Chapter IV: The Expendable

A strange experience came my way one day. A young, Hawaiian-born Japanese fireman came into my office with tears in his eyes. He explained that he just had his seamen's papers taken away from him and he could not ship anymore. The reason? He was a Japanese-American, and he had a police record in the Hawaiian Islands. While growing up in Honolulu, he was arrested at age 13 for stealing a neighbor's bicycle. He was sentenced to two weeks at the reform school. Most of the Japanese on the Pacific Coast were now confined behind barbed wire because the government had convinced itself that it could no longer trust the Japanese, American-born or otherwise; it wanted to do the same to this seaman. But they were finding it hard to do. He had just arrived back in the country from Gibraltar a week earlier. His vessel, loaded with munitions, was blown up from under him when an enemy bomber made a direct hit on his ship. He and ten other crew members were the only ones that survived the attack.

The Navy brass knew they had a bum case on their hands trying to ship this seaman off to a concentration camp with a seagoing record like his, so they came up with the childhood caper of stealing a neighbor's bike. When he told me the story I really got pissed off. I got on the phone and called Naval Intelligence and insisted on a face-to-face meeting to get this youngster vindicated and back to sea.

We sat in a small room with five big wheels, loaded down with authority--campaign ribbons and gold stripes. No rank was less than that of captain. Some papers were pulled out of a folder. My friend's name was read off, some vital statistics touched on, and then his police record and the disposition of the case. I found it difficult to contain myself. "Are you telling me that because he stole a bike from a neighbor for what one must assume was a joy ride, and after he spent two weeks in a reform school, you're proposing to strip him of his livelihood and his citizenship? Hell, I could go aboard any American ship and I would guarantee that at least one in every three crew members has some sort of police record, be it for petty larceny, boozing up, or being evicted from some flophouse because they couldn't meet the rent. Yet you pick on this poor kid because he took a ride on a neighbor's bike. How insane! Are you aware that his last ship was blown up and sunk in Gibraltar harbor a few weeks ago? And, by the way, he's been back in this country one week and already he's looking for another ship. Now, to me, that's dedication."

"Well, Mr. Bailey," said the spokesman, "we have our commitment to our country to administer what is in the best interest of all, and it is our judgment that having him employed on American vessels is not in the country's best interest. He will be free to seek work elsewhere, but not on board our ships."

"Are you telling me, sir, that our country's interest would be in some sort of danger if this man were to resume following his occupation of shipping?" I asked.

The reply came back swiftly. "Yes, that's it. We consider his presence on an American ship a danger."

I looked at my friend; his face was ashen. Tears were welling up in his eyes. He was fighting to hold them back. If he felt bad, I was equally miserable. For a moment, I questioned my own attitude. Did I charge too far, too fast, too adamantly? Could I have negotiated this beef another way and maybe obtained better results? I looked at the panelists bearing the gold braid who had the authority to make life-dealing decisions for the industry. Four of the five would not even look at me, but one did. I detected a feeling of sorrow, of sympathy for my side. It was what Clarence Darrow always looked for, that one small slit of sun fighting to break through the dark clouds. It was my one big hope and the last possible effort I could make to save the situation. I decided to go all out.

"Well, if you say he's a danger to our country, just turning him loose as you propose is no solution nor is it in the best interest of our country. Therefore, as an American who loves his country as ardently as anyone in this room, I ask you to take him out and shoot him as the best form of protecting this country." My companion looked at me with a tinge of horror on his face. The military spokesman, annoyed, replied, "That's unthinkable. That's absurd, and not the issue."

"But it is the issue," I replied. "On the one hand you say he is a danger on board our ships and a danger to the security of the country, but on the other you don't seem to care where he would go to work, just so long as it's not on American ships. So you're willing to take this American-born youngster, wrest away his means of livelihood, and then throw this so-called bomb into the laps of the unsuspecting American people. The seamen I speak for have another view of this man. They say that any man who has the guts to haul a shipload of ammunition across the ocean dodging a wolfpack of Nazi submarines and reaching his destination only to be sunk by an enemy plane, be hauled out of the water after two hours of dog paddling, and then come home and insist upon being shipped out again, is the kind of shipmate they understand and feel proud to sail with. They also feel that if it's his destiny to die in this war, then by all means let him die by the hands of the enemy while he is fighting for our best interest, instead of, as you propose, dying by disgrace and humiliation because his family could not afford to buy him a bicycle when he was a kid. No, gentlemen, my membership--which as you well know are out there in the forefront delivering the goods--feel very strongly about this case, so strong that I am prepared to take it to the newspapers and to Mr. Roosevelt's office. I'm asking you to reconsider your decision."

My friend's face lit up like a Christmas tree. He was pleased with my remarks. The officer I wanted most to impress turned abruptly when I looked his way. He asked his fellow officers for a caucus. They quickly excused themselves and walked out of the room.

"Well," I said to my friend, "at least we tried, didn't we?" He leaned over closer to me. "You didn't mean it when you said I should be taken out and shot, did you?"

"Of course not," I quickly assured him. "It was just another way of getting across a point. Now I think we have a better chance, how much I don't know."

It was ten minutes before they came back into the room. All five men faced us. There was a calmness in the voice of the spokesman. "Mr. Bailey," he said, "we may have left you with the wrong impression, and we are sorry if that is the case. It is obvious to us that this case means a lot to your organization, to the young man in question and to you personally. In our group we do have differing opinions on this case, but we are of one opinion that we must all take responsibility for our action. Do you have enough confidence in this man that you would trust your life to him?"

Oh boy, I said to myself. We have a winner here, or at least pretty close to a winner. I looked at the officer who I surmised was on my side. There was a warm glow on his face. I almost got the feeling that he was communicating, "Well, I agree with some of your ideas and I told my associates we should reach some compromise with you."

"It's a good question, sir, and I'd like to answer it in the following way. I value my life, like you and you and anyone else. I trust my life wholeheartedly in the hands of this individual. On top of that trust, I would also be the first to volunteer to hang him if that trust is ever violated. That day, sir, I know will never come. If it will please the gentlemen at this session, yes, I take full responsibility for this man's actions. That, I swear to you."

"All right, then, I place this man in your hands and hope for the best. He can go back to sea. And as for you, Mr. Bailey, you certainly live up to your reputation of doing the best for your membership."

I shook hands with all the gold braid and departed as quietly as I had arrived. We had won the beef. We walked the five blocks to the union hall. All the time my friend heaped praise on me for getting him back his right to go to sea. I had only done what my job required--to represent him in the best possible way. I really didn't deserve all that fine praise, but once in a while it was nice to hear.

A few days later I shook hands with him and said goodbye as he signed on a ship that was to join a convoy of ships bound for the Russian port of Murmansk. I never saw him again.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three