FROM PEARL HARBOR TO SAIGON
Japanese American Soldiers and
The Vietnam War
By Toshio Whelchel
Verso. 203 pp. $25
Reviewed by Arnold R. Isaacs
Larry Matsumoto, one of the 11 pseudonymous Japanese-American veterans whose memories of the Vietnam War are recounted in this book, had barely begun his tour of duty when he saw a truck go by carrying a dead enemy soldier. "Suddenly," he recalled, "it struck me that the enemy had an Asian face. Everyone was using the word gook to refer to the dead Viet Cong." It was a "weird experience," he went on -- weird in a different way for Matsumoto than for his white or African-American comrades, presumably, because the face of the enemy resembled his own.
After relating that episode, though, Matsumoto immediately added: "I was never called a gook during my tour of Vietnam," and in his account of the rest of his two years service there, the issue of his Asian appearance does not appear again.
The pattern is similar in the other oral histories constituting From Pearl Harbor to Saigon. Nearly all of Toshio Whelchel's subjects report some sense, usually fleeting, of identifying with the Vietnamese as fellow Asians, but none makes it a major theme of his experience. Several remember being angry or upset at their fellow GIs' degrading treatment of Vietnamese civilians. One soldier sympathetically recalls one of his unit's "hooch maids" -- Vietnamese women who did housekeeping chores on U.S. bases -- who started off "young, fresh-faced, shy and polite" but gradually sank into prostitution and selling drugs:
"By the time I left she looked like -- the only analogy I can think of is that when we first arrived in-country, we were the fresh green troops; and then there were all these ragged, grizzled, one-year veterans stumbling out the other side -- something along that line. She was fresh-faced and innocent when I first arrived, and by the time I left she was haggard and beat-up. It was really sad." But another veteran acknowledges that the prevailing GI attitudes became his, too. "After I had been in Vietnam a while I started to think, `If the Vietnamese are the enemy, I don't have to treat them like human beings,' " he recalls. "Vietnam was a very undeveloped country. I started to think that any culture that was undeveloped was not equal to our own culture. . . . As much as I despise the word `gook,' it seemed very appropriate over there."
On the whole, for these men, their identity as American soldiers seems to have been more powerful than any sense of their Asian roots. More probing interviews might have cast a different light, but the impression from these transcripts is that the memories of these Japanese-American soldiers are not enormously different from those of other Americans who came back from that long, confusing and frustrating war.
The 11 veterans who tell their stories in From Pearl Harbor to Saigon are by no means a representative sample of Japanese Americans. All grew up in fairly poor families in rough areas of Los Angeles -- quite a different social and economic environment from, say, the Japanese community in Hawaii or among the more upwardly mobile Japanese Americans elsewhere on the West Coast. Whelchel, who did the research for this book while a graduate student at the University of California Irvine, never puts his material into a broader context that might make these interviews more illuminating.
A brief introductory chapter explains a bit about the culture and attitudes of this Japanese-American population and summarizes some of the themes that emerge in their interviews. But Whelchel does not mention, much less try to answer, questions that will arise in many readers' minds: How many Japanese Americans served in Vietnam? Might Japanese Americans from other backgrounds have had different experiences from the ones that appear in these accounts? What was the experience of other Asian Americans?
About all these, we are left to guess, as we must also guess whether there were layers of experience and emotion in other soldiers that these interviews did not glean.
Arnold R. Isaacs's most recent book is `Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy.`