THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Former GI’s ‘idiosyncratic work’ on JAs

As World War II came to an end and American servicemen returned home, the nation welcomed a wave of literature about the wartime experience produced by former GIs, many of them in the first blush of youth. This initial crop included Gore Vidal’s novel “Williwaw” (1946); Thomas Heggen’s 1946 novel and subsequent play “Mister Roberts;” and Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” (1948).

Although 442nd veteran William Shinji Tsuchida’s letter collection, “Wear it Proudly,” saw print in 1947, no Nisei soldiers seem to have published creative fiction following their return home. Yet between 1945-46, there was a little outpouring of literature authored by non-Japanese GIs on Japanese Americans and their wartime experience. It included Pvt. Al Hicks’ “The Menace,” in Rob Wagner’s Script Magazine; Sgt. Len Zinberg’s “Welcome Home!” in Yank! Magazine; and T/5 James Milton Meade’s “Home in the West,” in The Amphibian.

One of the most idiosyncratic works on Japanese Americans by a former GI is Sam Constantino Jr.’s 1946 novel “Tale of the Twain.” This novel, a cross section of the Pacific war, provides insight into the condition of West Coast Nisei facing discrimination. Just what brought the author to create his novel remains fairly mysterious.

Samuel August Constantino Jr. was born in St. Louis on Oct. 17, 1920, and grew up in Quincy, Ill. He was the eldest of four children of Samuel Constantino Sr., a child of Italian immigrants who was himself a Quincy native.

Constantino distinguished himself as a teenager by attaining the rank of Eagle Scout, visiting Washington, D.C. to parade before President Franklin Roosevelt, and attending an international Boy Scout convention in Holland. He seems to have enrolled at the University of Illinois as a premed, but did not remain. By his own account, he was so interested in writing that it was difficult for him to concentrate on schoolwork. Instead, he attended Quincy College, the local Catholic institution, where he received an AB in 1942. Soon after, he was inducted into the U.S. Navy, where he served as a pilot in the Air Transport Command, rising to the rank of lieutenant junior grade. According to one story, he and his crew crash-landed in the Moroccan deserts and were saved after several days by members of a camel caravan who found them. Later in the war, Constantino was recruited to pilot helicopters and mastered the required skills.

In January 1944, writing under the name “S.A. Constantino Jr.,” the author published a nonfiction work, “Amen, Amen,” with the well-known firm Harpers and Brothers. The new book billed itself as a discussion of subjects that young Americans in the armed forces were talking about — especially sex, religion and money. In fact, the work was essentially directed to preaching in favor of religion and ethics: As it was termed in an advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Proof of a Supreme Being, told in a modern and fresh manner by a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps.” Reviewer Tremaine McDowell noted in the Chicago Tribune that it was all old stuff: “God is the First Cause and a personal being; law and free will are reconcilable, the soul is immortal, and, in Ensign Constantino’s language, we gotta use the old bean, fellas, when we tangle with professional and amateur sex, with money and industry, with free enterprise and cooperation.” Paul Jordan Smith of the Los Angeles Times added that if the subject matter was age-old, Constantino still brought something compelling: “the manner is decidedly unconventional, and it may shock you, for one reason or another.”

After the appearance of “Amen, Amen,” Constantino turned to magazine work. In April 1944, his essay “Cooperation or Else” appeared in Catholic World. His piece, “I learned to Fly the Helicopter,” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly’s October 1945 issue.

In September 1946, a few months after Sam Constantino Jr. was discharged from the armed forces, he published a new book with Harpers, the novel “Tale of the Twain.” The story deals with tensions between Japan and America in the era of the Pacific War. The plot centers on Tana-ko Hashi, the beautiful daughter of a Japanese industrialist and his British wife, who died in childbirth. Tana-ko is educated in Japan, where she is courted by a student, Koyohito Matsuga. Made to feel tainted by her mixed-race background, she remains aloof. Tana-ko also studies at University of California, where she meets Stuart Crane, a young white Midwesterner who has moved to California on temporary assignment to do a story on the Nisei. Tana-ko is attracted to Stuart, yet also refuses to commit to him.

