I have found that "family" around you is a product of twists of fate, world events and personal decisions made long ago. Anguish, happiness, despair and harmony. The effect of war on families and the resulting peace from the untold sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation.
While I am not a writer, I hope to be able to bring to light the spontaneity of life. As I wish to be historically accurate, some quotes will be as I heard them...but there was no malice coming from those that spoke those words. They were reliving the past horrors of war - a war that you nor I fought in. They did.
Jeans are really made by Calvin Klein. Tight. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re lucky), they follow your body lines. A deviation from your body lines is not possible.
Oops. Old age. Genes is the topic. Duh. Genes follow your (family) lines. Deviation is not possible.
There’s something about genetics that is pure fascination. People will like you because of your genes. People will hate you because of your genes. Regardless, you got them from somebody from up the line.
There is an orchestration in genetics which is more difficult to discern as generations pass. But genes don’t conk out. Genes are the only unbroken thread that weaves back and forth through all those cemeteries – or urns in my family’s case.
My grandmother Ikuyo Shibayama (on my mother’s side) was born in 1903; her parents were of samurai heritage. Believe me, my mother drilled that into my head. Brainwashing was very effective.
Around 1911, it was fortunate my grandmother had a portrait taken of her taken in Kanagawa, Japan. She was about eight or nine years old and is standing on the left.
Just about 100 years later, I took this snap of my littlest daughter Brooke when she was a flower girl at my second cousin’s wedding in 2010. Brooke was eight years old. Born in 2003. Exactly 100 years after my Grandmother. Genetics? What do you think?
Perhaps Calvin Klein was around a hundred years ago.
In an earlier blog, I praised Old Man Jack for his forgiveness. It is not possible to write about what he did or saw out on the god-forsaken islands in the Pacific during World War II. Only he truly knew what was in his soul.
But in spite of his exposure to combat in that very personal and bitter war, Jack’s practice of forgiveness was his most important contribution to the healing of this world. The world we enjoy today. I truly believe that.
Old man Jack loved my kids – perhaps his warmth and the forgiveness in his heart will shine through.
After she passed, we would go out for weekend breakfasts.
When he wanted to, he would ride in my supercharged ’08 Grabber Orange Mustang. He loved riding in it. He loved listening to it. It was so loud, Jack wouldn’t need his blessed hearing aids – which he often “forgot” to wear. He hated them. Trouble was at breakfast, I’d end up having to yell so he could hear me when he “forgot” to wear them. So could everyone else. The others must have thought, “Man, what an odd pair.”
When I would drive, Old Man Jack – in his trademark blue plaid shirt – would look at me from his passenger seat, flash that boyish Jack grin where the right side of his lip would be higher than his left, press his head back into the seat, then say, “OK! Floor it!” Man, he loved it. My supercharger would be screaming as we rocketed down Studebaker Road. He would say in a (much) higher than normal voice, “Whooo-ee!” after hitting 60 mph in a little over four seconds.
Other times – even at 87 years of age – he would want to drive HIS baby to breakfast…but make me drive mine, too. You guessed it – we’d drag.
On the way to breakfast, we’d pull up to a light early on a Sunday morning and knowing what was going to happen, I prayed with all my might there were no black and whites.
He’d look at me. I’d look at him. He was dead serious but I would never let him see I was grinning from ear to ear. The light would turn green. He’d floor it, chirp his tires and I’d let him get almost through the intersection…when I would nail it. I wasn’t going to let him get that far ahead of me.
I’d blow by him. As I would wait for him at the next stop, he would pull up next to me knowing he got beat (again), flash me that boyish grin one more time – but would always flash me his trademark bird. I just missed it this time. Darn.
By the way… I named my last boy after him… His name is Jack. I couldn’t think of a better name.
Jack, I miss our breakfasts. We should have went more often… but I gun my motor real loud every time I stop by to see you. I know you hate your hearing aids.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima left a spark – a spark which grew into universal forgiveness and kindness. From that unbounded forgiveness and kindness came a 1937 high school yearbook from a school that no longer existed – but its soul survived intact and gloriously
Dad is simply a very quiet man. For every word he spoke, mom must have said a bazillion words. No wonder he was quiet. (You know, it may have been better to write “every word he tried to speak”.)
But this past Sunday, June 10, dad was a songbird in Spring…even though mom was there.
Dad was eighteen again and back in Hiroshima, riding the train to school with his friend Aoki. Carefree. Young. After 75 years, Dad was looking through his high school yearbook he probably never saw.
How I got that yearbook from 1937 for Dad is a story of unbounded kindness and a love for peace – and driven by a unwavering desire to honor those that perished in Hiroshima.
