Three California Nisei Women On a Mission to Honor Veterans With US Postal Stamp
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: In the Dec. 18, 2020, issue of the Herald, cover article “USPS ‘Go For Broke’ Postal Stamp 2021 Release” told the story of Shiroku “Whitey” Yamamoto – the soldier depicted on the “Go For Broke” stamp being released next month. This follow-up article details the nationwide release of the “Go For Broke” stamp and how three California nisei women were the driving force behind it. Read on and learn the story of how Fusa Takahashi, Chiz Ohira and Aiko King, all former internees in U.S. concentration camps during the war, pushed to honor World War II Nisei veterans with this commemorative stamp.
On June 3, 2021, the U.S. Postal Service will issue the “Go For Broke” commemorative stamp honoring Japanese American soldiers who fought in World War II. The stamp features an artist’s depiction of Hawai‘i-born 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran Shiroku “Whitey” Yamamoto who volunteered to join the 442nd RCT and was assigned to the Antitank Company. He was born on the Big Island and was a high-school student when World War II broke out.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic there will not be the traditional in-person “first day of issue” ceremony. The virtual ceremony will be posted on the U.S. Postal Service Facebook page (facebook.com/USPS/). The stamp will go on sale nationwide on June 3. Hawai‘i’s ceremony will be held a day later, on June 4, with live-stream beginning at 11 a.m. HST from the 100th Infantry Battalion veterans’ clubhouse and may be viewed at the website of the Nisei Veterans Legacy (nvlchawaii.org).
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Lynn Heirakuji, president of the Nisei Veterans Legacy and coordinator of the event. “There’s a big story behind this little stamp, but it’s more than a history lesson. It holds powerful lessons for this and future generations.”
Besides the U.S. Postal Service’s national commemorative virtual ceremony, Wayne Osako — co-chair of the national campaign to honor all AJA men and women who served in World War II — said ceremonies would also be held in California, Oregon, Idaho and Texas. “Some dedications are planned to be virtual and some in person,” said Osako, whose relatives served in the 442nd RCT, Military Intelligence Service and the Women’s Army Corps. For the latest updates on the “Go For Broke” stamp release events, visit niseistamp.org.
It Started With Three Nisei Women
The drive to honor the World War II Nisei warriors began 16 years ago by three Nisei women from California, two widows of AJA soldiers – Fusa Takahashi and Chiz Ohira – and Aiko King, who was interned with Takahashi at Camp Amachi in southeastern Colorado. King, 93, now lives in Camarillo, California.
In a 2007 Honolulu Star-Bulletin interview Chiz Ohira said that she started the campaign in 2005 because she, King and Fusa Takahashi believed the Nisei soldiers belonged to “a unique organization.”
Ohira – whose husband was Nisei veteran Ted “Bulldog” Ohira, originally from Kaua‘i, and who has since passed away – said then that many of the soldiers were “getting old and I wanted something done to recognize their valor and achievements before it is too late.”
Ohira said in jest in the 2007 interview, “I think if you can get Donald Duck on a stamp, we should be able to get the 442nd.”
Fusa Takahashi also expressed — about the U.S. Postal Service artwork — that “it [was] frustrating at times when I would see cartoon characters and pop culture being recognized but Japanese American soldiers, who gave so much to this country, weren’t being honored as life’s true heroes. “
Takahashi said she and King kicked off the campaign by writing to Sen. Daniel Inouye, who along with other senators urged the postmaster general to issue a stamp honoring AJA soldiers. That was followed by a petition drive in southern and northern California. Their letter-writing campaign also resulted in seven state legislatures passing resolutions of support.
Takahashi, 94, who now lives in Granite Bay near Sacramento, said her husband, Kazuo, served in the Military Intelligence Service and was stationed in Japan from 1946-49. He was born in San Francisco and enlisted while being incarcerated at Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. After the war Kazuo Takahashi attended pharmacy school and ran a drug store in San Pablo in northern California. He died in 1977.
With the help of a 52-year-old educator and writer named Wayne Osako, the campaign used social media and other communication vehicles to build its case for the Go for Broke stamp’s necessity.
