Nisei Veterans Share Stories of Life After WWII: Royce Higa

They’re our everyday heroes in plain clothes—the revered second-generation Japanese American veterans of World War II. Fewer than 250 Hawai‘i nisei vets are known to be alive today in Hawai‘i. And the war is just part of their life stories.




Royce Higa didn’t have much growing up. As the first child born in Hawai‘i to Okinawan immigrants and the first to speak English, he had to represent the family. College was never a thought until he returned home from war and discovered the GI Bill.


But even with the free tuition, his years at George Williams College in Chicago were challenging. Higa and his bride, Portia, lived with little money thousands of miles from their families in Hawai‘i. Their first daughter, BJ, was born the year he graduated. “My baby crib was a chest of drawers,” she says.


Young Royce HigaThe young family returned to Hawai‘i and eventually found stability. Higa worked three jobs before becoming deputy director of the state Department of Social Services, overseeing prisons and public housing for 10 years. He also served as campaign manager for mayoral candidate Nelson Doi and gubernatorial candidate Tom Gill. BJ recalls helping her dad campaign: “Everything was a family affair.”


And so was building their Salt Lake house. Higa and Portia bought a plot of land and designed a home together, hiring a draftsman and some construction workers to help out. But the family did a lot of the heavy lifting. Every night for three months, after work and on weekends, Higa would saw, hammer and build. BJ, a teenager at the time, remembers she and her two sisters painting walls and mixing concrete (and sometimes getting in trouble for taking too long). “It was character building,” she jokes.


Since retiring, Higa’s completed three Honolulu Marathons—his best time was 4 hours—and earned life master status for the many years he’s played bridge. He enjoys reading the newspaper, eating Japanese food and drinking out of his white 522nd Field Artillery Battalion mug.


But ask him about his accomplishments and his answer is simple and quick: “I wasn’t that smart.”


🔉: We ask, “What do you miss most from the olden days in Hawai‘i?”

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