All Dad had said in the past was that he ran track in his high school days and that the school was called “Nichu”. I thought it was a nickname. He wasn’t enthusiastic to share much more.
I was determined to find out more of my Dad’s past he was keeping hidden.
All I had to start with had been a 1930’s photo (above) of a pennant Dad had stashed away in a shoebox and a couple of class photos. After some exploring, I figured out the Japanese symbol on the flag was a melding of “二” and “中”, or “Nichu”, the name Dad mentioned.
Researching in the Japanese language was an endeavor. I finally came across a possible lead and sent a blind e-mail… In spite of considerable odds, I received a reply from a man in Hiroshima.
Mr. Akira Tsukamoto is a survivor.
In the waning days of the war, school children were put to work for their nation’s war effort in factories and fields. That was their destiny. Mr. Tsukamoto was one of those children.
Their teacher was Mr. Sekimoto; they had a nickname for him, “Mr. Pale”, because of his pale complexion. The night before that fateful morning, Mr. Sekimoto had decided that it would be better for the class to tend a field and clear it of weeds. Preparing the field for crops was more important than having class, he determined. They would be in the northwest area of Hiroshima.
Then came the morning and they were in the field while the other classes fatefully went to school. Then they heard the familiar drone of B-29 engines. They all saw what appeared to be three parachutes and a B-29 flying away. One student recalls seeing something black in shape tumbling towards the earth.
There was a terrible blue and yellow flash. A shock wave blew them down. They covered their eyes and mouths as they had been trained. But the heat from the blast was so searing, they could hear their skin and hair burning.
Their faces and bodies were burned on the left sides; in addition to searing pain, their skin slipped off. All they could use was mashed raw potatoes as a salve. It would take two months for their wounds to heal. They say they were spared for a greater cause.
Mr. Tsukamoto’s story – translated into English – can be read here. It is gripping and without malice. Just kindness.
Fast forward 67 years. Mr. Tsukamoto – the child who was pulling weeds in a field – was the one who kindly responded to my blind e-mail. It turns out he graduated after the war from the school that rose out of the ashes of Nichu.
He did not know me but his survivor’s heart – driven now for world peace and in honor of 300+ young classmates that perished – propelled him to our communicating.
After learning of my search for information on my father’s high school years, he found Ms. Tomoko Kanetou. Ms. Kanetou is an administrative manager at Dad’s successor school. Together, they tracked down an actual copy of dad’s yearbook from 1937. It is the last copy in existence. She conscientiously made high resolution scans of the 48 page yearbook and sent a CD to me here in the United States through my cousin Masako.
They did all this without pause. For a complete stranger across the Pacific. An American. Just incredible.
This past weekend, my oldest daughter hosted an early Father’s Day breakfast at her first home. My father went through the yearbook I assembled page by page. Not once. Not twice…but for almost three hours during last Sunday morning.
He remembered the school song. He said he was on their track team and won 1st or 2nd places in the 100m, 200m, broad jump and triple-jump. He was even pictured, front and center, in Nichu’s track team yearbook photo (right).
Other pages struck me with disbelief and astonishment. They gave a glimpse into life during the “pre-war” days in Hiroshima. He talked about the influence of war on schooling. That will be saved for a later story but further explains why his love and remembrances of his youngest brother are buried so deep in his hidden memories.
My ever-quiet father was not quiet that morning. I have never heard him talk so much and for so long… Truly an atomic spark from a 1937 yearbook. All arising from a peace-fueled and unsolicited joint effort by complete strangers, Mr. Tsukamoto and Ms. Kanetou. Perhaps they weren’t complete strangers after all.
In an earlier story, I praised old man Jack for being a giant in forgiving.
“War is no good,” he said as we left the small community movie theater near his assisted living home today; we had just watched the limited release documentary “MIS: Human Secret Weapon”. It was about his highly classified World War II US Army unit. He had silently watched and with a ghostly stillness. But I saw him wipe his eyes twice after gently lifting his glasses. Others openly wept…but I had never, ever seen him shed a tear before today.
I was ignorant. Combat isn’t necessary for the ugliness of war to be buried in a person’s mind. The documentary made it clear that it is also easily dug out. All one needs to do is scratch.
The documentary reveals the conflicted state of mind of the then young Japanese-Americans who made up the US Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS). About 3,000 of them – including two of my uncles – secretly and faithfully served the red, white and blue, hastening the Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri.
Another 3,000 served during the Occupation of Japan. My dad was one and worked out of General Eichelberger’s US 8th Army’s GHQ in Yokohama. That’s when he was able to journey to Hiroshima and see his mother for the first time in ten years…and when a hungry Masako first relished the flavor of Spam.
One Nisei veteran interviewed was Grant Ichikawa. He was gracious enough to not only greet me and my family in 2010 near his home in Rosslyn, VA, he also secretly treated us to lunch. Pun intended. He had lost his wife Millie just months before. She was an even rarer female member of the MIS as well.
He and Terry Shima (also interviewed in the documentary) gave me the jump start in finding out about Dad’s involvement in the MIS. During that all too brief get together, Grant did touch on what he did on the battlefront in a GI uniform. He also said it “got dicey”.
In this documentary, you learn of one such experience. He was told there were Japanese soldiers who had agreed to surrender. Grant said he was the point man. They proceeded to the rendezvous point where he met the Japanese commander; they were in the middle of an open field.
It turns out there were 200 to 250 of them; all their weapons were in good working order he says in the documentary. Grant suddenly realized – out in the middle of this field – that these Japanese soldiers were “toukoutai”, or “suicide corps”. Grant just as quickly and with great consternation realized there were only ten of them… GI’s, that is, armed only with rifles. I’m sure Grant picked his words wisely. He is still alive.
“Dicey” was a definite understatement.
In a lighter moment, Ken Akune described how they were searching a Japanese soldier that had surrendered in the jungle of Burma. They came across one of the American propaganda leaflets promising safe passage for those Japanese soldiers that surrendered. It was neatly folded in a pocket.
Akune asked the Japanese soldier if he believed what the leaflet promised since the MIS Nisei wrote it. The Japanese soldier said no but that it made for good toilet paper. “There was no toilet paper in the jungle of Burma,” said the prisoner.
Thomas Tsubota broke down at the end of his interview. Many did.
Tsubota was one of the top secret MIS members of Merrill’s Marauders.
They had just stumbled across ten Japanese soldiers in a small jungle clearing, he says. “Boom,” he said, in a split second they killed them all. He described how his commander, Colonel Beach, called him over to inspect a photo album taken off one of the now dead Japanese soldiers
They looked through the album. Tsubota told Col. Beach there was nothing of military importance in it but as they came upon the last page of the album, there was a picture of a mother and a daughter.
Tsubota said Colonel Beach’s eyes got red, filled with tears and he said, “Thank you, Tom.”
While crying, Tsubota ended the interview by saying this is why he isn’t enthusiastic about talking about the war. Too painful. He doesn’t want to think about that sad moment. Tsubota is 96 years old. I thought Dad was old.
The documentary intensely yet humanely describes the internal turmoil within these young American GIs of Japanese descent. Quite a few had brothers who were left in Japan when war broke out and were killed as Japanese soldiers. Deep down, many carried guilt that their own secret actions led to the deaths of their own brothers. My Dad’s youngest brother – my Uncle Suetaro – was one of those casualties.
But these 3,000 young American boys of Japanese heritage did their job as did millions of other young American boys…but in secret. They translated diaries covered with blood or offered cigarettes to Japanese prisoners to extract military intelligence while battles were raging.
They endured years of discrimination and intimidation to boot – both from GI’s fighting alongside them as well as back home. A barber in Chicago wouldn’t cut Dad’s hair because of his race – and he was wearing his perfectly creased US Army uniform with sergeant’s stripes, sleeve highlighted by the proud shoulder patch of the US 8th Army.
The secrecy was officially lifted in 1972 by Executive Order 11652.
Just the two of us, I thought, were going to see this movie and that this may help Dad slow down his growing dementia.
I was wrong.
His quiet tears and with his exiting comment, I am sure Uncle Suetaro was there, too, in Dad’s heart – as if it was 1937 in Hiroshima when he last saw his brother alive.
Over the past two years, I’ve asked, “Dad, tell me about what you worked on in the MIS. What was the one thing you remember the most? A picture? A diary?” Each time, the answer was vague or “I don’t know.” I chalked it up to senility.
He doesn’t want to talk about it…just like Tsubota painfully recalling Col. Beach and the photo of a mother and a daughter taken from a Japanese soldier they had just killed.
Ugly recollections from war wanting to be masked need not come from battlefields, bullets or bombs.
It was Monday, Valentines’ Day 2001. My wife was five months pregnant at the time we moved into this wonderful neighborhood smothered in US Naval glory. After I came back from work the next day, she told me a kind old man stopped her as she was wheeling out the trash bin. She said he hobbled from across our quiet street lined with peppercorn trees then kindly wheeled them out for her.
I found out the “old man” was a World War II combat vet. Worse yet, he was a sailor in the Pacific – he fought the Japanese in World War II.
“Holy crap,” flashed through my mind, “What if he finds out we’re Japanese?”
Twelve years later, I was honored to have been a pallbearer at his funeral.
