The lives of George Nakamura and Yukio Kawamoto have traveled on amazingly parallel paths. They were born two weeks apart in California in 1919, both joined the Army early in 1942 after World War II broke out, 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 then both retired to the Greenspring community in Springfield. And last month, both received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service in World War II, which both men performed even as both their parents were sent to Japanese-American internment camps.
And at 92, both men are still married, still healthy, and still extremely sharp. Nakamura is actually traveling this week, and said, “Just talk to Kawamoto, our stories are pretty much the same.”
Both were American children of Japanese parents, both nearing the end of college, when Pearl Harbor was bombed 70 years ago. So both had to confront the dilemma of fighting against the country of their heritage. This was trickier for Kawamoto, whose family lived in San Francisco and was quickly restricted in its movements after Japan’s attack.
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 was being questioned after Pearl Harbor, and some Japanese-American students passed around petitions listing their support for the U.S. “That was not good enough for me, so I joined” without consulting his parents, Nakamura said. “It’s my duty to fight for the U.S. There was no question about it. So I did that.”
Nakamura, from Reedley, Calif., in central California, was at San Francisco State University and majoring in music before enlisting in January 1942. Kawamoto, from Berkeley, was at the University of California-Berkeley 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, and they met there for the first time.
Both 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, then performed the same duties with the 37th Infantry Division on New Guinea.
Meanwhile, Kawamoto learned that his parents had been removed from Berkeley and taken to an internment camp in Utah. While on leave, he even 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,” he said Tuesday, ”I thought it was just simply inevitable. What the hell was I going to say? I was young, war was going on, 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 American troops to obtain reinforcements and prepare for the onslaught. Kawamoto also went to the Philippines and served in the Battle of Manila.
Nakamura said that, once in the military, he felt like he was being ”left behind because I 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 in January 1945 at Lingayan Bay, his convoy found a hidden Japanese lieutenant. Nakamura and others convinced 22 Japanese soldiers to surrender, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star.
Kawamoto returned to the West Coast after the War, and helped with resettlement of Japanese-Americans such as his parents. He then returned to Tokyo and worked on the International Military Tribunal there, where he met his future wife, then returned to work for the State Department as an interpreter. He said in 1955, the State Department did not have a full time Japanese linguist. Now they did.
“I always wanted to be a diplomat,” Kawamoto said, and he worked with presidents Kennedy and 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 discharge from the Army, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the reserves, and finally ended his service in 2000, at the young age of 81.
Kawamoto and Nakamura, whose paths crossed only at Camp Savage, Minnesota in 1943, and then 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 be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, given by Congress “as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.” The first medal was given in 1776, to another Northern Virginian named George Washington, and over the years it has been given both to accomplished soldiers (General Norman Schwarzkopf, Tuskegee Airmen) and other notable Americans (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Palmer).
The bill to honor the Military Intelligence Service, along with the Army’s 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 2009, passed by the Congress last year and signed by President Obama in October 2010. But Kawamoto and Nakamura only received their medals in a ceremony at the Washington Hilton last month.
Kawamoto said there were still a good number of members of the Japanese-American Veterans Association. “We used to have monthly lunch meetings,” he said. “We’re still pretty regular.”
The Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project has a photo album and video interviews with Yukio Kawamoto here, including his discussion of receiving an emergency furlough to help his parents resettle after their release from the internment camp.