Fewer than twenty women were surrounded by several dozen servicemen at this celebration – a party or a dance organized for members of the 33rd Infantry “Prairie Division.” Several of the girls look happy to be providing a pleasant diversion for the soldiers. Some are surrounded by several men, others stand off to the side. Some couples are touching, sharing an intimate moment. Some of the men are looking eagerly at companions whose countenances range from demure to seductive. Some of the girls are dressed in clothes that would be appropriate for a school, betraying their ages. Two men are holding musical instruments and one woman is dressed in a costume that might indicate that she had been part of the evening’s entertainment.
We don’t know the occasion, but such a party would not have been unusual in Hawai‘i during World War II. The USO, YMCA, local churches, schools, and civic organizations hosted dances, mixers, parties, dinners, picnics, hula performances, and other forms of entertainment for GIs stationed in and passing through Hawai‘i. The military and local officials encouraged civilians to participate in these events and to extend courtesy to the soldiers and other military personnel. In addition to enduring martial law, gas and food rationing, job and wage freezes, and an escalated cost of living, locals were also expected to extend the spirit of aloha as part of their patriotic duty. This obligation fell especially heavily on the young women of the Territory.
There is quite a bit written about sex workers in Hawai‘i during the war. In their oral histories and memoirs, servicemen remember the long lines in front of the brothels on Hotel Street. Beth Bailey and David Farber thoroughly document this issue in their book The First Strange Place. In Aloha America, Adria Imada has discussed the ways that local hula halau performed their patriotism, entertaining the troops for the duration of the war. But little is said about the ways in which ordinary young women in Hawai‘i were encouraged to use their sexuality as a mark of their patriotism. The burden fell especially heavily on Japanese American girls who were pressured to demonstrate their own loyalty as well as the loyalty of their Issei parents and grandparents.
The war turned a spotlight on women and made sexuality a subject of open conversation and public discussion. Young women who were innocent or uninformed about sex suddenly needed to know how their bodies worked and what the thousands of men who crowded the streets of Honolulu actually wanted. The Associated Women Students at the University of Hawai‘i held lectures about sex and moral behavior. They learned everything from how to behave (“What Servicemen Like and Dislike about Honolulu Girls”) to the rudiments of sex (“Sexual Anatomy and Physiology”), knowledge they would need to protect themselves. (University of Hawaii President’s Report, 1942-43) Some lecturers cautioned the female students that it was their obligation to know the difference between a clean, respectable soldier and a “wolf.” If things went wrong, if the situation got out of hand, “…the girl was at fault because she does not understand certain basic principles of men and women relationships” (J.H, “Interracial Sex and Dating” UHSj 345-I, Student Journals, 1943).
This might have been a lot to ask from girls who had been sheltered by their families, prohibited from going to dances, or socializing outside the home. (Dance classes were held on campus for those who had never learned, sometimes taught by professionals.) Because most of the GIs who attended the dances were White, many girls had to overcome their prejudices about Haole or their disapproval of interracial dating, attitudes they learned from their more conservative parents. Hawaii’s long history of social segregation between Haole and locals was also to blame. Japanese Americans were raised with the belief that they had nothing in common with the local ruling elite who maintained their distance. For local girls before the war, the idea of socializing so intimately with Haole men was inconceivable.
Prior to the war she had a feeling of restraint when talking to a haole, she always felt the differences in the colors of their skin and never felt at ease talking to them. But through her association with soldiers brought about by common interests, she is now able to talk to haoles without any feeling of restraint. In her association she was able to converse freely, unconsciously and unaware of the differences in the color of skin (M.A., “Inter-Racial Dating” UHSj-355-I, Student Journals, 339-355).
Many young women turned the situation to their advantage and eagerly took part in the endless round of social events at which they were guaranteed a dance partner and perhaps a night out at the movies. There were limits, however. Most dances and social events were well attended, but when the USO arranged for a dance for UH women and Black soldiers stationed at ‘Ewa, only two girls signed up to go. “In this connection Mrs. Y. a haole woman on the university staff said that she would be very angry with her Mainland haole friends if they refused to go to the USO dance with the AJA’s” (F.Y. Student Journal, UHSj-326a-I).