I was so far off base about my first thoughts on Old Man Jack that even George Burns could have picked me off without being called for a balk…and this while he was in his grave.
I felt so ashamed.
“Young man, get over here and plant your butt in that chair,” barked old man Jack from his cluttered garage across the street. Having lived in that house since 1953, it was filled with his life history.
“But I have my stogie going, Jack,” said I.
“Well, I can see it and I sure as hell can smell it. Now shut up and sit down. I want to tell you something.”
That was Old Man Jack, my dear neighbor who lived across the street. I like to think we were close.
He was 87 years old by that summer’s day in 2010 when he called me over. While he had become feeble, his barrel chest was still prominent. He was a rabble-rouser in his youth. He was always “mixing it up” throughout his young years… Well, he was mixing it up even while working at Northrup in the 50’s. That makes me grin.
His handshake was always firm and warm; you didn’t need to be psychic to sense his insight and outlook on life. He always spoke his mind. He earned that right having been shot at, strafed, and bombed on “those stinkin’ islands” in the Southwest Pacific as he so often said during a most bitter war.
I had invited Jack to Father’s Day dinner that summer just two years ago; my Dad who was 91 was coming as well.
Jack knew my dad was US Army but I fretted over what they would say to each other when they first met. Or how they would react to one another. It was more than just a concern over the centuries old rivalry between Army and Navy. It was the bitter war.
Dad was in the front room when Jack rang the bell – right on time as always. Jack had on his favorite blue plaid shirt; he wore it often as it had a pocket for his glasses. I often wondered how often he washed it, though. Jack and Dad are shown here on Father’s Day 2010.
“Dad,” I said, “This is Jack, US Navy, Aviation Machinist’s Mate, First Class, the Pacific.”
“Jack, this is my Dad. US 8th Army, sergeant, Military Intelligence Service.”
Although not as agile as they once were, they immediately saluted each other.
You didn’t need a sound system to hear them. Dad and Jack are both hard of hearing.
It was easy to hear Jack ask Dad what he did in the Army. During the Occupation of Japan, Dad said he went into a room once a week that reeked of dry cleaning to retrieve a crate. (The crates contained documents, photos and other personal items such as war diaries written by Japanese soldiers. They were removed from a WWII battlefield – read on.) He would then translate the contents for military intelligence (below).
I had to tend to cooking so I lost track of the conversation. It was regretful I didn’t keep tuned in.
So back to being called over by Jack on that summer’s day.
He was sitting in his favorite blue wheelchair. He didn’t need it but it belonged to his beloved wife Carol who passed away ten years before. They married during the waning days of the war. They had been married for 55 strong years.
“So what did you want to tell me, Jack?” I asked.
He then went into his trance – one signaling evident anguish and wretched remembrances. When he went into these trances, he always started by staring at his hands while picking at his right thumbnail with his left ring finger. He would lift his once thick eyebrows now turned snow white with age, then begin talking in a slow, deliberate pace, never taking his eyes off his hands.
“I went on ID patrol…” Jack rasply whispered while ever so slightly drawing out his words.
“ID patrol? What is that?” I asked.
He ignored me. It was as if I wasn’t sitting next to him… He had already left the present. He had stepped foot onto that violent SW Pacific jungle of 70 years ago. I’m sure its smell was as vivid to him in his tormented subconscious as it was seven decades ago.
“They would issue six of us white caps M1’s with bayonets… Then we’d follow two Marines on a patrol into the jungle.”
“Patrol? You? You were ground crew, Jack,” I remarked.
“Ain’t enough of them (Marines) to go around on those stinkin’ islands so we got picked,” he said, still speaking in a lifeless yet pained monotone. He added, “If you got killed, you rotted real quick in that jungle heat. And if you got killed with shit in your pants, you got buried with shit in your pants.”
His stare doesn’t change. His eyes have glassed over. He is in a different world now – one of 70 years ago in a stifling jungle, his youthful, sweaty hands trying to grip onto his Garand rifle while wearing a smelly steel helmet… Listening in terror for any sound that may signal a Japanese soldier concealed in ambush knowing that the enemy was just there shortly before. A world that only combat veterans understand. Thankfully, you and I never will. Never.
“The Marines had two bags – one small one and a big one. When we found one, the two Marines would stand guard. We’d hold the rifle by the butt end and use the fixed bayonet to fish out the tags.”
It was then when I realized what he was painfully regurgitating.
This is what he meant by “I.D. patrol”. They were going back into the jungle to locate the dead Marines they had to leave behind after a “tussle” with the enemy as Jack liked to say – a life or death firefight. Old Man Jack was only 20 years old. The Marines were likely younger. Ponder that thought.
