Editor’s note: Earlier this year, outgoing MIS Veterans Club of Hawaii president George Arine asked me to be the speaker at the club’s New Year’s gathering at the Natsunoya Tea House. With an issue to send to press every other week, my initial thought was to politely decline. But as the days went by, giving me time to mull over the invitation, I had a change of heart and decided to accept George’s invitation so that I could discuss a subject that had been simmering in my mind for quite a while — the perpetuation of the Nisei veterans’ legacy. The following is the text of my talk.
Aloha . . . Good Morning . . .
Thank you for inviting me to join you at your shinnen enkai, as you always do . . . and mahalo for inviting me to share some thoughts with you.
One of your MIS “sons” — Mark Matsunaga — and I have known each other from our days as students at the University of Hawai‘i. In recent years, our connection as the baby boomer children of AJA veterans who served in World War II revived our friendship.
“Ey, we gotta get together,” we always said when we happened to run into each other. So, from time to time, one of us will pick up bentö and we’ll eat lunch at my office. For some reason, we always end up talking about World War II and you guys. Not just you MIS veterans, but the 100th, 442nd and the 1399th veterans, as well . . . and what we think needs to be done to make sure that the story of your service never dies, that it lives on with future generations and is available to everyone.
One thing I’ve learned about Mark is that he gets it. I think of him as a historian without the official credentials. He reads, he studies, he thinks, he analyzes. He connects the dots. So when I mentioned once that I thought that our future lay in organizing ourselves like the descendants of the Nisei veterans on Maui, he quickly said, “That’s it.”
Back in the 1980s, I interviewed Leonard Oka, the son of a Maui 442nd veteran, who had helped to organize the Maui sons and daughters organization. Leonard said he got involved because he wanted to make sure that his son would know how his grandfather had served his country in World War II.
The Maui group decided to organize itself as the Maui Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans. Leonard explained that they were just being practical — they didn’t have enough members to form individual sons and daughters groups, so they formed one group, and agreed that they would all work together to keep alive the history and the stories of all of the Nisei soldiers.
When I met Leonard, the organization was moving full steam ahead with its plan to build a facility to honor the Nisei veterans. Alexander & Baldwin had gifted them with a parcel of land along Kahului Beach Road. Leonard drove me over to the site. There was even a sign up along the road that read: “Future Home of the Nisei Veterans Center.”
It took many years and lots of fundraising to build the center. They faced challenges along the way, including the discovery of iwi — Hawaiian burials — as they started to clear the land. The burials had to be taken care of responsibly and respectfully.
The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center opened in phases — first the preschool and adult day care facility to help sustain the center on a daily basis, and then, in 2013, the center’s heart-and-soul: its Education Center, which houses resources relating to the veterans’ experiences. Quite a few of the veterans were still healthy and mobile, so they had opportunities to gather there.
Many of them were members of the Maui AJA Veterans, Inc., which the veterans had organized as a nonprofit in 1947 after returning home from the war. The group awarded scholarships to high school seniors of all ethnicities and donated funds to improve or build facilities on the island. They did terrific work for their community — and all in memory of their comrades who did not make it home from the war.
Two years ago, the Maui AJA Veterans, Inc. decided to turn over its treasury to the Maui Sons and Daughters to continue the work its members had started seven decades earlier.
The Maui Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans is keeping their fathers’ stories alive for everyone. Today, its members are the driving force behind the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. They continue to tell the story of the Nisei soldiers and Hawai‘i’s war years in general through original and loaned exhibits, through memorial services and through educational projects that involve Maui students. Earlier this year, they launched a speaker series: Former Governor George Ariyoshi, an MIS veteran, was the first speaker.
The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center is a living, breathing, thriving tribute to our Nisei veterans.
So, why am I talking about the Maui Sons and Daughters?
Because, over time, I have come to believe that they are what our AJA descendants groups need to model going forward.
We are losing our veterans every day. As sad as it is, that is the circle of life. One day very soon, the “last hurrah” banquets will end, because all of our veterans will have passed on.
But we, their grown children, need to get serious and begin talking about how we are going to perpetuate our fathers’ legacies going forward. We’re not kids anymore — we are now in our 60s and 70s.
