The Varsity Victory Volunteers, often called the VVV or Triple V, was a labor battalion of nisei young men in Hawai'i during World War II, formed largely in response to anti-Japanese sentiment. In the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, some 1,500 nisei soldiers in the National Guard served in integrated regiments named the 298th and 299th Infantry. They dug trenches and went on guard details to defend the islands from a possible landing by Japan's forces. But on December 10, three days after Pearl Harbor, their commanders took away their rifles, bayonets, and ammunition, and placed them under guard and confinement to their quarters. It was clear the military had second thoughts about their loyalty. But two days later, their arms were returned to them, and they resumed their duties, stringing barbed wire and patrolling the beaches.
Some white army officers distrusted Hawai'i's Japanese Americans like a colonel who asked the commander of the 298th, “You sleep here where these Japs can slit your throat?” That skepticism prompted the army to expel the 317 Japanese American volunteers in the Territorial Guard in January 1942, and had white units “watch the local Japanese” (Okihiro, 250). Ted Tsukiyama, a member of that dismissed group, voiced his frustration, anguish, disappointment over that failure of democracy.
About a week after their expulsion, those maligned nisei wrote to the Army general, expressing their disappointment but also their loyalty to their country. “Hawaii is our home; the United States, our country,” they declared. “We wish to do our part as loyal Americans in every way possible and we hereby offer ourselves for whatever service you may see fit to use us” (Okihiro, 250). The military governor accepted their offer of service, and put them to work in a labor battalion.
The army assigned those nisei civilian laborers to the 34th Combat Engineers Regiment and called them the Corps of Engineers Auxiliary, but Japanese Americans called themselves the VVV. A prominent VVV member explained their mission: to “set out to fight a twofold fight for tolerance and justice” (Okihiro, 250). Many of the men were students at the University of Hawai'i, and they were divided into 12 labor gangs under the direction of non-Japanese army staff.
Typically, the VVV worked six days each week from 7:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M., receiving a pay of $90 per month. During the 11 months of their existence, the VVV constructed six warehouses, strung several miles of barbed wire, quarried several tons of rocks, completed one road and began work on two others, and built and repaired furniture. They made three visits to the blood bank and bought war bonds totaling $27,850. The VVV disbanded in January 1943 after it became
possible for Japanese Americans to volunteer for military service in the uniform of their country.
While their leaders might have had a higher mission in mind, many of the VVV members simply joined because they were recruited or friends and others enlisted. Jackson Morisawa remembered many university students enlisting in the VVV. Most of them just joined. “Not thinking any loyalty or anything; I mean honestly, I don't think any of 'em had that in mind. If people had presented the whole Varsity Victory Volunteer adventure as a serious ‘We gotta save the Japanese American populationȁ thing…. Well, we had something of that sort, but we were really not seriously into that kind of thing; we didn't really think of being patriotic or any that kind of stuff. Yeah, and after you join, because everybody's doing it you wanna go in there and be part of it, okay” (Odo, 162).
The army credited the work of the VVV as instrumental in its decision to create a segregated unit of Japanese Americans, which became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Having proven their loyalty by establishing “a fine record,” the army stated, Japanese Americans deserved the privilege of service in that new regiment. As was the case in the VVV, Japanese Americans had a variety of reasons for volunteering for the U.S. Army, including patriotism, a sense of duty, and because of anti-Japanese sentiment that forced them to demonstrate their loyalty and
thereby ensure their future in Hawai'i and the United States. Indeed, many of the Japanese American leaders of the VVV served with distinction in the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team and upon their return, became political leaders of a new Hawai'i.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Odo, Franklin. No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i during World War II. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.
Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.