“We weren’t allowed to touch the dead (Marine) as the Japs would booby-trap ‘em. We’d hand over the tags hanging on the the end of the bayonet to one of the Marines who would put a tag in the small bag. They marked a map for the graves registration guys to come back later.”
Jack’s anguished delivery dimmed even further. “But we’d come across a dead Jap. Nobody cared about them so they rotted where they were. But we’d have to stick the bayonet into the rotting goo and try to fish stuff out. The prize was a pouch or a satchel. Those would go into the big duffel bag just as they were, covered with rot and maggots. We headed back to CP and that’s the last I saw of those bags,” he said.
He abruptly ended but his unconscious stare didn’t change. He was still in the jungle, scared out of his wits. He was still picking at his thumbnail all this time. His head hardly moved while he sat in the blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife.
I thought to myself, “Is that the end, Jack? That’s it? Why did you tell me this?” I knew not to pry any more so I kept the thoughts to myself. He was in torment already. Seventy years had passed but he was reliving the awfulness of a brutal war. Nevertheless, I wondered why he chose that time to tell me about this horrific recall of something he experienced so very young.
It bugged me for several weeks.
About a month later, I understood why Jack told me the story after I communicated with Mr. Grant Ichikawa, a more well known veteran of the famed US Army’s Military Intelligence Service and combat veteran himself. Apparently, the items they recovered from Japanese corpses were dry cleaned to remove the rotting body fluids. After getting dry cleaned, they ended up in the crates that were in the room my Dad went into once a week when he was in the Military Intelligence Service…and why the room reeked of dry cleaning.
The brief chat with my dad on Father’s Day sparked that vile memory back to life. It had been eating at Old Man Jack since that day. He wanted to get it off his once mightily barreled chest.
I lament to this day that an invitation to a Father’s Day dinner had resulted in an unwanted recall of horror Jack was very much trying to forget. More so, I lament he relived such horrors each night for the last 70 years of his life. Seventy years.
Jack was a great man to have endured combat in the Pacific during World War II. He was an immeasurable giant in learning to forgive – although he was never able to forget.
I miss him greatly. I thanked him for all we have when I visited him today at his grave on this glorious Memorial Day.
February 19, 1945 – Men with names like Kuwahara and Koyanagi were with the US Marines on the sands of Iwo Jima.
No, not the Japanese soldiers within the concrete fortifications led by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi of the Japanese Imperial Army. These were Americans of Japanese descent, or Japanese-Americans. Nisei. And to make matters worse, they were in the uniforms of the US Army. GI Joes. The Japanese were trying to kill them, too.
Sorry, Marines. It wasn’t all your show – lightheatedly, of course. (One of the greatest US Marines, John Basilone, CMH, Navy Cross gave his life on those black talcum powder-like sands.)
Having said that, ever watch the iconic B&W World War II classic, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”? John Wayne might just be turning over in his grave. But to his credit, the movie is one of my faves. It’s theme song, “The Marine’s Hymm”, gives me goosebumps even to this day.
The envelope immediately caught my attention. Aside from a crease, the envelope looked pristine. It was addressed to my Dad while he was in Minidoka, an Idaho prison camp where he and over 10,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned by FDR. It was postmarked September 2, 1945 – just about seven months after the bloody fight for Iwo Jima. The return address was the “War Department”.
If you’ll get past the lawyer speak, the letter says Dad is now free to go about America as he chooses.
About one thousand young Nisei men volunteered for the US Army while their families remained imprisoned in Minidoka. That’s about ten percent of the total camp’s population. Most who volunteered were from my Dad’s home state, Washington. While Dad was not one of those volunteers, 71 of these young men from Minidoka were killed fighting for the red, white and blue. Two were bestowed the Medal of Honor – posthumously. Silent patriots to this day.
“Kibei” were amongst those 1,000 men. Kibei’s were a sub-set of Nisei’s as a whole. A Kibei is a Japanese-American who actually spent time being raised in Japan. One result was they were absolutely fluent in Japanese – read, write, speak. Even slang and dirty words. No land-locked Nisei could come close. Dad was a Kibei.
But the Kibei – they formed the crucial core of the group. The most fluent. The decisive secret weapon. As luck would have it, many of these Kibei were from Hiroshima. Their fathers came to Hawaii or Washington in droves from Hiroshima for a better life – just like my Grandfather Hisakichi. (Dad is pictured here standing next to his Hiroshima home in 1947.)
