A dozen Japanese-American World War II veterans belonging to the famed 100th Battalion meet each Thursday at their Ala Wai clubhouse for lunch and a look back.
But yesterday the "Wine Gang" had something special to celebrate: the 99th birthday of Takashi "Kit" Kitaoka, who after the war became the first Maui-born judge to preside over state cases affecting Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
More than 50 veterans, family members, friends and soldiers serving with the Army Reserve’s 100th Battalion, including its commander, Lt. Col. Kimo Dunn, attended yesterday’s celebration.
Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald presented Kitaoka with a proclamation setting aside yesterday as "Takashi Kitaoka Day" in the Judiciary, where Kitaoka served as a Maui circuit judge from 1962 to ’68.
Circuit Judge Ed Kubo read a letter from U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who said Kitaoka "has witnessed and participated in the most important events in Hawaii and the world." Inouye served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Kitaoka also was honored with a proclamation passed by the Legislature and presented with a mug and a commemorative commander’s coin from Dunn, whose unit still carries the flag and the traditions of the 100th and the 442nd.
The 100th Battalion was formed after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was later designated one of the three battalions assigned to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up mainly of Japanese-American volunteers.
In honoring Kitaoka, Dunn said Kitaoka "lived a storied life," calling him "a local boy from Maui (who) did well."
Kitaoka was the youngest of four children and was born in Hana on Feb. 1, 1912.
He attended Mid-Pacific Institute in Manoa on a scholarship and graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1934. After graduation he worked at Palama Settlement and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
He attended Baylor University Law School in Texas on a scholarship in 1937 and was drafted when he returned to Hawaii three years later to practice law. After basic training at Schofield Barracks, Kitaoka was discharged in September 1941 from the Hawaii Army National Guard’s 298th Infantry because of his age.
"He was too old," said son Lloyd. "He was 30."
However, following the Pearl Harbor attack a few months later, Lloyd Kitaoka said, his father volunteered to return to his old unit.
In June 1942, Kitaoka was among the nisei pulled from the 298th and 299th Infantry Regiments and sent to join the newly formed 100th Battalion.
After World War II, Kitaoka worked for the Veterans Administration and the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office and was appointed by Republican William Quinn to head the state Department of Labor. Quinn appointed Kitaoka as Maui circuit judge in 1962. He was not reappointed in 1968 after Democrat John Burns was elected governor.
Lloyd Kitaoka told the dozen 100th Battalion soldiers present yesterday that his father and other members of his generation "set a high bar."
Before the celebration, the elder Kitaoka told the Star-Advertiser that he was embarrassed by all the commotion.
"I think they are overdoing it," Kitaoka said.
As for reaching the age of 99, Kitaoka said, "I have no secrets, just doing everything in moderation. I’m just lucky."
In his speech he thanked his wife, Yuki, 97, whom he married 70 years ago.
"I am overwhelmed and honored."
Kitaoka said his "Wine Gang" — so called because they have wine at lunch — has met at the Kamoku Street clubhouse near the Ala Wai Canal "for years."
"We chat about old times," he said, "tell the same old stories about what we enjoy. It makes us feel young."
Next Thursday the "Wine Gang" will celebrate the 92nd birthday of Edward Ikuma, who was assigned to Headquarters Company.