Do we remain separate groups, intent on telling only our own father’s story, or do we come together, like the Maui Sons and Daughters, to tell the whole story?
Organizing like the Maui Sons and Daughters did in the 1980s probably would not have worked for us back then. Most of our fathers were still alive at the time, and they were fiercely proud of the unit in which they had served. They would have wanted to retain their respective unit’s identity. I understand that.
But now, I think, we have to look ahead. While we will always be our fathers’ daughters and sons — grateful, and proud of their service to our country — we have to take on a new role . . . as the trustees of their history, their stories, their legacy.
It will require that we rethink their history and how we should perpetuate it — not as individual units, but as a generation that rose to a challenge that tested not only their intelligence and skills in battle, but also their moral character and their sense of service to their community throughout their lives. Our fathers did not come back and do nothing — they continued to serve.
In the 1990s, the late Hideto Kono, an MIS veteran, asked me to serve as the editor for a collection of stories by and about the World War II AJA veterans from all four Army units. That collection was published as “Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers.” It is one of the few collections of the veterans’ memories and feelings about their wartime experience, most of them written by the veterans themselves. For that book, we wanted to focus not on battle strategy, but rather on the soldiers’ feelings.
I am immensely proud of that book and the stories brought to our meetings by our Editorial Board members: Hideto Kono, the Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani, Ted Tsukiyama, Dr. Bob Sakai, all of whom served in the MIS; 442nd veterans Ed Ichiyama and Bob Katayama; Jane Komeiji, a retired school teacher and the widow of an MIS veteran; and Drusilla Tanaka, Cary Miyashiro and Mimi Nakano, whose fathers served in the 100th Battalion.
I eventually became a member of the Editorial Board. It is the one organization that I have continued to remain involved in because of the work it has done to collect and preserve the stories of our Nisei to help educate future generations. That book was followed by two more: one that focused on Hawai‘i’s home front during the war, and another on the character values that shaped the Nisei generation.
Sadly, we have lost several board members over the years, but their seats — and dedication to preserving the Nisei story — have been filled by some excellent new members, including 442nd veteran Dr. Fujio Matsuda; MIS veterans Herbert Yanamura, Dr. Yoshinobu Oshiro, Judge Frank Takao, Kenzo Kanemoto . . . who recently passed; Army veteran Dr. Mike Okihiro; and MIS descendants Mark Matsunaga, Karen Aoyama Kikukawa, Gregg Hirata and Nancy Hiraoka. Gregg is our chair.
The fourth volume of “Japanese Eyes, American Heart” is currently in the works. It will focus on the service of the Military Intelligence Service during and after the war. Like a college student, Mark has been burning the midnight hour, writing that volume based on research he is doing and interviews that were conducted by the late James Tanabe, who was an active member of this club, and Ted Tsukiyama.
Legacy isn’t just about passing on your family name or material possessions. Knowing and understanding what your parents stood up for is, to me, an even more valuable legacy. It’s what you will carry in your heart all your life.
Through my involvement in the book series, I have come to realize that when we talk about the Nisei veterans, we’re really talking about a generation that was shaped by their upbringing and values.
Veteran journalist Tom Brokaw called you guys “The Greatest Generation.” When I think of all the challenges the Nisei faced because they were Japanese, I realize that others in “The Greatest Generation” did not have to bear that same burden.
The Nisei were not perfect, but for a good part of their lives, they were forced to carry the burden of their ethnic and cultural heritage. They were forced to prove themselves in a way that we, their children, will never have to.
And so, I have come to believe that our responsibility is to perpetuate the legacy of all of these units. The challenge before us is to develop one storyline that tells all their stories — from boyhood to manhood. Although they fought in different units, there is a common thread. The universal storyline is how they responded when their loyalty was questioned and why they responded as they did.
More than a military story, our fathers’ experiences are about Americanism, shaped by an upbringing that emphasized character values such as haji — to not bring shame to our family; chügi — loyalty; oyakökö — to love and honor our parents; kansha — to always express gratitude for kindnesses. These Japanese terms inspired the Nisei’s service and unwavering loyalty to America.