MIS Kibei were the ones who intercepted and swiftly translated the Japanese Imperial Navy radio transmissions that led to the shoot down of Admiral Yamamoto’s transport. Kibei also swiftly and accurately translated captured critical secret military plans written in Japanese (“Z-Plan“) for the defense of the Marianas Islands and the Philippines; this led to the lopsided American naval victory called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” in 1944 – as well as to the death of my Seattle-born Uncle Suetaro. My dad’s youngest brother.
Interestingly, due to continuing suspicions, the US Navy and the Marine Corps refused to enlist the Nisei. Their loss.
The cloak and dagger actions of the MIS were only declassified in the 1972 by Executive Order 11652. That’s a long time. And true to their oaths, these Nisei kept their heroics to themselves for all those decades. They sought no honor or recognition.
But back to the letter of 1945 – mailed to my Dad just seven months after the vicious fight for Iwo Jima. While my father finally volunteered for duty in February 1947 and became part of the famed MIS, his silent and patriotic Nisei brothers that preceded him hastened the end of war and saved millions of casualties – for both sides.
In recognition for their patriotism, sacrifices and loyalty, Congress bestowed upon the MIS and other Nisei who fought for the US in 2010 the Congressional Gold Medal. Two of my uncles were recipients although they had passed away.
By the way, the first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal was George Washington. I believe the Nisei are in pretty good company.
No credit is being taken from the young Marines who fought and died for Iwo Jima. The Marines did take Iwo Jima with their blood…but they were not alone. About 50 Nisei MIS’ers landed in the first assault waves alongside the Marines.
Just ask Mineo Yamagata, a MIS veteran of Saipan and Tinian. He accompanied the 28th Marines to the summit of Mt. Suribachi and witnessed the flag raising.
It was a small yet precious family reunion. My 78 year old cousin Masako Kanemoto, who flew in from Hiroshima, took a bite out of a “Spam™ musubi” while we were taking a snack break in Kailua, Hawai’i. It’s a slice of Spam sandwiched in between some rice and wrapped in seaweed. “How mundane,” I thought.
Masako then beamed. “We had very little food for so many years. After the war, your father brought us food and clothing when he was in the US Army…” My dad was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service.
She continued, “He brought us much as he could carry. I was so hungry and I will always remember that first bite. I couldn’t believe how something could be so delicious.” She was referring to something my father had brought along with him 65 years ago – Spam.
Emotions tore through me and my eyes welled rapidly. I felt so selfish and ignorant for taking the Spam for granted. I fumbled but snapped the photo of Masako enjoying the Spam musubi.
My grandfather Hisakichi Kanemoto immigrated from Hiroshima to Seattle in the late 1890’s. My grandmother Kono Kanemoto was a true picture bride for my grandfather. Grandmother gave birth to a total of seven children of which my father was the fifth; all but one was born in Seattle – they were US citizens.
My grandparents struggled to survive; the family lived in the Fujii Hotel in downtown Seattle. They worked a basement barber shop in the hotel with Grandfather cutting the hair and Grandmother expertly working the straight razor. A cousin said Grandmother made the customers feel appreciated and made them feel at ease with her people skills. It certainly wasn’t Grandfather – if there were a Japanese Marine, he could have been their poster boy. “By the book”, as they say.
As was customary during that time, many Japanese-American children (“Nisei”) were rotated back to Hiroshima by ship to learn the Japanese language and customs when they were about eight years old. It was no easy cruise has they were crammed into the cargo hold for the lowest fares. They spent about ten years in Hiroshima then returned by themselves when they turned 18. Dad was no exception.
By around 1930, the grandparents and five of the siblings were in Hiroshima; the oldest (Uncle Yutaka) was forced to live in America alone at a young age. I understand he was sad and frightened about that. Their second son, Hisao, passed away in Seattle from encephalitis when he was only about two.
Now fluent in Japanese, dad returned to Seattle on his own in 1937 at 18 years of age, preceded by an older sister Shizue in 1934. Dad was apparently very bright as he graduated from Hiroshima’s Nichuu High School – it was for the higher achievers. He excelled in mathematics as well as in track and swimming. He helped dig the school’s pool. No union labor back then.
Dad is standing, third from left in this rare family portrait taken in front of his family’s new Hiroshima home, circa 1929.
After dad returned to Seattle, Grandmother made the decision to remain in Hiroshima. It was a fateful decision.
In the 1930’s, Japan had already began their invasions of China, Manchuria and Burma; they were on their quest to secure raw materials for their industries and ultimately for their military. National pride was at its peak; military conquests filled the news and the world was taking notice with great consternation. When Japan was condemned for their aggressions by the League of Nations, she withdrew and shocked the world.
