Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Writer’s note: I never studied Asian American Studies in school and my exploration of Japanese American history has been largely self-directed, but occasionally someone refers me to a book or article that reveals another part of the story.
Such is the case with “A Place for Harvest: The Story of Kenny Higashi,” a book for children written by Lauren R. Harris and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino; South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2022.
I met Michael Pahl in 1972 while attending ROTC Summer Camp at Fort Lewis, Washington, now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord. We trained together in the same company of cadets for six weeks between our junior and senior years of college.
After camp ended, we parted ways and went on to our own lives and careers. Fast forward 40 years; Mike found my address on the internet and re-established our friendship. I shared information with him about the Nisei soldiers of World War II. Like most Midwesterners, he had not heard of them or the Japanese incarceration during the war. He was amazed that the young Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were willing to serve in the Army after many of their families were unfairly incarcerated.
Last month, he sent me a children’s book about a Nisei soldier from Spearfish, South Dakota.
The Higashi Family from the Black Hills of South Dakota
Kenneth “Kenny” Ray Higashi was born on Dec. 23, 1921, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, the second of five siblings: Clarence, Kenny, Mae, Jean and Lily born to Shiichi and Kawano Higashi. The family moved near Spearfish when Kenny was seven and farmed there for 50 years. They grew fruits and vegetables and were a vital part of the community. The work was difficult, but the family had a wonderful life until his father Shiichi died while Kenny was in high school. Clarence and Kenny stepped up to operate the farm while holding down other jobs.
Soon after Higashi graduated from high school, war with Japan began and President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. News of the exclusion order and evacuation of the Nikkei community from the designated military areas on the West Coast found its way to Spearfish.
Join Uncle Sam or Else
Two men in uniform showed up at the Higashi home and offered them a deal: If one of their sons would volunteer to serve in the U.S. military, the family could stay on the farm and avoid relocation. (Note: It’s difficult to say if the men were authorized to threaten the Higashi family in this manner so far outside the designated military areas, but this is what happened.) Kenny volunteered to join the Army since Clarence was more important to the survival of the farm due to his mechanic’s skills.
Higashi served with the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe and participated in the “Rescue of the Lost Battalion,” their most famous battle. In October 1944, the 100th/442nd fought for five days to rescue a Texas battalion trapped behind German lines for almost a month while their own division failed to save them. Surviving that epic battle unscathed, he was later wounded in Italy just before the end of the war.
After recovering from his wounds, Higashi returned to Spearfish where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier and got married. He loved Spearfish and its people and was well known in the community due to his job delivering mail. However, few knew about his military service during the war.
In 2016, a newspaper in Rapid City near where Pahl lives published an article about Higashi and his war experience in commemoration of World War II. Mike visited him at his home and thanked him for his service. He was struck by Higashi’s humility and gratitude.
The Genesis of a Book
Author Harris lived in Spearfish for eight years and met Higashi through mutual friends while researching material for another book about the Nisei soldiers. Finding his story fascinating she decided to write a book about it. He assisted her by providing first-hand accounts of his war experience.
She obtained support from the South Dakota Historical Society Press who in turn reached out to illustrator Hoshino to do the artwork. Hoshino had never been to South Dakota, so Harris sent photos of the Higashi family, their house and surrounding areas. During the war Hoshino’s own family had been incarcerated in camps at Minidoka, Idaho, and Poston, Arizona.
“A Place for Harvest” was released in April 2022. Unfortunately, Kenny Higashi passed away on Thanksgiving Day 2020, just short of his 99th birthday, and never saw it.
Harris tells the story largely from Higashi’s perspective. His love for his hometown is the dominant theme. Besides serving in the Army and fighting in Europe, he spent his whole adult life in Spearfish. He had seen historic sites in Italy and Europe and swam in the Mediterranean but Spearfish was the only place he wanted to be. Hoshino’s whimsical watercolor images provide the visual backdrop.
In an interview, Harris stated the book is also about the importance of community and friendship. The Higashi family was accepted by the Spearfish community and never experienced any prejudice, even during the war. Higashi was warmly welcomed when he returned.
At the end of the book, Harris includes a history of the Higashi family with photographs and brief description of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd RCT.
A Reluctant Hero
Harris helped Higashi apply for the French Legion of Honor medal, France’s highest medal of distinction with assistance from Mililani’s Jeff Morita, a retired Army intelligence specialist who researches Nisei soldier military records. He has helped dozens of Nisei veterans receive the honor from the government of France.
Higashi received the French medal in 2019 along with other medals that Morita’s research uncovered that he had earned, but never received. He was surprised since he was unaware of the other awards until then. Higashi didn’t think of himself as a hero. According to Harris, “he said, ‘the heroes are the one that didn’t come home.’”
Perpetuating the Story
We are fortunate that Harris met Higashi and wrote the book so we could learn this remarkable story. “A Place for Harvest” tells the Nisei soldier story from a unique perspective as Nisei soldiers from the Heartland were rare. Like many Nisei veterans, Higashi didn’t talk about the war. As he told his stories to Harris, his wife was astonished since she was hearing them for the first time.
I often ponder how to keep the story of the Nisei soldiers alive for our younger generations. Harris introduces the concepts of discrimination and war to young people with a gentle, storytelling approach. I shared the book with my granddaughter and someday will tell her about the great grandfather she never met who fought in a war to ensure her a freer future.
Byrnes Yamashita is a retired engineer and is the vice president of the Nisei Veterans Legacy. The mission of the NVL is to preserve, perpetuate and share the legacy of the Americans of Japanese ancestry who served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II: the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. To learn more about the NVL, visit their website at nvlchawaii.org or follow them on Instagram.