Encouragement to socialize with GIs was accompanied by gossip and cautionary tales about going too far. A Japanese girl on the arm of a White soldier might meet with a chorus of taunts: “kamikaze” or “bakabomb.” GIs were called “suckers” because they were being taken advantage of by local girls who socialized with them in order to get a free meal or a night out at the movies. Girls who spent too much time with GIs were accused of being opportunistic, too sexually aggressive, or, worst of all, mistaken for a prostitute. And when the inevitable happened, an unplanned pregnancy or a hasty marriage, the couple might be gossiped about or shunned. In one case, possibly apocryphal, an Issei woman dropped dead when she saw her grandchild, a baby whose father was clearly Black (S.O. UHSj-351a-I, morale diary, 1944).
Local girls encountered GIs under casual circumstances, as well. Those who had defense jobs worked closely with servicemen or defense workers. GIs were stationed on every island, sometimes taking over schools or community centers. Whereas in Honolulu and on O‘ahu GIs had long been a common site, the military presence on the neighbor islands had been non-existent. The arrival of a regiment sent to Kaua‘i for training was at first a cause for alarm but gradually local girls were enjoying the distraction and entertainment the visitors inspired (C.O., “Interracial Dating” (UHSj-352-I) Student Journals 339-355). On campus, as the number of local men decreased, the number of GIs increased. Not only were GIs taking courses or participating in training programs on campus, but University buildings were being used by the Army for administrative purposes. Casual encounters encouraged fraternization and provided other opportunities for local girls to support the war, helping to maintain the morale of soldiers through informal, welcoming attitudes.
Local girls gave a number of reasons for dating servicemen. First and foremost, they felt it was their duty. Dancing, dating, and providing friendly company was all but mandated, but most girls did not object. Attending socials provided the men with comfort and a friendly face, perhaps the last one they would see before they were shipped overseas. It was a woman’s role, in the guise of a mother, sister, or girlfriend, to boost morale by maintaining a facade of normalcy. The girls were there to provide fun, to distract the men from the sacrifices they were also about to make in the name of patriotic duty.
For many girls, going to dances was a form of long-distance reciprocation. Fearing that their brothers were being neglected, they entertained servicemen who were, like their brothers, lonely, scared, and far from home. Knowing that their brothers were likely to be the object of suspicion or racism, they lowered the barriers of their own prejudices and welcomed White and sometimes even African American soldiers into their homes.
A third reason given for dating servicemen was for the experience of meeting someone new, someone from far away whose life might seem exotic or even foreign when compared to life in Hawai‘i. Most locals had no experience of life on the continent beyond what they saw in the media. White servicemen seemed sophisticated and worldly. Socializing with GIs gave local girls the opportunity to improve their English; they also learned about how White Americans lived. Their peers, the boys they had grown up with, could not compare to servicemen, “blond giants” who seemed “interesting and more considerate and thoughtful than Japanese boys.” The GIs were “smooth talkers” and “displayed their emotions more than the oriental boys.” The White servicemen were fast – a phrase which sometimes meant sexually aggressive or simply more eager to get a girl’s attention. Of course, local men objected:
The local boys have a strong dislike for soldiers. They feel that the girls prefer the soldiers to them, that the girls fall for the easy “lines” that the soldiers give them, and for this reason they also dislike and have little respect for girls who date soldiers. At first they accepted the soldiers as individuals evaluating them by their personalities, but as soon as the soldiers began offering competition they created a dislike for them (M.A. Inter-Racial Dating” UHSj-355-I, Student Journals, 339-355).
World War II looms large in local history and rightly so. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was a watershed event in US and world history and the fact that Hawai‘i is at the center is worthy of attention. But just as writing about the Civil War has tended to overlook African Americans, those who write about World War II tend to overlook what happened to the people whose lives were upended and fundamentally transformed by the war. The RASRL Collection captures this moment in Hawai‘i history from the point of view of women who are rarely heard from. They are not like the iconic “Rosie the Riveter”; these young women were living, working and studying in a war zone and thus called upon to perform their gender and sexuality in public, making themselves available to thousands of servicemen in Hawai‘i during the war. These young women had agency and the ability to choose whether or not to date or attend dances, but the fact that they were called upon to do these things in order to demonstrate their patriotism in a time of war complicates the nature of their actions and our ability to interpret their intentions.