The section on Japanese Americans form the most interesting and powerful part of the book. The author dramatizes Stuart’s talks with Nisei students and farmers about the discrimination they face, as well as his encounters with bigoted whites. It is not clear where Constantino, who seems not to have ever lived in California before 1946, found his information for his presentation. While some of it is more unlikely (Tana-ko rents a room in a comfortable white home, and there is no talk of the restrictive covenants that covered Berkeley, Calif. in those days), the general presentation rings true. The second half of the work is set during the war years, and takes place largely in Japan. The question of the Nisei is largely set aside, though the author intersperses the text of a putative news story on the mass confinement of Japanese Americans and mentions a radio broadcast on Nisei GIs.

The book received a modest amount of attention on publication. “Tale of the Twain” was featured in Catholic journals such as America and Catholic World, (oddly rather more than “Amen, Amen” had been). Writers such as the Rev. Joseph McSorley and the Rev. J.C. Lehane offered it respectful attention. However, the book received decidedly mixed reviews in the mainstream press. While recognizing the author’s good faith, critics questioned his skill. Joseph Henry Jackson, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, acknowledged Constantino’s perceptive portrayal of anti-Nisei prejudice on the West Coast, and the desire of white California farm interests to be rid of their economic competitors. However, he complained, “most readers will feel they are being lectured, preached at, and on the kindergarten level at that.” Beatrice Sherman remarked in the New York Times that the book was “A sincere and earnest appeal for tolerance and good-will between nations and races …. He presents the case of the Nisei for justice as American-born citizens, and hopes that the United States will lend a helping hand to Japan herself…” Sherman concluded that the author as “an industrious and persistent pleader, but not a very moving one.” In contrast, Marion (Guyo) Tajiri, writing in the Pacific Citizen, praised the facility with which Constantino had conveyed in fictional form both the plight of Japanese Americans and the question of Japan’s future. “Constantino has managed to sidestep the usual dullness of the problem play by his emphasis upon exciting plot and by use of a variety of characters.”

In 1948, Sam Constantino Jr. obtained a master’s in political philosophy from Fordham University. His thesis was “A Consideration of the Economic Future of the Rotary Wing Aircraft Industry.” That autumn, he published his last story, “My Son and I,” in Catholic World. It was a narrative, told from a father’s point of view, about helping his teenage son manage a moral dilemma over whether to stand up against attendance at a wild “stag party” put on by workmates. The following year, when Constantino gave a book talk at Nyack Junior School, he was described as an economist for Pan American Airways. In 1950, he married Sarah (aka Sally Jane) Pierson. The marriage produced two children, Frank and Ann, but ended in divorce. Constantino subsequently married Emma Alicia Raquel Polanco. There was one child of that marriage, Connie A. Hall.

During the 1950s Sam Constantino Jr. worked for a mining concern in Moab, Utah (the site of the Wartime Relocation Authority’s wartime “isolation center” for recalcitrant inmates). He does not seem to have abandoned literature completely. According to the Hollywood Reporter, in 1960 he sold an original story, “Campus Codes,” to actress-producer Loretta Young. In later years, Constantino lived in Tustin, Calif., where he worked for a real estate/public relations firm. In December 1988, he proposed to the Los Angeles Times a solution to ease traffic problems. Constantino said that workers staying home and working via picture telephone would eventually be the only way to put an end to “hopeless” traffic congestion. He thereby anticipated widespread telecommuting by a generation. He died in Tustin on July 14, 1999.

Along with Chester Himes’ work “If He Hollers, Let Him Go,” Sam Constantino’s “Tale of the Twain” stands as one of the very first novels published by a mainstream America press to refer to Japanese Americans and their prewar and wartime treatment. Though the sources of his information are obscure, his fictionalized testimony nonetheless represents an intriguing addition to the historical record.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

 

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification