[STORY] Racism during WWII
- Japanese-American veteran recalls fight for respect in WWII
By Sandra Jontz, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Monday, November 11, 2002
It took Ted Ohira almost 50 years, but he finally forgave. Forget,
however, is something the World War II Japanese-American soldier
never will do.
One memory is burned in the 80-year-old's mind as though by a
The memory of that white face, that voice so saturated with hate. The
memory of those four words: "Hey you dirty Jap."
"After all that combat. I went through five major battles in Europe,
and I received lots of awards and medals. And then one day, in
downtown Los Angeles, I hear this: `Hey you dirty Jap.'
"I don't cry. I didn't then. I got mad and I wanted to beat that guy
up, but I said `this guy is ignorant.' I had enough of fighting and I
just walked away."
But more than a half-century later, the words still sting.
As does the U.S. military designation "4C" for 82-year-old Harry
Fukuhara. "`4C.' That meant we were `enemy aliens.' I was neither
enemy nor alien. I'm an American, and loyal to this country."
Both Ohira and Fukuhara volunteered for the U.S. Army after the Dec.
7, 1941, bombing at Pearl Harbor.
Two men. Two lives. Two stories.
`They fired me on the spot'
Racism was rampant following the Japanese attack on that infamous
Sunday morning. Wartime hysteria led to the imprisonment of about
120,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps that peppered the
western part of the nation. Fukuhara was among them.
He was born in Seattle to immigrant parents, the middle child of
seven. His father worked as a "houseboy," cleaning homes and
gardening for the well-to-do of Seattle.
When Fukuhara was 13, his father died. It was 1933, the time of the
Great Depression. His mother swept up her five children (two had died
before Harry was born) and headed back to her home in Hiroshima,
"I was very reluctant to go, but I didn't have much choice. I
couldn't speak Japanese. I grew up in a small town outside Seattle. I
had no Japanese friends. I wanted to stay home," he said via
telephone from his home in San Jose, Calif.
His mother promised that once he graduated high school and turned 18,
he could return to the United States.
He took her up on that.
Work in Seattle was hard to find, so he moved to Los Angeles, found a
job in a supermarket's produce section, and then another as a
"I worked for my room and board, but didn't get any money. So I had
to find a job on the weekends. I became a gardener."
And like preceding Sundays, on the morning of Dec. 7, he was
gardening. That is, until the news of the attack found its way from
radio speakers everywhere.
"To make a long story short, they fired me on the spot. They didn't
want me there because of what happened. I tried to explain I had
nothing to do with it."
The schoolteachers with whom he lived offered to send him to
Columbus, Ohio, to escape the racism. He declined. He had a sister
who, too, had returned to the States. She had a child and was
divorcing her husband. Fukuhara brought her to California.
After months of living with friends and strangers for a few weeks at
a time, Fukuhara and his sister received word they were to meet Army
officials at the Tulare, Calif., train station on May 1 at 8 a.m. to
board a train that took them and 5,000 others to the Gila River
detention camp in Arizona.
"It took several days to move that many of us out, out to the middle
of the desert."
But when called by his country, he acted.
"I volunteered when it was not the popular thing to do from within
the confines of an internment camp. I felt strongly that it was time
I must make a decision, for better or for worse, and to back my
decision with action."
Because of his five years in Japan, he spoke Japanese, and that
earned him a spot at the Military Language School at Camp Savage,
He served in the south Pacific with the Military Intelligence Service
as an interpreter, interrogator and translator.
The war ended when the atomic bomb, named "Little Boy," was dropped
on Hiroshima by the B-29 Bomber Enola Gay.
Hiroshima. Where his family was.
In October 1945, he returned to Japan, to find his family had
survived the blast though his brother, Victor, died a few months
later from radiation sickness, he said. His two younger brothers
fought in the Japanese Imperial Army.
`We were looked down upon'
For the first 21 years of his, Ohira was just a young American
growing up in his native Hawaii, an athlete who had earned the
nickname "Bull" because of his strength in the boxing ring.
His parents emigrated from Japan in search of a better life. His
father found work on a sugar plantation. His mother had been promised
to his father through an arranged marriage, which they followed in
spite of their new lives in a new country. A good life, Ohira said.
Then came Pearl Harbor.
To others, his Japanese roots were synonymous with "traitor," he
said. He was determined to prove them wrong.
So he joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a band of Japanese
American volunteers who wanted to demonstrate their loyalty by
fighting for their country.
"Japanese Americas, we were looked down upon. Prior to the attack on
Pearl Harbor, we were pretty good. Then, there was all this
He trained at Camp Shelby, Miss.
"I would say it was horrible. It was rough. It was hot and humid and
muggy. And we would march 30 miles with full packs at a fast pace.
The officers, they were all Caucasian and 6 feet tall. We were like 5
feet 2 inches, 5 feet 5 inches, so their one step was two for us. We
always had to run to keep up."
He went to Europe. He fought in Italy, France, Germany. He killed. He
watched comrades die. He gave his all to his nation. "Our 442nd
earned 21 Medals of Honor."
Ohira is the recipient of three Bronze Stars.
And when he returned home, the prejudice remained.
Ohira went through one wife and nearly a liver coping with the trauma
he experience during World War II, he said from his home in Gardena,
"I drank. A lot. I tried to forget the battles I went through. At
night, I struggled and I think [my first wife] didn't understand my
situation. She couldn't handle it, we couldn't handle it, and we
Today, the remarried Ohira volunteers at the "Go For Broke" memorial,
erected in California and named after the famous battle cry of the
442nd Regimental Combat Team.
"There are 17,000 names on the monument, 975 of them [for soldiers]
killed in action. Names of men who fought and died to prove their
loyalty to the United States. We proved we weren't traitors. I'm
honored to be one of them."