This is the story we need to tell about our fathers . . . not just that they were good soldiers, but rather that they were a generation of men who, regardless of where they served in World War II, be it at Cassino, or Bruyeres, or Burma or Japan . . . whether they carried a machine gun, or a dictionary and a megaphone . . . they all, equally, demonstrated Americanism and compassion that saved the lives of their fellow soldiers and innocent civilians, who, seven decades after the war, still remember and honor their courage and humanity.
The AJA World War II story isn’t an easy one to tell. It twists and turns, intertwines and overlaps . . . because that is how the history unfolded. Woven into that story are values from the old country, racism and, in the case of the MIS, service in places most people know very little about or have never even heard of. The MIS story didn’t end with V-J Day. Your acts of kindness — whether it was saving lives by persuading Okinawan civilians to come out of caves, or sharing food with starving children in Japan during the war and in the Occupation years — you built the foundation for today’s good relationship between the United States and Japan. People don’t forget those kindnesses, no matter how much time has passed.
So, yes, we have a very important story to tell. ONE story that incorporates all of these components into it . . . and we need to make sure that the information we publish on websites, in written materials, in exhibits, in talks and lectures, films and interviews . . . in all sources . . . is accurate.
Of course, all of this cannot be done overnight, or even in a few months. This will be a long and ongoing process that will involve all of us, including the Yonsei generation, working together to tell this one story . . . and making sure that our facts are right.
My dad was a 100th Battalion veteran, so my siblings and I spent a lot of time at the 100th Battalion clubhouse when we were kids. Being in the clubhouse is like being at home for me, even after all these years. It was the vision of the 100th fathers to build a clubhouse when they got home from the war so they could continue to get together with their buddies. So they began saving $2 from their Army paychecks every month while in training at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, for their dream clubhouse.
Today, the clubhouse is used for meetings and activities, not just by the 100th Battalion veterans and descendants, but also by the 442nd and MIS, as well. That’s a good thing.
I would love for the 100th clubhouse to become a living, breathing, thriving educational center, where the story of Hawai‘i’s four World War II AJA veterans groups can be shared with all. Hopefully, the four veterans groups . . . well, at least the 100th, 442nd and MIS . . . would fund its repair and upkeep, supplemented by grants and donations. I’m probably making 100th Battalion Veterans Club president Harry Nakayama, who is here today, very nervous. But I hope this idea can, at least, be the starting point for discussions, because I fear that if we don’t start this conversation now, we will run out of time and the opportunity — and the Nisei soldiers’ story — will slip away, forever.
Last July, former U.S. Army chief of staff retired General Eric Shinseki . . . a son of Hawai‘i . . . was in town to brief the local AJA veterans groups about the National Museum of the U.S. Army, which is currently being built at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. When it opens to the public next year, the museum will celebrate the proud history of the United States Army. It will tell the stories of the men and women who served in the U.S. Army in our country’s various wars.
General Shinseki is on the NMUSA Foundation board, which is fundraising for the museum. Besides meeting with prospective donors, he made a personnel appeal for artifacts that will help to tell the story of our veterans. He wanted to make sure that their story is represented in the museum, its collections and its exhibits.
The general was dead-serious in his comments. He said Japanese Americans went off to do the unthinkable in the days following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. He called the story of their service and sacrifice “an American story.”
We all know that General Shinseki uses every opportunity afforded him to tell the Nisei veterans’ story. He never fails to tell his audiences that he stands on the shoulders of you men who served in World War II. He never fails to tell people that were it not for all your generation endured and fought through, he would never have had the opportunity to achieve all that he did in his own military career.
And yet, he said, to his dismay, the most common response he hears whenever he talks about the Nisei soldiers is: “This really happened?” He said he doesn’t know why the Nisei soldiers’ story is still not known or understood, nationwide.
So yes, we have a monumental job ahead, and if we are serious about perpetuating the legacy of our Nisei soldiers, the work must start NOW.
Thank you again for allowing me to share these thoughts with you. Most importantly, to the veterans here today, thank you for all you did throughout your lives so that we can hold our heads up proudly as Americans.
Mahalo . . .