When I received the call from Richard McDonough, it didn’t take much for him to convince me a series on Japanese Americans in western Nebraska would be valuable to readers. There was much I didn’t know, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard about the government’s imprisonment of our citizens because of foolish fear.
Brad Staman is the editor of the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 632-9056 or by email at email@example.com.
I had been sitting on the floor of my 4-H leader’s living room, waiting for my turn to go into his darkroom. A few years earlier he had become my first mentor in photography. As a member of the Foto Freaks 4-H photography club, I had been introduced to the art of photography and now the older members were taking turns helping some of us who were younger print our own photographs.
I don’t remember how the conversation began, but our leader started sharing with us his story of how he came to western Nebraska. It was a story that began in California shortly after Dec. 7, 1941.
He had to leave, and leave quickly or he would have lost his freedom and been moved to a camp. Why? For no other reason than Yutaka Yamamoto was Japanese American.
I remember listening in shock, anger and disbelief. How could Americans imprison fellow Americans? It was wrong, but it happened.
America is a great country, but like all countries and individuals there are parts that are ugly. Things we would like to forget, remove from our history, but we can’t and must not.
Reading Richard’s stories, I have found myself once again shocked and angry. I have wiped away tears of pain, but also of pride. A college that welcomed Japanese Americans, getting them out of the camps and Japanese American’s who were arrested, escaped prison by coming to our area for school, but then joined the military to fight for their country, the same country that arrested them.
Reading the stories, a subscriber sent an email saying he enjoyed the stories but wanted to point out a young Japanese American soldier from western Nebraska who fought and died for his country during WWII. A Mitchell Valley Nisei Japanese American by the name of Harley Tanaka.
“I know him through remembrances of my wife and our family friendship with one of his younger sisters,” Gary Hahn said in the email. “He grew up on a farm, the house still standing, just west of the original Haig farm in Mitchell Valley. It is probably fair to assume he was born there in 1916.
His army unit, the 100 INF 442 RCT, was the major player in 1944-1945 Belgium, Ardennes Forest Battle of the Bulge. I do not know the circumstances of his death (April 5, 1945), but it was likely associated with that battle. The following quote is from the 442 RCY Go For Broke Association: ‘The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the US Military. In total, about 18,000 men served ultimately earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented seven Presidential Unit Citations.’”
He finished his email by saying, “Harley Tanaka should be honored on Monday.”
Gary is right. Harley, who is buried in North Lawn Cemetery, and all those who gave their lives so we can live free deserve to be remembered and honored on Monday.
Memorial Day is not just an extra day off; it is a day to honor fallen heroes, like PFC Harley Tanaka.
Back to the series, I was thrilled to read about a local banker who took a stand. As I read about Claude W. Wright, I found myself wiping away tears of pride and joy. The United States was at war, the FBI came and said, call the loans, foreclose and basically destroy the lives of western Nebraskans because they were Japanese Americans. It took great courage to say no, but he did.
I also could not help but wonder, what if he hadn’t said, "No." What would our valley look like today if so many successful farmers would have lost everything they worked so hard for? One thing I know is I would never have been honored to meet and learn from Yutaka, a successful farmer who was also a photographer.
For me, Yutaka was different, but not because he was a Japanese American. No, he was different because he had a darkroom and knew so much more than I did about photography. That made him special and I was honored to have him as one of my photography and life mentors.
Hopefully, you have enjoyed and learned from Richard’s stories about our neighbors and fellow Americans in western Nebraska.