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  • “Doing our Duty”: Dancing, Dating, and the Limits of Tolerance in Wartime Hawai‘i
  • Lori Pierce (bio)

In a series of candid images, a soldier stationed in Hawai‘i during World War II photographed a celebration for the men in his unit. Men are crowded around a table, some standing, some sitting, eating a meal that clearly was not regular Army chow. A chef beamed into the camera, showing off a sheet cake decorated with the words “Wishes one and all Merry Xmas and Happy New Year.” [Fig. 1] In addition to the meal, the soldiers were entertained by a band composed entirely of soldiers. The band was backed by four men who were singing and clapping to keep the beat. [Fig. 2] Other photographs are less lively. Pictures of the dance floor show dozens of men standing against the wall looking enviously at the three or four men who were clearly enjoying the company of the few women in attendance. As happy as they might have been for the diversion—a good meal and musical entertainment—they must have been disappointed that so few women chose to attend a dance held in their honor.

Dances and parties like this one were commonplace in Hawai‘i during World War II. The USO (United Services Organization) and other social agencies worked tirelessly to entertain the thousands of [End Page 107] servicemen who crowded into Hawai‘i during the war years. Servicemen always outnumbered women; it was often necessary to recruit women from churches or school groups, transport them to and from the event, and chaperone them while they were there. More often than not they were willing participants, eager to do their part, raising the morale of the troops by providing female companionship for

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Figures 1 and 2.

“African American soldiers at a Christmas party in Hawai‘i circa 1942. Original photo postcard from the collection of Lynn Davis.”

[End Page 108]

servicemen far from home. But these images illustrate a problem that was more complicated and difficult to solve than the ratio of men to women.

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Figure 3.

African American soldiers at a Christmas party in Hawai‘i circa 1942. Original photo postcard from the collection of Lynn Davis.

The crush of military personnel was a burden on the citizens of Hawai‘i, a war zone where there were restrictions and obligations that Americans on the continent did not have to endure. As servicemen began to pour into Hawai‘i, the task of keeping them entertained became part of civilian volunteer work. Churches hosted picnics after Sunday services and individual families or community groups invited servicemen into their homes for meals. Professional musicians and hula hālau also volunteered their talents and performed ceaselessly on bases, on ships, and in isolated camps. Young women in the Territory took on additional duties. They were asked—sometimes compelled—to attend social events and act as companions and dance partners for servicemen. It was a part of their patriotic duty, a way to help maintain the morale of the troops. This was a pleasant diversion for some, but it was also fraught with sexual tension. Young women— many of them just teenagers—were being invited to parties and social events that, while supervised, put them in close physical contact with older and more sexually mature men. These encounters were also [End Page 109] replete with racial tension. Prior to the war, local women (women of color and mixed race women from Hawai‘i’s many ethnic communities) rarely socialized with Haole men. And White men from racially homogenous American towns who would never have encountered an Asian or Hawaiian woman, had to face any prejudices they had against people of color. The situation was made even more volatile when African American servicemen competed with White men for the attention of these women. Although local women felt it was their patriotic duty to dance with all men who attended these events, they faced the limits of their tolerance when African American men were involved. Local women were forced to confront their own prejudices and were sometimes put in an...


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pp. 107-131
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