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Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011
Nisei vets, 92, unite via parallel lives
By TOM JACKMAN
The Washington Post
The lives of George Nakamura and Yukio Kawamoto have followed amazingly parallel paths.
They were born two weeks apart in California in 1919, both joined the U.S. Army early in 1942 during World War II, and both were assigned to military intelligence and served in the South Pacific.
After the war, both spent their careers in public service, both had four children, and both later retired to the Greenspring community in Springfield, Virginia.
And last month, both men received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service during the war, which both performed even though their parents were sent to Japanese-American internment camps.
And at 92, both men are still married, still healthy and still extremely sharp. Nakamura, who is traveling this week, said, "Just talk to Kawamoto — our stories are pretty much the same."
Both are nisei, America-born children of Japanese parents. They were nearing the end of college when Pearl Harbor was bombed 70 years ago. So both had to confront the issue of fighting against the country of their heritage.
It was trickier for Kawamoto, whose family lived in San Francisco and whose movements were quickly curbed after the attack by Imperial Japanese forces.
But both entered the army without hesitation. "They didn't like that," Kawamoto said of his parents. "But what can you do? You're an American citizen — you've got to do your duty. They were reticent until I was drafted."
Nakamura said the loyalty of Japanese-Americans started to be questioned after Pearl Harbor and that some Japanese-American students passed around petitions listing their support for the United States.
"That was not good enough for me," Nakamura said, so he joined the army — without consulting his parents. "It's my duty to fight for the U.S., there was no question about it. So I did that."
Nakamura, from the central California community of Reedley, was majoring in music at San Francisco State University before enlisting in January 1942. Kawamoto was at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was studying political science when he was drafted in February 1942.
After basic training, the army sent both men to Camp Savage in Minnesota for Japanese-language training, though both were already bilingual.
The two men met at the camp in 1943 but were sent to different parts of the South Pacific and didn't see each other again until a chance meeting in the 1970s.
Kawamoto spent a year at New Caledonia in the army's South Pacific headquarters, translating seized Japanese documents and helping to interrogate Japanese prisoners. He then performed the same duties with the 37th Infantry Division on New Guinea.
He meanwhile learned that his parents had been removed from Berkeley, California, and taken to an internment camp in Utah. While on leave, he visited them there.
"I wasn't happy about it," he said. "They were there for the duration of the war, while I was out fighting for the United States. But what could you do?"
Nakamura's parents were swept up within a month of his enlistment and sent to separate camps, in New Mexico and Arizona.
"I guess at the time, I thought it was just simply inevitable. What the hell was I going to say? I was young; war was going on," he said this week.
"What was I to think? I can't approve it. That was what the government decided to do. I had no other alternative but to maintain my patriotism."
On New Guinea, Kawamoto interviewed a Japanese deserter and learned of an imminent attack, allowing U.S. troops to obtain reinforcements and prepare for the onslaught. He also went to the Philippines and served in the Battle of Manila.
Nakamura said that once in the military, he felt as if he was being "left behind" because he was Japanese-American. When he heard about the opportunity to work for the Military Intelligence Service, he "jumped on it, because that was the only opportunity for me to go overseas."
Sent to Australia, he worked with intercepted Japanese communications and documents. But "I was getting tired of that," Nakamura said. "I wanted to go to the front. I joined the army to see some action."
He was sent to New Guinea, and then in January 1945, his convoy found a hidden Japanese lieutenant at Lingayan Bay. Nakamura and others persuaded 22 Japanese soldiers to surrender, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star.
Kawamoto returned to the West Coast after the war and helped resettle Japanese-Americans, including his parents.
He then returned to Japan and worked on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East taking place in Tokyo. During his time in the city he met his future wife, then returned to work for the U.S. State Department as an interpreter. In 1955, he said, the State Department did not have a full-time Japanese linguist.
"I always wanted to be a diplomat," Kawamoto said, and he worked with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. "If I could be a bridge between Japan and the U.S., well, it was idealistic, but it was lucky I got the job."
Nakamura continued to work in military intelligence as a civilian after his army discharge, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the reserves and finally ended his service in 2000, at age 81.
Kawamoto and Nakamura, whose paths had crossed only at Camp Savage and in one meeting in the 1970s, met again when Nakamura moved into the Greenspring retirement community in 2010. Kawamoto had moved there in 2007.
Both men said they were surprised to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, awarded by Congress "as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions."
The first medal was bestowed in 1776 on another Northern Virginian — George Washington — and over the years it has been awarded both to accomplished soldiers, including Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and the Tuskegee Airmen, and to other notable Americans, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Palmer among them.
The bill to honor the Military Intelligence Service, along with the U.S. Army's 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was introduced in 2009 by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democratic from California, approved by Congress last year and signed by President Barack Obama in October 2010.
Kawamoto and Nakamura received their medals in a ceremony in Washington in November.
Kawamoto said there are still many members of the Japanese-American Veterans Association. "We used to have monthly lunch meetings," he said. "We're still pretty regular."