The threat of war with America loomed. Anti-Japanese sentiment grew – Americans in Seattle routinely harassed or even attacked Japanese in public. Unfortunately, many of the “Japanese” they harassed were American citizens like my dad, uncles and aunts. Some young Nisei girls were also groped, molested or raped. Folks knew where Hawai’i was at this time but Pearl Harbor was Timbuktu.
They all had the misfortune of looking Japanese, similar to how some Americans look upon Muslims today.
My Grandmother was not exempt from the harassment. She was called “Jap” many times. She was even egged. While she was a fighter, she decided the threats and discrimination were too much.
My dad was close to his youngest brother, Suetaro. They farmed the mushroom property Grandfather owned in Hiroshima; the special mushroom delicacy called “matsutake” grew only during a brief season. Dad, Uncle Suetaro and perhaps three other boys strapped on woven baskets onto their backs and filled them with the precious matsutake. Grandmother would sell them as quickly and as best she could – they had no refrigeration. The earnings would make up the bulk of their income for the year.
While dad had returned to Seattle in 1937, Uncle Suetaro was anxiously awaiting his turn to go back to Seattle. He was to turn 18 in 1939. However, Dad’s youngest sister Mieko died earlier in 1939 of a kidney infection; she was about 15 years old. By that time, Grandmother knew Grandfather was suffering from stomach cancer. His older sister (and the only one not born in the United States) Michie had married and had given birth to a daughter – Masako, my cousin. They lived in another village called “Tomo” some distance away.
Having decided to remain in Japan due to the harassment and threats she experienced, Grandmother then made the fateful decision to not allow Uncle Suetaro to return to Seattle. After all, there was no other Kanemoto left to inherit the house and land. Uncle Suetaro was dejected and very upset but obeyed Grandmother. He was a loyal son.
Grandfather died the next year. With Mieko also gone, only Grandmother and Uncle Suetaro remained in the house.
Uncle Suetaro was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. His regiment was training in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. Aunt Michie with her nine year old daughter (and my cousin) Masako in tow went to visit Uncle Suetaro when they could. She remembers a couple of trips. It was not easy travel in war-torn Japan. For one trip, Aunt Michie managed to take sashimi – in this time of little food, it was a tremendous treat and gift.
On that trip, Masako remembers her mother stealthily sliding over to Uncle Suetaro the wrapped sashimi. He was being stared at by many of his fellow soldiers – they were not well fed either. She remembers Uncle slowly turning so that the others could not see and quickly devoured the treat.
Masako also knows Uncle was well respected by his fellow soldiers due to his knowledge of English in a wicked twist of fate as my father’s top secret US Army unit used their knowledge of Japanese to kill as many of the enemy and to save American lives.
Uncle Suetaro (sitting on the sofa arm) received his orders to ship out to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines; the family recalls it to be 1944. As tradition called, they had a farewell celebration. In such celebrations, the soldier who was facing certain death received a Japanese flag signed by relatives and friends to carry into battle.
Uncle Suetaro was to ship out the next day. Grandmother was like any other mother – she was anguished. More so, she knew that soldiers sent off to war rarely returned unless maimed. Her decision to not allow her youngest son to return to Seattle in 1939 now deeply stabbed at her heart…so much so that she suffered her first stroke the next day.
Grandmother only had use of her right arm; Masako said she would pull herself around the now empty house with that one good arm. Aunt Michie – after working a grueling day at her husband’s farm – would likely have walked several miles to Grandmother’s house to tend to her needs which included feeding her as well as changing and washing her diapers.
This was war time; they used old clothing for diapers. Tide laundry soap? They didn’t have any soap to speak off. A washing machine? They didn’t have one let alone electricity. Aunt Michie washed them by hand with well water on a washboard. She then walked miles back to her farm only to get up a few hours later before dawn to work the farm.
No one truly knows how Uncle Suetaro died.
Perhaps he was killed during one of the numerous Allied artillery barrages or bombings, or was cut down in a futile banzai charge. Perhaps he died in a cave from starvation or illness – or from committing suicide.
Perhaps he never made it ashore and met his death when he was on a troopship being strafed or sunk by airplanes from land-based US Marine Corsairs or carrier-launched US Navy F6F Hellcats or a US Army Air Force P-38 Lightning. The Allies ruled the skies and wrecked havoc on Japanese ships.
Tragically, he was American. While his oldest siblings were imprisoned in US concentration camps for “looking Japanese”, Uncle was thrust into desperate circumstances and was clothed in the uniform of the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, 41st Infantry Regiment… Eerily similar to his mother who was egged and called a Jap while in Seattle, his own countrymen were now trying to kill him with 75mm shells launched from miles away or .50 caliber machine gun rounds in a closer encounter. Not eggs this time.
