In their own words, Japanese American Nisei veterans (2nd generation American) recount their battles against wartime suspicion and racism, and of overcoming them with with courage and patriotism
(((Every couple of months, we shine our lovelight on someone in our community. This time the soft glow is upon someone who has brought a group of distinguished veterans in their 80’s and 90’s into the spotlight to tell their stories. Together these stories tell a larger American story that has not been told often enough…until now.)))
I feel the need to say before delving in:
This isn’t the happiest story or the brightest part of American history. In fact, the reason to share this story, as told by the men who lived it, is because of the difficulty we might feel while listening.
Our reluctance to hear has kept these storytellers silent all these years.
It’s a story that should be told. It’s the truth and the truth takes us to a spiritual place in ourselves.
Also, this story involves some of the worst aspects of human nature yes. But also some of the best.
Like courage, grace, perseverance, nobility, patience, forgiveness, insight and strength. These are our some of our deepest spiritual qualities.
Twice Heroes, America’s Nisei Veterans of WW2 and Korea
Photographer and Author, Tom Graves
I recorded an audio interview with Tom then transcribed and edited a version for you below. But first, let’s meet Tom.
More about Tom: He studied portraiture with Philippe Halsman and taught for seven years at Parsons School of Design/The New School (now New School University) in New York.
His photography has taken him to five continents and to all 50 states for clients including AT&T, Cisco, IBM, Merrill Lynch, The New York Times, People, and Time magazine. Tom has spoken and exhibited at dozens of events and venues, including American Legion National Convention, de Young Museum, Fort Knox, Historic Building 640, Japanese American National Museum, Manzanar National Historic Site, National Japanese American Historical Society, National Steinbeck Center, the Presidio of San Francisco, San Francisco City Hall and Webster University. He is historian of the Joe Rosenthal Chapter of the USMC Combat Correspondents Association and on the Board of Directors of the 99th Infantry Battalion Educational Foundation.
Here’s the interview:
Tina: Tell us in soundbyte form: What is your book about?
Tom: A collection of stories and my portraits of Japanese American veterans who experienced a lot of racial discrimination, and despite that, decided to serve their country in WW2.
Tina: What inspired you to do this book?
Tom: I wanted to do a book on all veterans. I was invited to lunch with a group of veterans and thought I had nothing in common with them. Then got to know them better and found we did have some things in common. I thought it would be great to share their stories through photography and their words.
Then I met a Japanese American veteran and after hearing his story and some stories of other Japanese American veterans, I wanted to learn more and more. I kept meeting with people and interviewing them. The more I learned the more I wanted to share this particular story of American veterans.
Tina: In the 13 year process of finding these men 1-by-1, collecting stories, traveling a lot, meeting with them at their convenience, all with no funding. What was the inspiration or drive coming from you -or them- or both?
Tom: Certainly both. I couldn’t have done it without that drive.
A question that comes up for me is, “What was that drive?” Wanting something concrete out of this adventure? Or was it something else like really wanting to honor these people who’d had the courage to share their stories with me even though sometimes it was painful? Or a real passion for the stories, the drive to educate people about what the Japanese Americans went through and how important this chapter of American history is. How the government denigrated them and what came out of a very dark part of American history.
Tina: Obvious question to get out of the way: Why does a Caucasian, non-veteran do a book about Asian American veterans?
Tom: I just felt I had to do it. As someone who learned about American history as a kid and then coming across this untold story, such a huge omission and a gross aberration in American history. Part of being a good American is about asking a lot of questions.
Tina: Your interview process. Tell us what that was and why you chose this method.
Tom: My initial concern was that the process be comfortable for the veterans and not intimidating. So I interviewed most of them at their home or place of their choice, such as a park nearby. Usually just the two of us, no spectators or family members.
And I found that handwritten note-taking was less intimidating than tape recording. I’m comfortable in my note taking and for me it’s a great time-saver. I listen and write down only what I feel is important. Sometimes I miss something, I have to call them up and clarify the missing details.
Tina: Wow. I don’t imagine a fast process. In fact, I imagine a slow process with lots of pauses that can even be kind of meditative and allowing for a lot of reflection- especially on their part- while you’re writing.
Tom: Maybe it’s not as slow as you imagine. I’m writing while they’re talking. Sometimes when I had a real talker, I’d have to stop them in order to keep up. But, yes, It’s reflective for them and enlightening for me.
