Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Midnight in Broad Daylight,” a newly released book by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, is a compelling, uplifting tale about a Japanese American soldier and his family, separated by the Pacific Ocean and World War II.
Sakamoto’s book will be a revelation to those readers who were unaware that thousands of Japanese Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service, waging war against their parents’ homeland. Those who know about the MIS will find “Midnight” illuminating because of Sakamoto’s fine storytelling and expert research.
The book’s central character is Harry Katsuharu Fukuhara, the second son of a couple who emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan, to Washington state. After his father died in the Great Depression, his mother moved Harry and his two kid brothers back to Hiroshima in 1933. There, they rejoined their two elder siblings, Victor and Mary, who had been sent back earlier to be educated.
Harry spent five years in Hiroshima, graduating from high school, then returned alone to the United States as soon as he could. He wound up in Los Angeles and was working as a gardener when Japan attacked military bases in Hawai‘i on Dec. 7, 1941. Fukuhara, who had no idea where Pearl Harbor was, learned about the attack from a customer whose yard he was tending to at the time. She fired him on the spot.
Within months, he and his sister — who had returned stateside in defiance of her mother — were interned, two of the more than 110,000 who were forced from their homes and illegally imprisoned simply because they were Japanese. Harry volunteered for the MIS in late 1942 to escape the Gila River Relocation Center.
Fukuhara would go on to serve in combat with the 33rd Infantry Division, first in New Guinea, where an Army photographer’s shot of him questioning two Japanese prisoners of war became an MIS icon. Fukuhara was one of the hundreds of MIS kibei — born in America, educated in Japan and returned the United States before the war. The kibei’s mastery of the Japanese language was essential to the success of the MIS. While the MIS Nisei worked to understand the enemy and his intentions, racial naivete among American GIs fighting in the Pacific created some tense moments for Fukuhara.
He was a teammate and buddy of Terry Yukitaka Mizutari, a prewar draftee from Hilo who was transferred to the MIS from the 100th Infantry Battalion. In “Midnight,” Sakamoto relates how Mizutari was killed in combat in New Guinea. Another Hawai‘i-born Nisei appears in the book — and Fukuhara’s life — in a totally different role, first as a prewar schoolyard bully and later as an enemy prisoner.
Throughout the hostilities, despite many letters and cables, Fukuhara had no communication with his mother and brothers, who had been drafted into the Japanese military. “Midnight” recounts Japan’s decline with vivid descriptions of the mounting hardships that the family endured, culminating with the atomic bomb. Sakamoto reports the fate of each of Fukuhara’s family members that day.
When the war ended, Harry Fukuhara went to Hiroshima to look for his mother and brothers. Sakamoto recounts what happened in riveting detail. The book goes on to give a glimpse of the postwar period, when Fukuhara returned to America, then re-enlisted and returned to Japan, where he played a key role for decades in building and strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance.
It was in Japan that Sakamoto, then a researcher from Amherst, met and was befriended by Fukuhara. Now a Punahou School history teacher, Sakamoto spent 17 years in Japan. In addition to scores of interviews with Fukuhara, his kid brother Frank and other relatives and friends, Sakamoto did years of research in Japan and America, as the book’s ample footnotes attest. Sakamoto personally translated a captured letter that Fukuhara shared with her. Add to all of that her eye for detail and ability to capture the characters’ feelings. It is no wonder that “Midnight” was published by industry giant, HarperCollins.
Harry Fukuhara served the United States for 48 years, first in the Army, retiring as a colonel, and then as a civilian. He played a key role in building today’s U.S.-Japan alliance and was honored many times by both governments and inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1988.
He was a staunch advocate for recognition of the MIS Nisei, in Northern California, Japan and Hawai‘i, where he spent his last years. Fukuhara was the driving force behind the Army’s belated recognition of their service with a Presidential Unit Citation in 2000. He earned the respect of Hawai‘i veterans who were usually unimpressed by other “kotonks.”
Harry Fukuhara died last April in Honolulu at the age of 95. In December 2015, the Army dedicated the headquarters of the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade at Schofield Barracks in his name.
While his wartime service was exemplary, it was not uncommon. About 6,000 Japanese Americans served in the MIS in World War II and in the postwar occupation of Japan. Many of them shared elements of Fukuhara’s story. Hundreds were kibei. Most attended the MIS Language School in Minnesota. The work of the MIS Nisei was cloaked in secrecy for many decades, although there was some public praise about the value of their service.
The diversity of their service, ranging from mundane translation to lethal combat and harrowing espionage, was usually undocumented. The fact that the MIS Nisei often served in ones and twos or small teams on temporary assignment to larger units made it difficult to characterize their service.
Efforts to document the MIS Nisei in print include Richard Oguro’s “Sempai Gumi,” Joseph Harrington’s “Yankee Samurai” and James McNaughton’s “Nisei Linguists.” McNaughton’s book was commissioned as the official U.S. Army history of the MIS Nisei. MIS veterans published “Secret Valor” in Hawai‘i and “The Pacific War and Peace” in Northern California. All of these publications attempt to document the MIS story in a comprehensive fashion. By their nature, these stories are diffuse.
Pam Rotner Sakamoto took a different tack, honing in masterfully on the worthy, human story of Harry Fukuhara and his family. In so doing, she has given historians and posterity a huge and lasting gift.
Mark Matsunaga is a former journalist, working for 20 years as a reporter and editor for the old Honolulu Advertiser and, subsequently, eight years as managing editor for KHON TV News. He is the son of an MIS veteran of World War II and grew up in Hawai‘i. He was one of three volunteers who developed the exhibit, “America’s Secret Weapon: Japanese American Soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service in World War II,” which is on display at the U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii.