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Sunday, June 16, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Soldiers who fought for their honor on two fronts


By MARGARET STAWOWY
THE LAST FOX: A Novel of the 100th/442nd RCT, by Robert H. Kono. Eugene, Oregon: Abe Publishing, 2001, 322 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American government interned people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, in camps. Families who lived in the western United States had only days to liquidate businesses, sell homes and possessions, and deal with the perception that they were "enemy aliens." They felt angry, confused and betrayed, but nonetheless complied.

Soon after, their integrity was further assaulted when mandatory questionnaires were circulated among them. Would they officially declare their loyalty to the United States? And for able-bodied young men, would they serve their country in the armed forces? Those who replied in the negative would be subjected to even further discrimination, possibly even segregation. The questionnaires caused great anguish and polarized families, friends and the wider community.

Still, many viewed themselves as loyal citizens who believed in the principles upon which America was founded. Besides that, America was the only country most of the young people had ever known. They could barely read and write Japanese. They listened to swing and ate hamburgers. They believed in the American way with all their hearts. They answered the questionnaires in the affirmative.

"The Last Fox," a first novel by Robert H. Kono, is about four boyhood friends -- Fred, Sam, Jimmy and Mike -- who answered "yes" and went to Italy and France to fight for their country. They became part of the 442nd Regiment, the most decorated regimental combat team in U.S. history, with the famous motto "Go for broke." In between battles, they tried to reconcile the gap between their loyalty and the second-class treatment they received.

Fred is the young idealist who refuses to give in to his doubts and fears. Sam, outwardly hostile and angry, is his foil. Jimmy, the youngest, has just fallen in love with an Italian woman and hardly seems to notice the war. Mike is idealistic like Fred, but more volatile. Together, the young soldiers form a team (the Four Foxes) to outwit the Germans on the battlefield, and they succeed admirably. Indeed, all are extremely noble and persevering, perhaps too much so.

Twenty-first century readers accustomed to confessional novels and notions of entitlement may be too jaded to accept the straightforward patriotism of main character Fred Murano. In the 1940s, Fred was the ideal man; today, he's an anachronism. Fred has no confession to make because, as they say in contemporary parlance, he's in denial. Time and again he refuses to give in to his fears and doubts: "(Fred) always maintained a cool and tough exterior. His tortured sentiments, his confusion of conflicted feelings -- of fear, quiet anger, anticipation -- never found expression."

Fred and his friends suffer racial slurs, are given the most suicidal missions and are pushed aside while somebody else takes the credit. Sam verbalizes their anger and outrage, but Fred keeps shushing him. Understandably, some degree of emotional anesthetization is necessary if a soldier is to do his job and come home in one piece with sanity more or less intact. But although Fred might go through the war with blinders on, the reader shouldn't be expected to do the same.

Various questions demand an answer, the major one being: Just what was this particular war experience really like? At times, the battle scenes are so compressed it's difficult to imagine their true impact. The reader is also presented with combat procedures and experiences that a nonsoldier wouldn't understand without explanation.

One question that "The Last Fox" does answer very clearly is why the Japanese-Americans were such heroic, first-rate soldiers even though they were subjected to such discrimination. Basically, they were fighting to prove that they were loyal Americans, that racism was wrong, and that internment was a horrible mistake. For them, there was far more at stake than just winning the war abroad; they had to win an insidious war at home too. Kono believably conveys the soldiers' conflicting earnestness, insecurity, anger and hope.

The opening and closing scenes also impress with their credibility. In it, the aged veterans of the 442nd are gathered in the present at a funeral dinner for Mike who has succumbed to cancer. The survivors are left to sort out the indignities of old age: loneliness, illness, flagging sexuality and boredom. Their exquisite sadness and longing is interspersed with unexpected humor. There is authenticity in these scenes as well as in the descriptions of internment camp family life, a subject on which Kono is certainly an expert.

As a boy, Kono lived in an internment camp with his mother for the duration of the war. The internment experience and the depiction of young men who enlisted are likely drawn from firsthand observation. The campaigns of the 442nd are not, meaning Kono relied on research and interviews. Though historically accurate, aspects of the physical and mental experience require further development. Still, the history of the 442nd Regiment is remarkable, and those interested in this chapter of Japanese-American history will find it of interest.



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