Ka’anapali’s Legendary Tommy Tang’s Journey

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Golf – it’s so much more than just a game.  So as much as I love it for its challenges and rare rewards what makes it extra special for me are the extraordinary people I meet on the fairways.

When my golfguy and I made our annual escape to paradise this fall, I was reminded once again of this reality when the Ka’anapali Golf Course guest services and the pro shop staff welcomed us as old friends with hugs and a kiss on the cheek.

This year it was especially warming to return when we learned that Ka’anapali was hosting a book signing with one of our favorite people, Takuji Sarashina, better known and loved on Maui as “Tommy Tang.

Tommy's Wars

 

Tommy, who retired two years ago at 88 had been a fixture at Ka’anapali for over 40 years.  A true ambassador for the game, he was the embodiment of the family-friendly spirit of all those who work at the golf resort.  During almost every round we played this kind-hearted gentleman with an infectious grin would drive up to us to say Aloha, offer assistance and a cup of Tang – the breakfast drink of astronauts. We had heard brief snippets over the years about his war service and that he had been a POW in Russia, but very little beyond a few 2-stroke conversations.

We missed him.

Tommy on 8th hole Ka'anapli Kai with his tang

The book signing was a major community event as local golfers, out-of-town visitors, friends and the Ka’anapali employees came by to wish Tommy well and buy a signed copy of his book.  I wanted to be one of the first in line.

Golfgal wanted to be the first in line to get Tommy's autograph!

Golfgal wanted to be the first in line to get Tommy’s autograph!

David Havens, PGA Director of Instruction and 2013 Aloha Section Teacher of the Year, was also there and talked about how Tommy came out of retirement the week before to marshal David’s annual Spare For Change Throwback Tourney – a charitable event that attracts over 100 golfers that play with hickory sticks and ancient golf balls.

Tommy Tang at Throwback Tourney

Image Courtesy of David Havens and Spare for Change

 

Howard Fields, an accomplished journalist and historian and author of Tommy’s Wars, Paradise to Hell and Back shared that he had originally planned to write a newspaper or magazine article, but when he started to interview Tommy, he recognized that there was a much bigger story to be told.

The life of Tommy ‘Tang’ Sarashina has been masterly woven into the historic events of the times and chronicles Tommy and his family’s misfortunes of continually being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tommy was born an American in Lahaina, Maui to a Buddhist priest father, who sent his young son back to Japan for education at 12 years of age. He was conscripted in 1944 at the young age of only 19 into the Imperial Japanese Army. A soldier who never fired his rifle, Tommy had no choice but to accept his fates as he was battered by the larger forces of war and geopolitics.

Tommy’s father had been at Pearl Harbour when it was bombed and was the first of the Japanese to be interred, and the last one to be freed.

His brother, who was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped, provides a vivid recounting that what it was like to experience a nuclear explosion.

Tommy ended up as POW in the slave labour camps of Siberia, where he somehow miraculously survived inhumane atrocities for over 2.5 years before finally being released to try and rebuild his life in post war Japan and eventually return to his birthplace in Lahaina, Maui.

Howard Fields’ summaries of the historic events surrounding Tommy’s trials and tribulations are concise and refreshingly candid. He uses the most up-to-date information just released from WW II and pulls no punches on the bigotry and prejudices that under laid the decisions of war leaders on all sides.

He recounts parts of history that are ignored or forgotten. Who knew that Roosevelt and Churchill signed away to Stalin the authorization to choose 500,000 Japanese POWs and assign them to slave labour in the gulags of Russia? Our dear Tommy was caught in this net, after being trained by the Japanese Army to sacrifice himself by blowing himself up by crawling under Soviet tanks – in effect, becoming a tank kamikaze.

What makes this story so special is Tommy Tang weathered these traumas, struggled to pull his life together in post war Japan and fought for 18 years to regain his American citizenship. Thankfully, he succeeded, married the love of his life, Sally, and enjoyed a 40-year career at the Ka’anapali Golf Courses – first as a grounds keeper and then 20 years as a Player Assistant/Course Marshal.
Tommy is a legend at Ka’anapali and on Maui.  That a golf course marshal should be so loved by his fellow workers, employers, golfers, the community at large and returning guests, is a testament to the character and charisma of Tommy. Long before “Practice Aloha“ was a bumper sticker, Tommy was the embodiment of the Aloha Spirit.

When Tommy retired 2 years ago at 88, Ka’anapali Golf Course hosted a celebration and feast, which was a major event on Maui. It is this community spirit and employee loyalty which sets Ka’anapali apart from all the other golf courses on Maui.  So it was no surprise to me that the Ka’anapali management encouraged the publishing of his compelling story.

“We were so lucky to have Tommy as a part of our team at Ka’anapali for so many years,” said General Manager, Ed Kageyama.  “The guests loved him here and would talk about what a warm and caring person he was – he wasn’t just a marshal; he was a part of our ohana (family).”

Fields’ biography of the life and times of one of Maui’s most beloved citizens is a tour de force of personal happenchance, tragedies and perseverance, leading to a happy and a blessed life on the island paradise of Maui. It is a wonderful book and I strongly encourage you to purchase a copy so you can experience Tommy’s journey from paradise to hell and back, and get to know this amazingly stoic and compassionate man who never lost faith in himself, family and humanity.

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