Theodore S. Kanamine, who grew up in a World War II internment camp and later became the U.S. Army’s first Japanese-American active duty general, died March 2 at his daughter’s home in Naples, Fla. He was 93.
“The place was like an Army camp with tar paper temporary buildings,” Gen. Kanamine recalled in a book the family prepared for his 80th birthday. “It was not fun.”
Yet when it was time to choose a career, Gen. Kanamine elected to serve the country that held his family in custody.
“He never complained,” Linda Kanamine said. “He never disparaged his country or the government. He just became the most patriotic human being you could imagine.”
During his nearly 27-year career, Gen. Kanamine commanded soldiers around the world at the platoon, company, battalion and group levels. As a senior officer with the military police, he investigated the My Lai Massacre of unarmed civilians in South Vietnam, and later served as provost marshal and commanding general of a military police brigade in Germany.
Gen. Kanamine’s honors included the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal and two awards of the Meritorious Service Medal.
Years after the Vietnam War, Gen. Kanamine recalled the chaos he saw far from the country’s jungles, including at the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Saigon, where he worked in the late 1960s as an aide-de-camp to Gen. Creighton W. Abrams.
“You know, my god, they were in that building and Tet was raging all about them,” he said in a biography of Gen. William Westmoreland, “and bullets were going through the windows and there was a superhuman effort made for [Gens. Abrams and Westmoreland] to be in a certain configuration in that building so that they wouldn’t be exposed to direct bullet fire and all that kind of stuff.”
Afterward, he was given command of the 716th MP Battalion, which provided security to Saigon. “That was the highlight of my career, commanding soldiers in war,” he said in the family history.
Theodore “Ted” Shigeru Kanamine was born Aug. 29, 1929, in Hollywood, the oldest of two children to Japanese immigrants who owned a neighborhood market near the Walt Disney Studio.
“Mr. Disney used to get all the kids in the neighborhood and invite us down on Saturday mornings,” Gen. Kanamine recalled in the family book. “We’d gather into the viewing room and sit on the floor. All the executives and artists and cartoonists were sitting behind us. They would show these unfinished cartoons that hadn’t been colored in yet.”
After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast to inland detention centers. Roughly 120,000 were imprisoned during the war, and it was not until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan signed a federal law providing payments and apologies to those who were forcibly relocated.
The Kanamines sold the neighborhood market and almost all of their belongings. Allowed just two bags each, the family boarded a bus bound for the Santa Anita racetrack. They stayed there a few months before a train took them to Arkansas.
“There was always an anxiety to get out of there,” Gen. Kanamine later recalled. “We were behind barbed wire and there were guard towers, so it wasn’t just a matter of walking out.”
In 1944, an Omaha lawyer took the family in through the War Relocation Authority. Gen. Kanamine’s father gardened and served food to the host family; his wife cooked and did housework.
Gen. Kanamine attended Omaha Tech High School and was co-captain of the swim team. After graduating in 1947, he attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where he swam and majored in criminal psychology.
He met Mary Stuben while working at an Omaha pool, and they were married in 1954, three weeks after he graduated from the University of Nebraska law school. He also received an ROTC commission as 2nd lieutenant, Military Police Corps, and was called to active duty in 1955.
Ultimately, he moved 21 times for his career, rising to brigadier general in 1976.
Survivors include his wife, who is living with their daughter Laura Rutizer in Naples, Fla.; another daughter, Linda Kanamine of Steamboat Springs, Colo.; three sons, Michael Kanamine of Miami, Ted Kanamine of Old Fields, W.Va., and David Kanamine of Crofton, Md.; 12 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
After he retired in 1981, Gen. Kanamine and his wife retired to Florida, where he served as disaster chairman for the American Red Cross in St. Lucie County.
“It’s not something that I or anyone I work with even think about,” Gen. Kanamine told the Fort Pierce Tribune. “It’s something that has to be done. I do it because I am capable.”