First Japanese American Appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s note: Over the years, various media have captured the immigrant narrative of the Gannenmono who toiled in Hawai‘i’s plantations, the heartbreaking incarceration experiences of the Issei and their families and the bravery of Nisei soldiers during World War II.
This new bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” represents a partnership between the Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. They are Japanese Americans who have made contributions in fields ranging from politics, business and education to athletics, the military, and the arts and sciences. We plan to feature such individuals in each segment of this series, beginning with Takeshi Yoshihara.
The writers are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The stories in this “Honoring the Legacy” series are gleaned from resources they have created at the JCCH. Takeshi Yoshihara’s complete interview is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at https://jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/6805. Special mahalo to JCCH president and executive director Jacce Mikulanec for his efforts in moving this partnership forward.
Some of the details in this piece were derived from Yoshihara’s 2013-2014 interviews with Leslie Wilcox, host of PBS Hawai‘i’s “Long Story Short.”
Humility. Honesty. A passion for service to country. These qualities define Takeshi Yoshihara, who, in 1949, became the first Japanese American to receive an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.
When Yoshihara reminisces about how he received this historic honor, he wonders with typical modesty, “Why me?” Most Annapolis cadets had been star athletes and class presidents in high school. “All I had on my resume was one semester serving on the Junior Patrol, helping with after-school traffic,” he said, chuckling. He humbly neglects to mention that he was among the top 10 students in his high school and that he was nominated by the student council to be the class valedictorian.
Yoshihara believes that one’s past molds you as a person. His childhood years were incredibly difficult ones. Born in 1931, he was the fourth in a family of eight children. In the 1920s, his father, Buichi, left Hiroshima to work as a sawmill operator at a timber mill in Selleck, Wash. Buichi returned to Hiroshima to find a bride. His family helped to arrange his marriage to Kotoyo, the daughter of another farmer.
During the Great Depression, the timber mill closed and the family went to work on a friend’s strawberry farm in Oregon. In 1940, Buichi decided to lease land in Beaverton, Ore., and start his own crop of strawberries. Those were hardscrabble years. The growing family lived in an abandoned shack with holes in the ceiling, weeds sprouting through the floorboards and no electricity. Water had to be hauled from a nearby spring. Everyone worked from dawn to dusk. The family subsisted on rice and vegetables.
Even in this survival mode, Yoshihara recalled that the family was a stabilizing factor. His father, Buichi, was an incredibly hard worker, and his mother, Kotoyo, was the astute manager of the family’s funds.
The War Years
As a child of 10, Yoshihara recalled seeing a sign tacked to a telephone post, announcing the immediate evacuation of Japanese from the West Coast. This was a consequence of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. In May 1942, his family was given five days to pack and move. The family, who had spent two years cultivating their fields, was forced to evacuate before they could even harvest their first crop of strawberries. They left the farm in the care of their church members and boarded a bus with suitcases in hand.
For five months, they lived at the Portland Exhibition Hall and Rodeo Center, which was a preinternment camp detention facility. “If you looked at the building from the top, you would see partitions that formed cubicles like an egg crate,” Yoshihara remembers. There was no privacy. Even worse was the stench from the nearby slaughterhouse.
From Portland, the family was taken by train to Minidoka in Idaho, where they were among the 10,000 Japanese herded into barracks hastily constructed with lumber and tar paper. The rooms were cramped and there was no furniture. Because they had such a large family, the Yoshiharas had the “luxury” of two rooms. Living in this intensely communal environment had its ups and downs for Yoshihara, who was, by then, a young teen. He liked that he had new friends and regular meals in the mess hall. However, he was humiliated by the lack of privacy in the latrines.
The family was incarcerated at Minidoka for three and a half years. Throughout the ordeal, Yoshihara said his parents never expressed anger or bitterness, just resilience and resignation, along with their deep Christian faith that would always help them through adversities.
After the War
In December 1944, the government started closing the camps. The Yoshiharas were among the last to leave Minidoka in September 1945. Each internee was given $25 and a train ticket when they left the camp. But where could the family go? Their farm was gone. In Yoshihara’s words, the camp experience had “sucked out the ambition” from his father, who, by then, was in his 50s. The family felt that God had intervened when a pastor in Seattle invited them to use the church basement as a temporary home.
