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Charlie Oda and the Lost 1944 Rome Swimming Trophy

January 9, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Everyone in Hawaii (and in the world) has heard about the exploits of Duke Kahanamoku, Hawai’i’s swimming champion and surfing pioneer. Duke Kahanamoku – born three years before the Overthrow -- won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle in the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm (Sweden), and a silver medal in the team relay. During the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp (Holland), he won gold medals both in the 100-M and team relay; he won a silver medal during the 1924 Olympics at Paris, France. Amazingly, when he was 42 years old, he was a member of the 1932 Olympics (Los Angeles) U.S. water polo team.

Mauians must have read of the Duke’s exploits in exotic European cities – imagine Paris or Stockholm to somebody in plantation Maui of the 1930s.

In 1937 – the year my father graduated from Maui High -- a remarkable visionary named Soichi Sakamoto held a meeting at Pu’unene Grammar School (Pu’unene Camp was a once-population center of pre-War Maui) and stated an audacious, bold, unbelievable goal: in three years Maui swimmers would compete at the 1940 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

To fellow teachers, Soichi Sakamoto had spent too much time in the hot sun, totally out of touch with the reality of 1937 Maui: Pu’unene Grammar School nor any other Maui public school had a swimming pool. Plus similar to the Southern American States or South Africa, the only fresh-water pool on Maui was off-limits to plantation residents. Also, Sakamoto was a science teacher, and never studied sports training.

All the above factors did not intimidate Sakamoto one bit. He had a mystical calling, it seems, and a deep sense of urgency and faith in the children of Maui.

For the boys and girls of his simply-named “Three-Year Swimming Club” (3YSC), he received plantation approval to use an irrigation ditch – there was no luxury of an Olympics-regulation pool. He painted markers along the canal and created the “interval” style of training, now copied by top swimming coaches. He also instructed youngsters to swim against the irrigation current and created a weight-training regimen, now recognized as the foundation of today’s muscle and power conditioning used by top sports academies. In terms of psychological and motivational training, Sakamoto was decades ahead of his time: he installed discipline through the “Olympics” goal (many Maui children had not even traveled to Honolulu, let alone the Mainland or to Western Europe).

Coach Sakamoto’s training paid off. In late 1937 two Pu’unene boys – Kiyoshi Nakama* and Takashi Hirose -- won the Hawaii state swimming championships. The next year Nakama placed second in several meets at the U.S. Nationals competition. Then in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland, the Maui team won its first National AAU (American Athletic Union, the former national governing organization for swimming events) team championships – several swimmers were from the same tiny plantation neighborhood of 150 residents. A Maui girl – Fujiko Katsutani – would travel a huge distance to Des Moines, Iowa to win the 1939 female 200-meter breaststroke competition. The Maui swimming team then won the AAU National Championships also in 1940 and 1941 (winning competitions led to the U.S. Olympics team).

World War II cancelled the Helsinki Olympics, yet Coach Sakamoto continued his training, and three years after the War, Bill Smith won the gold medal in 400-meter free-style in the 1948 Olympics. In the 1952 Olympics (held finally in Helsinki!) two more Coach Sakamoto-trained swimmers won Olympics medals.

Back to Charlie Oda: In the summer of 1944 after the capture of Rome from the retreating German Army, Private Charlie Oda, a 3YSC member, found himself swimming laps in ex-Fascist leader Mussolini’s own pool (part of a sports complex named Palestra del Capo de Governo).

Three years before he had entered the University of Hawai’i on a swimming scholarship; in 1943 he joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and after the amphibious landing at Naples, he had fought up the Italian peninsula against disciplined German Wehrmacht troops.

Charlie Oda had dreamed of the Olympics, and now he could compete in the Tri-Theater Allied Games in sun-lit Rome, the Eternal City (a mini-Olympics that included track, swimming, and team sports). His fellow soldier-athletes from France, Great Britain and other Allies included several former and future Olympic champions; he won the 200-meter, 400-M, and 1500-M events, and anchored the 400-M and 800-M team relays.

In hindsight, Charlie Oda’s athletic performance is astounding, given that he and his entire unit had been in continuous grueling combat for over six months and he had not trained for competitive swimming since leaving Maui for U.S. Army boot camp. The U.S. Fifth Army judges awarded him a trophy for “Outstanding Performer”, but after returning to the front-lines (the Italian Peninsula campaign would drag on until German capitulation in April 1945), the trophy was lost in the turmoil of the War.

If anybody out there has any clue where this trophy is (see photo on blog post), please let me know, so we can contact Mr. Ota’s family.

As a last note: Maui is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and is a perfect place for developing top swimmers and divers, and there should be future champions among Maui children frolicking in the surf in Baldwin Park.

In addition to sports champions from Maui who competed in Rome, a center of Western civilization, there could be world champions from Maui in computer science, literature, medicine, semiconductors, marine sciences, mathematics, biotechnology, astronomy, e-commerce, and engineering.

We should all learn from Coach Sakamoto** -- a Mauian with a vision for Maui Olympic swimming champions. He was undeterred by the lack of a decent swimming pool. When we talk about innovation and "thinking out of the box" today, he was revolutionizing sports training at Pu'unene in 1937. And he never gave up.

We can leverage our PCs, laptops, mobile phones, video-conferencing, libraries, in many new ways. Compared to pre-War Maui, on Maui of 2012 we have so much riches and resources.

*See the saga of Coach Sakamoto's student and his Molokai to Oahu cross-channel swim: Keo Nakama and Swimming 26 Miles from Molokai to Oahu

Also, for more insights to Hawai’i cross-channel swimming history see: William “Opelu” Pai and His Great Swim

**The 8-lane 50-Meter “Coach Soichi Sakamoto” Maui County pool in Wailuku is named after the legendary coach. Coach Sakamoto was inducted to the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966 and Kiyoshi Nakama followed him in 1975. Perhaps one day there could be a Hollywood movie on Sakamoto and his swimming stars, starting on that fateful day at Pu’unene Camp.


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