There comes a point in every boy’s life when he encounters someone so valiant that he serves as a stark reminder of what he could never aspire to be. For me, it wasn’t a celebrity, a business tycoon, or even a fabled saint, but a man who spent the bulk of his career as a postal worker.
To say that this man, my uncle Keiji Fujioka, was unassuming would be an understatement. He was frail and wiry and typically kept to himself. He rarely spoke, and when he did so, it was in stiffly steady bursts. What could I learn from a feeble man with such little to say?
It’s because of this that I was taken aback when I learned of his exploits during the war. He enlisted three months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but had his application rejected until May of 1943. After his training at Camp Shelby, he was in transit to North Africa when his appendix burst, and the hospital was prepared to send him back.
“It seemed a shame that I came out there for nothing,” he said to me. “And then I thought about my friends going out there.” With that, he went AWOL for the first time and stowed away on ship headed for Italy to rejoin his unit.
This was the first of his many disobediences, but because of his character he managed to make his vices look virtuous for what always followed. The army didn’t punish him for insubordination. After all, what officer would reprimand a soldier for wanting to serve his country? He fought gallantly in a battle at Bruyeres, which promoted him to sergeant and earned him a Silver Star recommendation.
Keiji was determined to see Paris and requested a pass to visit it, but his new rank obstructed him from visiting Europe’s cultural capital. I later learned from speculation that the reason for this was because only officers were permitted to enter at the time. In his head, this may have translated to that only Whites were allowed to visit it. As a result, he went AWOL to Paris a second time.
Along the way, he encountered a villager who handed him a rifle and pleaded for help from several Vichy French and German soldiers were attacking a village in Epinol. My uncle killed three combatants and captured 19. Before he went on his way, the villager copied the information on his dog tags.
The military was ready to court martial him for his disobedience when he returned. It wasn’t until they learned that the French were honoring him with a Croix-de-Guerre for his deeds that they balked and permitted him to keep his stripes and Silver Star. He told them to keep both, and took off to Paris. Instead, they downgraded him to a Bronze Star and he remained a Private First Class until the end of the war. But he still made it to Paris.
All of this, I learned from my father. My uncle was more than eager to describe his background, yet he always stopped short of regaling the very story, which made him a hero. He was embarrassed of it and when I asked him specifically about this tale he said, “Oh that’s not important.”
This is one of the reasons why I felt insignificant during my college years. While my uncle was busy making Captain America feel like less of a man, the most I achieved was infrequent bouts of community work.
I admired my uncle for his achievements. Not just because he was a liberator, but his service when contrasted with today’s generation is all the more honorable.
Presently, the millennial generation is solely concerned with its own self-interest. Even the identified progressives seem more concerned with bragging about their charity than the actual work itself. My uncle never bragged about his accomplishments. He had plenty to tell, but always stopped short of explaining.
It’s all the more reason why his death last year hit my family hard.
Appropriately, he was the most decorated veteran in my family and lived the longest of them all.
As the veterans of yester century grow older and older, it’s likely that my regrets will become more common. I can’t help but think of all the experiences and unspoken stories he carried with him. He, and others like him bled and toiled for this country. The least we could do in return is listen and take their sacrifices into account and do as much as we can to record what little they have left to say. He deserved to have his story known, even if it pained him.
Brett Fujioka is a recent graduate of Occidental College and a Rafu staff intern. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.