Sometimes if they’d told the story many times, they had a kind of pat version. In this case I’d stop them and ask a more offbeat question to interrupt their script and get back to a real conversation. Invite them to re-frame the question in a different way.
SHARING THEIR STORIES
Tina: And some of these stories might have been so hard for them to share. There must have been cases where they had to let go of some long-held protective walls in order to share their story. Did you run into any aversion to opening up or reluctance to answer certain questions? If so, what did you do?
Tom: Some were protective by saying they didn’t want to be interviewed, which was perfectly fine with me, and understandable.
I tell people at the beginning of the interview, “We’re not going to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about. And I don’t need to hear war stories. I just wanted to hear about them and whatever they chose to talk about. If that’s combat, ok, army food, ok, growing up in the camp, ok, how they met their wife, ok.
If they or I became uncomfortable about what they told me, I’d just would stop writing, put my pen down and listen awhile. Then once back into more comfortable territory, I’d pick the pen back up.
Tina: Amazing. So you’re holding some deep intense stuff that might not have ever been shared anyone else. That’s quite a privilege.
Tom: It is, and a responsibility. Many times I was told, “I just told you something I’ve never told anyone before, not even my wife” and that really elevates what I’m doing. I think there are lessons there that can be used, things that are important to share, but they knew that when they said not to share that I really would never do it, even after they pass on.
THE BOOK TITLE
Tina: So directly about the book. Why the title Twice Heroes?
Tom: Titles are always hard, I had lists of titles. And, suddenly I got this from President Truman who gave a speech to the Japanese American troops in April, 1946. He told them they’d fought both prejudice and the enemy and had won both battles.
THE CAMPS & ENLISTING FOR MILITARY SERVICE
Tina: We hear the word Manzanar…but know little about the place, what is it?
Tom: One of the camps that the American government built after Pearl Harbor. The entire Japanese American population on the West Coast were moved into these camps– almost 120,000 people– and remained there throughout WW2.
Manzanar is in the Eastern Sierra near the Nevada border near a town called Lone Pine. It’s very hot in summer, cold in winter. Very windy and dusty. It’s one of the places the Japanese Americans were sent.
It’s now a National Historic Site, an interpretive center and a wonderful place to visit. They make a concerted effort to get kids thinking about these issues.
Tina: About the veterans. Why did they enlist after they were mistreated?
Tom: Everybody had a different reasons. Some because they– like other young Americans– wanted to fight the enemy, fight Japan and the Nazis.
Some wanted to get out of the internment camps, make money to send home to parents. Sometimes it was as simple as that.
Some felt they had to fight for the US and be willing to die for the US in order to be considered full American citizens.
Tina: Full American citizens in their own heart, as part of their own sense of identity– or was it more about proving something to someone else?
Tom: That’s a great question. Certainly to prove something. Here’s really one of the scariest parts of all this. When people were being sent to these camps, they didn’t know at all where they were being sent.
They were put on a train, curtains drawn, taken out to the desert. Some thought they were going to be taken off the train, lined up and shot. Some thought they were going to be taken to a port and put on a ship to Japan. Some that they’d be taken prisoner and used for prisoner exchange of American POW’s. Nobody told them anything.
So now, imagine being in this place like Manzanar. If you were a student, you didn’t go back to school. If you were a senior, you didn’t graduate. Some were mailed their diplomas. No future. Whatever aspirations they had were gone.
Imagine. You’re bored. Bickering with your family. Not everyone agreed on what was going on, the right thing to do- protest, join the Army, a lot of different feelings and not knowing what the future would be. The incentive to to escape that environment any way you could must have been a really powerful incentive.
Tina: So, 2 part question: 1. Do you think most of them proved what they wanted to prove? 2. How often or to what extent did the experience of being in the Army heal or somehow make the memory of the internment experience more bearable? If the latter happened, it’s an understandable but really ironic cause/effect situation.
Tom: It’s like when a cop comes up behind you: that feeling like you’re doing something wrong when you’re not. I think a similar kind of guilt fell upon them. “Well, I’m here, there has to be a reason. I must have done something wrong.”
Some felt that showing their loyalty by enlisting might help the treatment of their families in the camp. I can’t think of anyone who said it was a mistake that they enlisted.
