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Tuesday, May 2, 2000

'The gooks from Gardena' go to war


By DAVID WILLIAMS
FROM PEARL HARBOR TO SAIGON: Japanese-American Soldiers and the Vietnam War, by Toshio Whelchel. London & New York: Verso, 1999, 203 pp., three maps, 12 photos, 16.20 British pounds (cloth).

At last, a simple but moving book about the violent soul of America that almost any educated Japanese can read in the original English. This is a war story full of short tales told in short sentences. The writing is plain, the vocabulary as undemanding as the people it tells us about. There is even a dictionary of '60s' slang.

This book pulls no punches because the American military didn't. Not in the 1960s. "I was beaten up by two drill instructors one night while everybody was asleep. They took me into their room and beat me up, for what I don't know; they did it routinely." This was how the U.S. Marine Corps welcomed David Hakata to boot camp on his way to Vietnam.

If you are teacher and looking for a "real" book to set your favorite class on fire, Toshio Whelchel has written a textbook for you and your students. This is an oral history about drugs and music, war and hate, race and silence. It is all as simple and direct as a fist thrust in your mouth.

So be warned. Whether you take Whelchel to bed for a night-time read or carry him into the classroom for a moving lesson, make sure you leave time to wipe the slime of battle from your face and the sweat from your brow when you finish. Here are raw, blood-drenched tales from a race war.

The son of a white American father and a Japanese mother, Whelchel calls himself "a first-generation Japanese American." His project was set in motion by reading Christian Appy's "Working-Class War." In search of the truth about Japanese-American veterans, Whelchel decided, "to explore how the limited choices of people with working-class backgrounds affected them as they faced the Vietnam War draft."

Whelchel soon hit a wall of silence as strict and unyielding as that of a Mafia family. He had to work hard to locate Japanese Americans who fought in Vietnam, and then to try even harder to get them to talk about their experiences. Silence is at the heart of this moving, often disturbing, book.

In the end, Whelchel talked to 59 Asian Americans from San Diego and San Francisco, but mainly from Los Angeles. These young men were raised, educated and got their first jobs in communities such as Pasadena, South Central Los Angeles and Gardena (my old hometown). These were the children of the generation of Japanese Americans who were moved in boxcars to concentration camps after the Japanese Navy's raid on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Some of the veterans were born in the camps, which stretched across the United States from Manzanar in the California desert to Heart Mountain in Wyoming to Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas.

In his "National Trauma and Collective Memory," Arthur G. Neal describes this gross violation of the U.S. Constitution as the greatest forced internal relocation in American history, certainly since the Cherokee were made to march from Georgia to Oklahoma on the infamous and murderous "Trail of Tears."

In the name of an entirely imaginary security risk, Japanese Americans were reduced to scapegoats for the racial humiliation of Pearl Harbor. This is why they were not released from internment until Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo's sneak attack had been "avenged" (Neal's word) by the taking of 300,000 Japanese lives in the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Many of the Japanese Americans, both volunteers and draftees, who fought in Vietnam were trained in the South, where they were shocked by drinking fountains and lavatories labeled "For whites only." Often on close terms with African-American soldiers, these racial innocents from suburban L.A. were even more appalled at the ways black soldiers were regularly humiliated and often beaten in the base towns of the American South.

"Niggers, don't be caught after sundown." This was the sign that greeted Kyle Miyogi, from Long Beach, when he arrived in Augusta, Ga. in 1968. Rocked by the racism of this "civilized" Southern city, Miyogi understandably asked: "I'm defending these people?"

The U.S. Marine Corps encouraged its own racist argot and psychology. Supposedly fighting for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people, the contemptuous term "gooks" was applied freely to friend and foe alike. First used to describe Filipinos during their insurrection against U.S. imperialism after the Spanish-American War, the word was viciously applied to Asian-Americans serving their country in Vietnam.

During basic training in Quantico, Va., Don Mitsuo was ordered by his drill instructor to wear the clothes of a Viet Cong soldier (Whelchel includes photos of Sam Yorunga dressed up as the enemy for the U.S. Army). Mitsuo was then made to stand before his fellow marines while his drill instructor shouted, "This is what your enemy looks like. I want you to kill it before it kills you."

Under the pressure of such incidents, Whelchel lapses into a long sentence: "What was most perplexing for Japanese-American youths experiencing gookism for the first time was the confrontation with a sense of themselves that was distinct from the body politic of American culture and society and their assumptions of loyalty and patriotism." They may have been from Gardena, but Japanese Americans were gooks just the same.

Yet, at the very heart of this secret history of American racism, is Whelchel misleading us? The power of his interviews with Japanese-American veterans depends on the idea that race is only skin deep. These Japanese-American boys may have looked like "Buddha-heads" but, under the skin, they were really good Americans who deserved to be treated as whites.

But what of the silence of these Japanese Americans, the silence of their parents who never mentioned their experience of the camps or their sons who never discussed their Vietnam experiences until Whelchel came knocking? In other words, what does the Japanese in Japanese American really mean?

Between the lines of Japanese culture, silence reigns. Everywhere one encounters the mistrust of words. They can never do justice to the pure feelings of an emotional people. It is no accident that one of the greatest Japanese novels of the past century was called "Silence" (Shusaku Endo) or one of the finest pieces of literary criticism is titled "Accomplices of Silence" (Masao Miyoshi).

Until very recently, Japanese Americans displayed a profound awareness that once uttered, a painful truth can never be unsaid. Words are dangerous. Better to say nothing than to verbalize chaos and destroy one's fragile world. Whelchel's extraordinary achievement has been to pierce this silence.



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