Saturday, July 30, 2005
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate the privilege of being able to show you just how much the United States thinks of what you have done. You fought not only the enemy but you fought prejudice - and you won. Keep up that fight and we will continue to win - to make this great Republic stand for what the Constitution says it stands for..."
-President Harry S. Truman, July 1946, addressing the Nisei 100th/442nd RCT while awarding them their 7th Presidential Unit Citation.
Though I've read many books and met some survivors of the Japanese American internment camp experience, the story is always fresh when I hear it told again in their own voices. The various presenters at the "Faith & Race Conference" at Quest were no exception. The above picture is of a discussion panel of all Seattle area Nisei locals, one of them author Mary Matsuda Gruenewald. A large group of members from the Seattle Nisei Veteran's Committee came out too.
In a smaller 'workshop' setting, I listened with rapt attention as veterans recounted memories, repainting vividly the battles to save the Lost Battalion or the assault on the fortified Nazi Gothic line in Italy.
While the stories they told were without a doubt "war stories", the men never glorified the fighting or their own heroism in fighting. Instead, of moved by their humility, their repeating of that they were motivated to fight not for glory, but for their families, still unjustly imprisoned by the country they were protecting. In fact, more than a couple of the veterans recalled their memories as soldiers with humor - one vet laughed as he remembered his squad, while on a mission to attack German positions on the Gothic line, had to climb 3,000 feet, 60 degree incline that was covered with mines, while dressed full battle gear in the dead of night. Having to maintain complete silence, the point man of the squad would have to silently mark the mines with nothing but...
...toliet paper. Pretty clever, eh?
I suppose part of my fascination with many of the Nisei WWII veterans is the fact that my maternal grandfather was also a WWII vet. But because he died before I was even born, I sometimes feel like I was robbed of the benefit of his experiences - I'll never be able to hear his story and his perspective from those times. In some sort of strange way, though I'll never be able to listen to him speak of his experiences, I still feel I can honor his service by listening to experiences of other men in his generation who share a similar background.
When I think of everything that the Nisei women and men of that generation went through, I'm completely in awe of their personal strength, courage, and yes, even hopeful. Many of the speakers were not shy in sharing that they believe the current anti-Arab/anti-Muslim hysteria here in America eerily parallels the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and they feel determined to speak out against it, even though very few people spoke out for them. Most of the survivors are now in their late 70s and 80s, but they still have this unspoken passion, this fire that radiates from them.
For myself, I can't even begin to fathom what would happen if I were in their circumstances today. Though I'd like to believe I could be just as strong, I suspect that if their ever happened to be a war with China, and the US government threw my family and every Chinese American into prison camps, that I would feel more likely to scream to "FU" than "OK" if they asked me enlist in the army. I'm not sure my belief in the "goodness" of the American ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy are strong enough.
On the otherhand, many of the survivors of that time are quick to attribute their fortitude to faith rather than personal strength. One veteran jokingly remarked that when he was a soldier, he used to always think to himself, "God likes to use sinners and fools... so I gotta be near the top of his list." That made me think... because I'm both those categories as well.
My heartful thanks to all the Nisei I met for the privilege of hearing them share their stories.
While hearing the stories of the Nisei at the 'Faith and Race Conference" were definitely a highlight for me, there were some other interesting discussions as well. I'll probably about them later, but one last link - some nice photography of the former camp sites.
Gar! Chun here! :P Samson gave me your cell number but I called him just now, and I think you guys may be a little far from Redmond :P anyway just leaving a msg cos I don't have either of your e-mails at the moment my e-mail is puppy52(at)gmail.com :3 hope to hear from either of you :P Sam supposed to call back but I am going out for a bit with hubby :3 laters!Post a Comment