could these nearsighted fools do this?  And do this to, us…THE US!?!?!  It surely was a blow to the American psyche.

The attack, of course, defined the Pearl Harbor survivor’s futures.  It defined their attitudes, the way they lived, how they lived…even what car they would drive.  I once asked a survivor if he drove an imported Japanese car.  He emphatically stated… “no.”  But these days, little if any of these men still carry hate towards the Japanese.  “They had a job to do as did we,” said one veteran.  And so many buried the hatchet and went on to befriend many of the Japanese war vets brave enough to visit Pearl Harbor and pay their respects.

In 1991, Japanese pilot,  Zenji Abe, who participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, attended several of the Pearl Harbor memorials the name of peace.  During a live broadcast several months before the 50th anniversary, he extended his hand in a sign of reconciliation to several Pearl Harbor survivors.  They begrudgingly accepted his hand shake but it was the start towards peace and understanding.  However, many Pearl Harbor survivors still refused to accept Abe or other Japanese war vets presence at the Memorial’s solemn ceremony.  But over time, Abe’s yearly persistence to reconcile with the past, finally won many over.  Abe now has a special part in the lure of Pearl Harbor as a man who created chaos, yet begged and finally won closure and forgiveness for a war half a century before.  And as that Pearl Harbor vet said…”They had a job to do…”  Mr. Abe died in 2007.

There is nothing more to say about the portraits as I feel they stand on their own.  I feel their eyes link all the portraits together.  Their fears, painful memories, and horrors cling to them, 69 years later.  Yet, through the wrinkles and stubbly faces, you can still see that young boy, on the deck of his ship, fighting for his life, and for the life of his country.  As we know, those who survived won.  They won with a vengeance.  A sad vengeance if you think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…yet that’s a story for another day.

So just like his son, my father’s fake anti-Asian stance never amounted to anything other than heated words over popcorn and old war movies.  He cried when the Hymers moved away.  He loves watching Jackie Chan movies, and he loves Yukako.  He also likes bad Chinese food but once accused us of feeding him dog and baby fetuses when we took him to eat dim sum.  I think he eventually ate it but I didn’t think to check under the table when we left.

My father has always embraced my nutty friends, whether they were Asian or not…so long as they left their kim chee at the door.

You can see the entire gallery at  The survivor’s gallery is under projects.