HONOLULU – He was a bright student, a courageous sailor who helped avert a disaster on a nuclear submarine at Pearl Harbor, a humble man with a love for books and a devotion to help others.
But John Yoshikawa Kuapahi was also an enigma, living a reclusive, quiet life in Spokane.
Kuapahi, who vanished from Hawaii decades ago after serving in the Navy, was inurned with military honors Friday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
The 76-year-old died of smoke inhalation in Spokane last month when a storage unit next to the one he lived in caught fire. Among his friends in Spokane, Kuapahi was known as John Yoshikawa.
The ceremony, near the Punchbowl home where Kuapahi grew up as a foster son, was a bittersweet reunion for about 15 classmates and relatives. They hadn’t heard from Kuapahi since he left the Navy in 1961 and disappeared from the islands, except for Christmas cards Kuapahi would sometimes mail without a return address.
His latest message came in a handwritten note to Alex Ho, his hanai, or foster, brother, on Oct. 10, 2005.
Kuapahi, who lost his mother when he was about 10, said he realized his hanai parents had probably died while he was gone and regretted not having been around in their final days.
“You are all living happy lives and that is all I want,” he wrote. “I don’t want to do anything that will disrupt that happiness. I wish you all well.”
The letter was delivered to Ho by longtime family friend Mike Young, who recognized Kuapahi, his former school and Boy Scouts buddy, during a visit to the Suki Yaki restaurant in Spokane.
Kuapahi had befriended the Japanese eatery’s late owner, Van Omine, who was Young’s godfather. Kuapahi would do chores at the store, accepting only food as payment, Young said.
The restaurant’s basement became a second home for Kuapahi, a place where he showered and kept many of his books, Young said.
For the most part, Kuapahi seemed to enjoy a simple life, relying on buses to get to bookstores, volunteering at a hospice and cleaning yards of homes in the area.
News of Kuapahi’s death shocked his Hawaii friends. They assumed the tiny kid they called “Jumbo” because of his big heart would become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, not someone who volunteered to clean up a kitchen or yards for a meal.
“We always, always talked about him, at all reunions,” classmate Ray Wong said. “What happened to John Kuapahi? Anybody heard from him? Where is he?”
“You expect somebody to really succeed because they have everything, but then, he vanished,” added Ron Goo, another alumnus of the boys-only Saint Louis School.
Friends and family also were surprised to learn that Kuapahi, before moving to Spokane, had been commended by the Navy for averting a major disaster when he battled a fire on the USS Sargo while it was docked at Pearl Harbor on June 14, 1960.
“I wasn’t aware of it. He doesn’t say much,” his brother Ho said. “He doesn’t brag about anything or boast. He thinks it’s not unusual.”
Donald Keliinoi, a classmate, thought Kuapahi had died in the incident after spotting his friend’s name in a list of veteran fatalities – a mistake.
“He was a war hero,” Keliinoi said. “He was a brilliant, brilliant kid.”
Kuapahi died of smoke inhalation Nov. 19 after a fire broke out in a storage building where he rented a unit. Firefighters described his unusual living conditions as a maze of cardboard boxes with pathways to small quarters, including one in which they found Kuapahi unresponsive.
About 50 Spokane residents who knew Kuapahi held a memorial service for him Dec. 11 at Community Bible Chapel.
At Friday’s inurnment, Audrey Ho Vance thanked the Spokane community for embracing her little brother, especially Theresa Troyer, a Spokane Transit Authority driver who helped put together the service for Kuapahi.
Kuapahi mowed the lawn of Troyer’s home for 10 weeks when her late husband was dying of cancer in 2001. He also attended the man’s funeral.
“When John chose the community he would spend his last years … these were the citizens that made room for him,” Vance said. “They allowed him to be himself. He chose to be unknown; they let him.”
Kuapahi joined the Navy in 1952. He then began to slowly detach himself from the family, returning home occasionally with a duffel bag and handing out sailor hats as gifts but spending most of the time with his hanai mother, Ho said.
Where Kuapahi lived between leaving the Navy in 1961 and settling in Spokane in the 1980s remains a mystery. Ho suspects Kuapahi might have gone to college under the GI Bill and perhaps taught physics at the University of Wisconsin before heading to Spokane.
When one of Ho’s daughters found out her uncle had died, she begged her father to fly Kuapahi’s remains back to Hawaii, said Ho’s wife, Barbara.
While Kuapahi’s niche at the Punchbowl cemetery sits just above his isle home, Ho said it was in Spokane that his brother found peace.
“I think he was happy doing what he was doing. He wouldn’t spend that long in one city,” he said. “John’s home is Spokane. He was born here and we will put him to rest here. But his real home is Spokane.”