I think like a lot of soldiers, they were ready to go, and then suddenly on the boat on their way to the battlefield, they woke up and suddenly said to themselves, “Oh, shit!” when they realized where they were headed. Some said they experienced that, but I don’t recall anyone saying, “I don’t think that worked out too well.” Some were aware of having made a sacrifice for civil rights and so forth, but none said they shouldn’t have fought.
Tina: Their story seems no less tragic than any war story– in fact it’s shamefully tragic– but theirs seems to be a more positive or healthy ending compared to other veterans, even those of WW2. Would you say so?
Tom: I don’t know about that. A lot of the discrimination that they came home to didn’t change quickly. It’s hard for us now to imagine such discrimination against Asians.
These families came out of these internment camps to start over again. They had lost just about everything. Families were often broken up and spread through several camps. These guys who returned to the US were in their early 20’s and saw their parents crushed by loss and guilt, too old to start over.
It was a tremendous interruption of what we understand as the American Dream. That a foreigner could come here, not speak the language, work really hard, save a little money, their kids grow up American, they send those kids to college…. Internment was another giant roadblock in an already a hard road for immigrants. The parents often died broken hearted.
Tina: How do these men avoid bitterness? I don’t get the feeling from the men in this book that they see themselves as victims. How have they overcome that?
Tom: Many have chosen not to let bitterness or anger consume them. You have to do that to survive. Some are angry but not bitter. Some are angry and say so. Some are angry and keep it inside. Some try to be understanding of the circumstances, the shock Pearl Harbor was for everyone.
The Japanese Americans were shocked too, like all Americans. They understand the reason they were locked up wasn’t legal or fair but they also understand the panic that led to the unfairness. They don’t like it, of course, but understand the panic after 9-11 as well. Understanding but not agreeing with these things might be one step toward dealing with them.
THE BOOK, THEIR REACTION
Tina: So how do they like the book?
Tom: They love it. Once they see what I’ve done, they send me notes, very modest, usually talking about another guy in the book, what a great story. One guy said his granddaughter was reading his story to her 2 daughters, who listened with rapt attention. He said, “This is truly a keepsake and a story for the generations” which is what I’ve been telling people. Thank goodness these men were able to talk to me.
Tina: The book is physically beautiful. The portraits, the approach, so beautiful. And rather than describing history, delving into politics you present these stories so gracefully. That must have been quite a dance at times. Really, everyone should have the book. Where can they get it?
Tom: The easiest place is twiceheroes.com
Tina: Great. Now back to you, personally. What has this book, at this point, has brought you?
Tom: The process has been the greatest education I’ve ever had.
QUESTIONS I ASK EVERYONE I INTERVIEW FOR “YOU”
Tina: Now a few questions I ask everyone. It’s a theme we’re threading through all the “YOU” interviews we’ve done and will continue to do.
First question: What never fails to make you smile (happy)?
Tina: What breaks your heart?
Tom: Seeing old people suffering without money.
Tina: What brought you to yoga?
Tom: Being told over and over that I was very inflexible and that yoga would help. One massage therapist actually told me I was the stiffest person he’d ever met.
Tina: What’s your favorite thing to feel while you practice?
Tom: When you (Tina) say something more symbolic for us to feel or visualize in our bodies, such as “imagine inhaling through the crown of your head down to pelvis and back up” or “imagine you’re tall but fluidly so, like a puppet hanging from strings.” When you say those things and I don’t just understand them but am able to feel them or the sense of them in my body right then and there, I really like that.
Tina: If you were granted the chance to say anything at all to the whole world and everyone regardless of native language (and even the dying, even the deaf) could not only hear you, not only understand the words, but TOTALLY GET what you were saying and be influenced by it, what would you say?
Tom: “Just always do the right thing.”
Thanks to Tom for making this lovely book and allowing these men to tell their stories.
I cannot recommend this book enough. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be astonished, you’ll learn so much.
Also, consider talking to your children about this chapter of American history. In whatever way you feel comfortable. Thank you ~tina
Tom’s website: TomGraves.com
The book website: twiceheroes.com
UPCOMING ~YOU~ FEATURES: our spotlight turns toward Europe:
An Austrian architect and a real eccentric in our community who lives in Berlin, Bordeaux and Budapest.
He spent most of his career re-building war-damaged schools in Africa and the Middle East. (The war theme is coincidental….don’t worry.)
Now he handmakes modernist, functional meditation chairs and really delightful art out of found materials.