After a short time, they moved to Renton, Wash., where his father worked as a dishwasher at a Catholic school and Yoshihara attended high school. Both faculty and students at the school were hospitable, but he felt out of place.
“I came from a camp where 10,000 people looked like me and I arrived in a place where no one looked like me,” said Yoshihara. He shied away from social life and immersed himself in his studies. He did well and built his self-esteem through academics. Although he wasn’t the top student at the school, the student council voted him their class valedictorian.
Appointment and Training
When Yoshihara applied for appointment to a military academy, he thought he was applying to West Point (Army). Upon receiving a congratulatory letter from Washington state Congressman Thor Tollefson, he discovered his appointment was to Annapolis. His heart sank. After all, he suffered from a debilitating case of motion sickness. He had answered truthfully on the questionnaire that he had this problem and was admitted in spite of it.
Yoshihara faced yet another obstacle: He lacked the funds to travel from his home in Washington state to Annapolis in Maryland. The family finally managed to scrape together the money for a one-way ticket. He also acknowledges that Mike Masaoka with the Japanese American Citizens League was instrumental in supporting his candidacy. Yoshihara learned of Masaoka’s support years later when he met the JACL leader and discovered his role in lobbying for his acceptance to the academy. Yoshihara described Masaoka as the “Moses of his generation” in advocating acceptance and cooperation among the World War II internees.
Yoshihara recalled the rigors of plebe summer training as an incoming freshman at Annapolis. The physical and mental exercises were grueling, and the competition was fierce. The Navy wanted to turn these young civilians into midshipmen. He also experienced “culture shock” coming from a poverty-stricken Asian family to this spit-and-polish academy. “We ate with chopsticks at home. At the academy, we ate on white linen and had to use knives, forks, spoons correctly.” He also had to learn how to properly tie a necktie.
During training on a ship, Yoshihara got so violently ill that a concerned administration convened a board to determine whether Yoshihara should be dismissed. When Yoshihara noted that he had truthfully disclosed his motion sickness condition in past questionnaires, the Navy realized that they had made an error by not catching this earlier and allowed him to continue his training. They also informed him that he would not be able to receive a naval commission with his medical problem.
When he graduated from Annapolis in 1953, Yoshihara was in a quandary. He knew that he couldn’t pursue a military career on a ship. The one shining moment of his years at the academy was his marriage to his Hawai‘i-born sweetheart, Elva, two hours after graduating from Annapolis.
Luck was with him, however. One of his Annappolis instructors informed him that he could pursue a Navy career on land, but it would require that he get a degree in civil engineering. Undaunted, he enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to earn his degree and landed a position with the Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps. The job took him to various locations, including Midway Island, where the first of his two sons was born, and to Vietnam. On Midway, he oversaw the construction of ports, barracks and runways, as well as, teaching of pier construction. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in engineering from the University of Illinois. For someone who had been told that he could never receive a naval commission, he did well, ultimately rising to the rank of captain.
Reflecting on his coming of age years, barely eking out a living on an Oregon farm and surviving behind barbed wire in a concentration camp in Minidoka, Yoshihara realizes that his character had been forged by his family’s battle against seemingly insurmountable odds. He credits his parents’ indomitable work ethic and abiding religious faith as indelible attributes in his own career.
His strong desire to serve has also been evident in Yoshihara’s postretirement activities. In the 1970s, he worked for U.S. Sen. Sparky Matsunaga in Washington, D.C., for two years and enjoyed the exciting pulse of politics and power in the nation’s capital. His work with Matsunaga brought the Yoshiharas to Elva’s home state of Hawai‘i. He later returned to Honolulu to help establish a federal energy office for the Pacific. The Yoshiharas then decided to make Honolulu their permanent home.
Later, Yoshihara worked with Gov. George Ariyoshi in creating Hawai‘i’s first Energy Office.Yoshihara describes his leadership style as “encouraging and guiding.” His compassion is clearly evident in his desire to help others achieve their potential. By overcoming his own personal obstacles, Takeshi Yoshihara has also helped others to achieve their dreams.