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Listen to the words of Hawaii’s wartime citizens

USS Arizona (BB 39) following the Dec. 7, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. (U.S. National Archives/Released)

For obvious reasons, the World War II era provokes a lot of memories and nostalgia in Hawaii. Whole bookcases are devoted to it in libraries and archives.

“Era of Change, Stories from Hawai ‘i : Before, During and After the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, ” presented by the University of Hawaii’s Statewide Cultural Extension Program, will seek to bring that era back to life through the words of 13 people who lived through it. Their experiences, as recorded by the university’s Center for Oral History, will be performed Thursday in an hourlong program by narrators who have a passion for the art of storytelling.

Some of the people featured had careers that brought them a degree of name recognition, such as Mary Osterloh Aiton, a newspaper and television reporter ; Roland Dacoscos, a musician who played in nightclubs and for the Royal Hawaiian Band ; and Alfred Preis, an architect who designed the USS Arizona Memorial and spearheaded the creation of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts in 1965.

Others held down regular jobs or established businesses, such as Joe Pacific, a native of Italy who was interned at Sand Island for three months during the war but went on to establish a chain of shoe-repair shops on the islands ; and Hisao Kimura, who spent decades working a number of jobs at Parker Ranch.

The narrators include award-­winning poet Janine Oshiro, who started narrating the oral histories during the pandemic, when online sessions were streamed as a form of stay-at-home entertainment. “What I ­really love about storytelling is that it really prioritizes the connection with the audience, ” she said.

She’s found narrating the oral histories to be a challenging way of bringing body and soul to the words she’s reading.

“We’re thinking about what these people are like, thinking about how they might say something, thinking about their lives, ” Oshiro said. “Imagining how they would hold their bodies, how they would walk up there, it’s all been super fascinating.”

Oshiro will read three oral histories, finding inspiration with one in particular from Agnes Eun Soon Rho Chun. As a teenager during the war, Chun was involved in fingerprinting and registering people to ensure they had proper identification.

“I remembered seeing an old ID that belonged to my grandma in her jewelry box, and I went looking for it, and I found it, and it was just like how she described, ” Oshiro said, adding that she has had a replica made of the ID that she plans to display.

She will also recite from the oral history of Nora Kalahelewale Auna Ka ‘aua, who was one of the first female flight attendants for Hawaiian Airlines and a hula dancer at USO shows, and Rosaline Calasa Ventura, who “talks about the rationing and standing in line forever to get bobby pins and nylons, and talks more about how much more money they were able to make by moving to Oahu (from Maui ) to work, ” Oshiro said.

Another narrator, Nyla Fujii-­Babb, is a retired librarian and a longtime storyteller who has performed locally and on the mainland. She will be reading three oral histories, including one by Gussie Lopez Ornellas, a lifelong resident of Kalihi Valley who lost two children in the Pearl Harbor attack. Fujii-Babb’s parents lived in the same area as Ornellas and were also witness to the bombing. Ornellas’ story of “the loss of her children, and her journey of faith and healing resonated with me as I recalled my parent’s accounts, ” Fujii-Babb said in an email.

Fujii-Babb also will be reading the words of Harriet Kuwamoto, a public health nurse during the war who oversaw the islands’ typhoid immunization program and later worked in a program to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, a result of the increased military presence on the islands.

“There is humor and practicality in her story as a public health nurse dealing with the influx of so many military personnel on short notice, ” Fujii-Babb said.

“History is often written to look at the lives and decisions of the rulers, the influencers, the powerful, the winners, the generals, ” Fujii-Babb said. “Oral histories to me are like the archaeologists who uncover the common man’s village instead of the ruler’s or the wealthy. While they may not find material treasure, their finds are intrinsic values reflecting the life of the common people like me.”

“Era of Change, Stories from Hawaii: Before, During and After the Bombing of Pearl Harbor “


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