He learned to swim in the irrigation ditches of Maui’s Pu’unene’s sugar plantation, where his parents worked as laborers. Watching over him and the other kids was Soichi Sakamoto, one of their elementary school teachers.
Sakamoto knew nothing about swimming, but in time, he would come to be regarded as a coaching genius. In 1937, he dared to dream that some of his “ditch kids” could represent the USA, in the home of their ancestors, at the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Just one year after “coach” started his “Three Year Swim Club”, 15 year-old Takeshi “Halo” Hirose placed second in the 200m freestyle at the US Nationals, finishing just inches behind the great Adolph Kiefer. This earned him a spot on the US team that toured Europe and the distinction of being the first AJA (American Japanese Asian) to represent the USA in international competition.
During the tour, Halo became the first AJA to set a world record, as a member of the USA’s 4x100m freestyle relay team, at a meet in Germany.
At the 1939 Nationals, Halo was selected along with Maui teammate Keo Nakama for the US team that participated in the Torneo Panamericano de Nation in Guayaquil, Equador - a forerunner of the Pan American Games. Shortly before that meet, in the face of an international boycott, the Japanese Olympic Committee announced it was giving up the Games for financial reasons, owing to its costly war with China. While Finland was an eager replacement, the outbreak of WWII dashed Halo’s Olympic dreams. It was little consolation that he, along with his Maui teammates, Keo Nakama and Fujiko Katsutani were selected for the USA’s “mythical” 1940 Olympic Team.
After he won the US National 100m title in 1941, came Pearl Harbor, and once Japanese Americans were permitted, he volunteered to fight in Europe as a member of the 442nd “Nisei” Regimental Combat Team. On the battlefield he gained almost as many honors as he had in swimming events in Hawaii, the USA, South America, Germany, Austria and Hungary. A member of a machine gun platoon through some of the heaviest fighting in France and Italy, Hirose received five battle stars, the combat infantry badge and a Presidential Unit Citation. In November of 1944, he contracted “trench foot” during deployment in France and was paralyzed from the hips down. It was feared that he might lose his feet. Although he recovered the use of his legs after six months in rehabilitation, he would feel the effects of “trench foot” for the remainder of his life.
After the war, Hirose followed his Maui teammate, Keo Nakama to the Ohio State University where he became a three-time All-American for the Buckeyes. Although he was an NCAA champion in the 100m freestyle and helped Ohio State win the Big Ten, NCAA and AAU team titles, Hirose had been denied his opportunity to swim in the Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944, and his war injuries no doubt affected his chances to make the US team in 1948. The story of Halo resurfaced when author Julie Checkoway published the remarkable story of The Three-Year Swim Club and the men and women who brought national and international acclaim to the island of Hawai’i and the USA.