By GENE DORIO
My uncle, Harry Wakai, received the Congressional Gold Medal on Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C. with his unit, the Military Intelligence Service, along with members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion.
As we rendezvous in Washington, D.C. to honor Harry, the overwhelming significance of this story portrays endurance, perseverance, and love of family arising from the depths of soul and loyalty to our country. Over the years, I have seen this story evolve, and now I’d like you to hear my perspective as I’ve tried to put the bits and pieces together.
My Canadian-born aunt Nora has been married to Harry closing on 50 years. She had been in Japan caring for her ailing mother, When her mother passed away, Nora came to Los Angeles upon invitation from my parents to go to school for a degree. Several years after graduation, Nora and Harry met through his sister, and that’s when the Wakai family came into our lives.
Always soft-spoken, articulate, and demure in personality, Harry’s modesty never amplified his past. I knew he had been relocated during World War II, but otherwise, discerned nothing about any military participation. Not until notice from Congress honoring the MIS was I aware of Harry’s wonderful achievements. Some I’ve now learned through Harry and Nora, with most coming from a comprehensive published interview by daughter-in-law Coleen Wakai in October 2005.
Harry Hajime Wakai was born in Rains, Utah on Jan. 1, 1922. The third child of six from Hiroshima immigrants Fusakichi and Matsuyo Wakai, he was the eldest son. His father was a coal miner, machinist, and carpenter, but died when Harry was 14, leaving the family destitute.
Matsuyo came to America in 1917, 12 years after her husband, as a “picture bride,” bound in matrimony without ever having met … wow! I knew her only as an elder senior always bowing her head politely, yet seeing her as sharp as tacks and tough as nails. When her husband passed away in Utah, she packed up the kids and moved them to Lodi, Calif., where she could work, allowing the family to survive.
Graduating from high school in 1939, and knowing opportunities for those of Japanese American descent going to college were nil, Harry was working in a celery-packing plant when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Under curfew and then martial law, as we all know, West Coast Japanese Americans were relocated to camps throughout the United States. His mother, Harry, and family were sent to Rohwer, Ark. Their rights were abridged, and they were now classless citizens.
There has been a great deal written about the racial and legal prejudice of this forced evacuation leaving a scar on our nation’s history. For many interned Japanese Americans, though, it was a time to prove their mettle and loyalty, setting the basis for the MIS, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and 100th Infantry Battalion.
Soldiers in the MIS were trained to provide translation and interrogation in the Pacific arena, and as the war was coming to a close, their duty was to collect, analyze, and disseminate intelligence once Japan was occupied.
Harry was drafted into the Army in June 1944 and was scheduled to link up with the 442nd, but he scored high on an aptitude test, instead propelling him to Fort Snelling, Minn. for training in intelligence. By the time his training ended, the war was over, but he was still assigned to go overseas in November 1945, to complete his mission in occupied Japan.
Ironically, almost 66 years to the day before the commemorative ceremony on Nov. 2, Harry was on leave prior to his deployment, and spent his time in Washington, D.C. taking pictures of the White House, Washington Monument, Capitol Building, and Jefferson Memorial.
By ship, they were taken to Manila and saw the ravages of war and the destroyed Japanese naval fleet, then brought up to the newly occupied Japan. He was stationed in the Finance Building down the street from the military headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom he saw almost daily with his entourage.
Harry was inducted, trained, and did his duty while in Japan, and was honorably discharged from the Army on July 15, 1946. No guns ablazing, plunging knee-deep in mud up a hill, or dodging bombs from the air, he bowed his head and did his duty for his family and his country.
Coming back, he married, had three children, got divorced and married my aunt Nora. Working as a facilities engineer for Kaufman & Broad, he was reserved but yet seemed to be the happiest and the most fulfilled person in the world. Harry proved he was worthy and honorable, and in his quiescence never sought a pat on the back nor accolades for his endeavors.
From the depths of the strength and internal spirit of their mother, Matsuyo, came forth other Wakai family members who would serve their country: brothers Sam Wakai, U.S. Army, 2nd lieutenant, Korean War veteran; Tad Wakai, U.S. Air Force, Korean War veteran; and son Ken Wakai, U.S. Air Force, Vietnam War veteran.
A true test of life and character is the courage one must derive in the face of prejudice, degradation, setback, or loss. The Wakai family has been forced to reassess their convictions and move forward with motivation and fortitude, yet still bow their head in respect.
So welcome back, Harry Hajime Wakai, on your return to Washington, D.C. after 66 years. This time, though, instead of you taking pictures of the White House, Washington Monument, Capitol Building, and Jefferson Memorial, we will be taking pictures of you.
Gene Dorio, M.D., Harry Wakai’s nephew, practices internal medicine in Santa Clarita. This article was originally published in the West Ranch Beacon on Nov. 10.