It is more troubling knowing Ike was of German ancestry and MacArthur’s right hand man General Willoughby was of ROYAL German lineage and spoke fluent German but English with a pronounced accent. His birth name was Weidenbach; imagine if they were imprisoned in Tule Lake with my Dad for “looking German”. No political comment being made; its just historical fact.
Uncle Suetaro’s 41st Infantry Regiment – likely including the other young men who watched him stealthily eat sashimi – was annihilated by the US Army on Leyte. His body was never recovered. Ironically, when I used to watch the B&W news reels of the war on TV or see combat photos of dead Japanese soldiers, I would see them with purely American eyes. Now, I earnestly review them in hopes of seeing a glimpse of Uncle Suetaro…as my Aunt Shizue did for many, many years. She still does at 95 years of age near Downtown, LA.
Eleven year old Masako was sitting in her classroom on August 6, 1945; her school was partially behind Mt. Suzugamine just west of Hiroshima’s center. Some windows were opened as it was in the middle of summer.
There was an indescribable, blinding white flash. There was no noise except for some of the girls screaming, Masako recalls. They all left their seats and ran towards the windows to see what had happened. Masako ended up standing behind a couple of girls at an open window.
It was like an invisible wrecking ball slammed into their school. All of her classmates that ran to a closed window to look were pierced by shards of shattered window glass as the shock wave hit, she said. All were hurled backwards by the force. Even the girls in front of Masako were pierced by debris being hurled at supersonic speeds…
As she looked through openings that were once windows to her classroom, they were now windows to a demonic swirling dark mass of blackness. Ironically, she described it as a “matsutake no kumo”, or “matsutake cloud”… The same mushroom my father and uncle had picked as children.
Now, the same hill they picked matsutake from saved Masako’s life. It provided the school partial shielding from the atomic blast. There was nothing left of Hiroshima just around the bend. All that was left of my father’s beloved “Nichuu High School” was a short span of a wall. It was about 1,500 meters from the hypocenter (left).
Masako saw horribly disfigured bodies over the next few days. They had aimlessly wandered from around the bend after the blast. They perished where their bodies laid. Masako was also covered in a thin oily, sticky substance called black rain.
From before the blast, ten year old Masako was tending to the care of Grandmother; by war’s end, there were only shreds of material left that could be used for diapers. It was brown under her fingernails from having to wash her soiled diapers by hand.
While Grandmother had made a partial recovery, she still only had use of her right arm. Then sometime after war’s end, a representative of the Japanese military came to visit Grandmother. Uncle Suetaro would not be returning home. Masako says her anguished scream was one only a mother can own, made horribly worse knowing she forbid Uncle Suetaro returning to Seattle. She suffered her second stroke.
Dad and the rest of the imprisoned siblings and the grandchildren of Grandmother and Grandfather were released from camp in September 1945. A year after, Dad found out he was going to be drafted by the same government that took his passport, fingerprinted him, put him and his family behind barbed wire and made him keep on his person all the time a draft card (on the left) that classified him as an Enemy Alien (4C). There were also guard towers manned by soldiers with Browning machine guns.
According to Masako and other family members, his oldest brother Yutaka (and now heading up the remaining family) then nearly begged him to volunteer for the Military Intelligence Service so he could check up on Grandmother. Dad tells me, “Well, if I get drafted, I’ll be a buck private. If I volunteer, I can be a sergeant – more pay.”
I tend to believe my other family members.
Dad arrived in Yokohama on December 7, 1947 and was assigned to the 8th US Army’s G-2, 166th Language Detachment; this was the Military Intelligence Service. It was kept top secret during the war; nearly all of them were Japanese-Americans. The accomplishments and heroics of his predecessors were not declassified until the 1970’s. Dad was one of the early graduates of the Army’s language school (“DLI”) in the Presidio. He was a Technical Sergeant, 3rd Grade – I’m sure the young Japanese ladies thought his chevrons were captain’s bars.
At his first opportunity, he took a train down to Hiroshima then somehow made it to Grandmother’s home. Masako was a young girl 14 years of age by then. He carried two large Army duffle bags full of food and clothing – including the Spam. They are in the photo on the left.
None of the surviving Kanemoto family members from that time period know how Dad learned of the news of Uncle Suetaro’s death. Regardless, the death of his favorite brother scarred his mind and heart for eternity. Even today, when I see him, he asks, “How is Suetaro?” He never asks of his other siblings.
Masako and I finish our Spam musubi. She tells me of how kind my father was to her, Grandmother and Aunt Michie. My dad does remember how indebted they all were to Masako for giving up a lot of her youth to care for Grandmother.
Masako enjoys Spam even to this day.
On a side street in Kailua, Oahu, Spam had also become a cherished delicacy for me.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family