Wayne Osako Joins the Women
Wayne Osako, a sansei from Garden Grove, California, whose parents had been incarcerated in separate internment camps, was asked by the nisei women organizers in 2006 to help with their efforts. Osako, who according to NBC News was a teacher at the Go For Broke National Education Center and a stamp collector whose relatives also served in World War II, came with these useful “credentials.” He reflected on the outcome of their team’s years of organizing:
We love that Whitey was chosen as the ‘Go For Broke’ stamp image. The simple design with his portrait speaks to the humble roots of those AJAs who served during the war from Hawai‘i and the mainland. Many of them enlisted from behind barbed wire of the camps. These soldiers rose to the incredible challenges placed before them on the battlefield, and also at home where they faced prejudice because of their Japanese heritage. Whitey embodies the ‘Go For Broke’ spirit.
Osako added, “The stamp would not be a reality without [the] Hawai‘i [community]’s help, and [we are] so glad to see a Hawai‘i local as the face on the stamp. “
Osako said several Democratic lawmakers in 2009 introduced a resolution supporting the stamp in the Hawai‘i State House of Representatives. That was followed in 2016 when Gov. David Ige wrote a letter of support to the postmaster general, and the late U.S. Congressional Representative K. Mark Takai joined the campaign by authoring a Congressional resolution.
Both Osako and Takahashi, co-chairs of the “Stamp Our Story” campaign (niseistamp.org/about-us), said they were pleased with the design and the postal service’s choice of Big Island native “Whitey” Yamamoto as the face of Japanese American soldiers.
“The stamp depicts the Nisei soldier and by using the ʻGo For Broke’ battle cry, it truly focuses on Japanese American soldiers and not Asians in general,” said Takahashi. Born in San Joaquin Valley, she along with other Nikkei were sent to concentration camps with their families in 1942.
The “Go For Broke” Stamp Accomplishment
Both King and Takahashi said they were “happy and grateful” when they learned last November that the postal service had decided to issue the “Go For Broke” stamp.
“It was so important to me that the story of these brave soldiers needed to be told and raise public awareness,” said Takahashi, who lives in northern California.
Takahashi, whom Osako described as “the heart and soul” of the stamp campaign, added, “We thought a stamp, which is universal, would be a great way to accomplish that goal. At my age (93 years old), I am very grateful it happened while I was still here to enjoy this accomplishment.”
The Significance of June
Working with the postal service Osako found that several significant historical events involving Nisei soldiers had taken place in June. On June 5, 1942, for example, the 100th Battalion left Hawai‘i on the SS Maui and arrived at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin 11 days later. And for soldiers of the MIS, its language school opened at Camp Savage in Minnesota with 200 students in June 1942. Four years later, the school moved to the Presidio in San Francisco and was renamed the U.S. Army Language School, also in June.
The postal service’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee receives upwards of 50,000 proposals annually for stamps on U.S.-related subjects; the approval process usually takes several years.
Once approved, it takes two to three years to develop a commemorative stamp that honors “extraordinary” contributions on subjects that had “significant impact on American history, culture or environment,” according to the U.S. Postal Service.
Antonio Alcalá, art director for the Postal Service, designed the Lunar New Year of the Ox and the “Go For Broke” stamps.
The U.S Postal Service said the stamp recognizes the contributions of all Japanese American soldiers – 33,000 of whom served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the 100th Battalion and the 442nd RCT, the MIS, the 1399 Engineer Construction Battalion, the Women’s Corps and other units.
Because of COVID restrictions the Hawai‘i stamp unveiling ceremony will be available beginning at 11 a.m. on June 4 via the Nisei Veterans Legacy website at (nvlchawaii.org).
Note: “Go For Broke” is the battle cry of the 442nd RCT – the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army, which happened to be comprised almost entirely of Japanese Americans. The term “Go For Broke” — which originated from gambling — means to “go all in” or “give it your all.”
The battle cry of the 100th Battalion was “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, congressional reporter for the Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.