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Loyalty reunites Hawaii with a piece of history

HONOLULU — A rare relic from a Zero fighter that crashed in the 1941 Japanese attack will be returned to Pearl Harbor for public display with the patriotism of a Japanese-American family firmly attached to it.

The item, which was hidden for decades, ended up in a box of knickknacks in California and was auctioned this month on eBay.

Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the USS Arizona Memorial, said the generous donation pledge left him "stunned."

Martinez was less than happy when the fighter's serial number went up for sale.

"Once something like that is purchased privately, very rarely does it get donated" to a museum, Martinez lamented at the time.

Honolulu attorney Damon Senaha read Martinez's comment in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and successfully bid $12,225 for the fuselage stencil this week so he could give it to the museum.

Senaha said his grandfather Kako Senaha, a Japanese immigrant and plantation worker, witnessed the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Ewa Field, and later was questioned by authorities.

Despite the mistrust that followed, the elder Senaha, who came to Hawaii in 1907, urged his five sons to serve their country in the U.S. military.

"He did say, This is your country. This is what you have to do, because the rest of us are shamed,'" Damon Senaha said. "It (the Dec. 7 attack on Oahu) was an embarrassment because everyone viewed them with suspicion."

Serve they did.

Kuwasae Senaha fought with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team of mostly Japanese-Americans in Italy and France during World War II, Damon Senaha said.

Minoru and Henry Tomozen Senaha fought in the Korean War. Henry was killed in action in 1951 and was buried at Punchbowl cemetery in 1952.

Stanley Shigeru Senaha was in the Coast Guard, and Damon's father, Hajime Senaha, tried to enlist in the Army four times but was rejected because of tuberculosis.

Both the Zero serial number and the Senaha family have come full circle, with the aircraft piece expected to return to the USS Arizona Memorial museum seven decades after the attack, and the Japanese family more than proving their loyalty to the nation.

Damon Senaha, himself a retired Navy lieutenant commander, said he wanted to donate the artifact to the museum in tribute to his ancestors.

The improbable turn of events left Martinez nearly speechless.

"If Jimmy Stewart walked into the scene, it would be one of his movies (with) that kind of generosity and purpose that he put behind bidding it up and winning the bid so that it would be donated," Martinez said. "I'm just so stunned and speechless, but extremely happy that someone has done something so generous on behalf of his country to have that preserved as part of our national memory."

What experts say is the stenciled fuselage serial number from Japanese Petty Officer 1st Class Takeshi Hirano's crashed A6M2 Zero fighter started at the bargain-basement price of 99 cents on eBay on March 4.

Forty-three bids later it was Senaha's.

Martinez and other experts looked closely at photos and early on concluded that the cutout aluminum stencil from the Zero's fuselage was the real deal.

"There are a lot of people who have done the research on the provenance of this piece every way except downtown, and it's, to me in my mind, unquestionably (what it's advertised to be)," Mike Wenger, a North Carolina-based military historian, said previously.

The ragged aluminum edges of the nearly 9-inch serial number "5289" made it look like it was cut out with a can opener.

On Dec. 7, Hirano's Zero violently careened into palm trees and a group of coast artillery men at the entrance of an ordnance machine shop on Fort Kamehameha, which later became Hickam Air Force Base, killing four men.

Somehow the fuselage stencil came into the possession of Jack Dodd, who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers on Oahu, then his daughter, then a granddaughter in Southern California, then a pawnshop and then onto eBay, according to the pawnshop's owner, Noel Goetz.

Goetz said he was consigned the artifact by the granddaughter, who decided to make a "leap of faith" by offering it on eBay at the starting price of 99 cents.

"Needless to say, we were very pleasantly surprised (at the selling price)," Goetz said of the sale, which ended Tuesday. "The lady that consigned it to me was ecstatic."

The unidentified owner had been clearing out odds and ends from her mother's house after her mother died, and Goetz was selling them for her on eBay when in came a box of stuff.

"So it just so happened that the first item she pulled out of the box was an old envelope (with the serial number inside), and she said, My mom lived in Hawaii at the start of the war. She used to show this to us when we were kids. It was my grandpa's. He took it off a plane that crashed there,'" Goetz said.

Goetz said the woman couldn't afford to donate it to a museum.

Martinez, for his part, called the serial number an "irreplaceable piece of history."

Twenty-nine Japanese planes went down on Dec. 7, and "there are very little pieces of wreckage that identify the aircraft" the way the Hirano serial number does, he said.

Senaha said he plans to pick up the serial number in person in California in mid-April. Then it will be turned over to the National Park Service and the Arizona Memorial museum.

He noted that the Japanese attack on Oahu "opened the doors for the loyalty" of 442nd Regimental Combat Team members, including his uncle and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, now both deceased, as well as many other nisei soldiers, so "that when it came down to my generation, the third generation, we could become professionals, and we could be viewed as equal Americans."
 

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