By GENE DORIO
Another dry early August day with consecutive temperatures over 100 degrees brought many Santa Clarita Valley elders to our designated “Cooling Senior Center” to escape the desert heat. Some came for a respite from inefficient air conditioners, others to save money on skyrocketing electric bills, yet I also thought it was for the temporary relief of ice cream I hurriedly scooped into dishes snatched up as they found a seat listening to our aged but talented band.
As the ice cream line ebbed and music tapered, chatter from conversation filled the room, and as I finally sat down, a distinguished octogenarian gentleman ambled to the table and sat across from me. Introducing himself as Fred, we marveled how even debilities of age could not sully genuine musical talent.
I had not met Fred before, but recognizing he was of Japanese American descent and telling me he was born in California, I asked if he had served in the military. He had not. But as he continued the thought, he had not served because he was in Japan, and over 67 years ago that week on Aug. 6, 1945, he was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb exploded. Fred was a witness to history, but what I didn’t understand at the moment was why he was in Japan.
As I attempted to clarify and ask him of the circumstances, he became increasingly reluctant, and the questions and answers were left dangling.
Unlike Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps in 1942, my Canadian-Japanese uncle George was allowed to freely live far from the coast in the interior of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, where my grandfather, Sam Uzawa, had immigrated in 1910.
As war seemed to be approaching, my grandfather did not want my uncle George to visit Japan as he felt he would be conscripted into their military. (Instead he enlisted in the Canadian Army and served in South Pacific British Intelligence.) Is this what happened to Fred on a visit to Japan?
Despite incarceration behind barbed-wire fences and armed guard towers, the heroism displayed by many Japanese Americans who volunteered and bravely fought for our country has been honored and well-documented. But over 4,000 of those imprisoned in these camps were repatriated back to Japan. Was Fred one of them?
I’m not a reporter, but as a physician, medical cases can sometimes be very intriguing; like “CSI,” “Quincy” or “Columbo” (dependent on your generation), they yank your curiosity to pursue answers. So, I called Fred to see if we could again sit down and discuss his eventful past. He agreed…again, reluctantly.
He came to our home with his youngest son, Ed, with whom Fred resides. It was clear, though, he did not want his last name used, and even with a rational discussion, ultimately I relented as his son and I realized this is the “nature” of their generation.
Fred was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. His father had immigrated to California from Japan “to be a cowboy” but ended up in business, managing a large hotel in downtown Los Angeles. He had a brother and sister, and Fred still recalls in the 1920s and 1930s the experience of racial prejudice against him and other minority groups.
Public swimming pools could only be used by “minorities” on Thursdays, and afterwards the pool would be drained and refilled for weekend activities. Additionally, baseball was his passion, but playing in the city municipal leagues was not allowed, so he organized games against other minority teams.
Because of this prejudice, educational opportunities for minorities were non-existent in the United States, and from this reality came the answer I was searching for. With this vacillation of life, Fred and his sister and brother were sent to Japan to go to college in 1939. His parents were unaware at the time of potential war between these countries, and the college Fred attended in Tokyo was science-engineering based. Since the Japanese government wanted more scientists, he was not conscripted into the military. Curiosity solved…almost.
While on summer vacation from Tokyo, he stayed with his aunt, who lived in Hiroshima. On that fateful August day, he was in a building five miles from bomb impact. “The flash was greater than 1,000 flashbulbs,” and the concussion collapsed the structure, pinning him under a stairwell.
When he awoke, he could hear people calling for help. Even though it was daytime, it was dark outside, and finally the cries for help stopped. He hoped they may have been rescued, but knew they probably died. He called for help, and soon people came and dug him out, lifting the stairwell off him. Miraculously, he was able to stand up and walk away!
His injured sister passed away eight weeks after the explosion, but his brother survived. The war ended, and during the “Occupation,” because he was bilingual, Fred worked with our Japanese American Military Intelligence Service, and served as a technical advisor in the military government. Once that was completed, he finished his schooling and graduated with a teaching credential.
At the beginning of the war on Dec. 7, 1941, while Fred was in Japan, the FBI in Los Angeles arrested his father and imprisoned him. He was initially at Fort Missoula in Montana, and then transferred to prisons throughout the United States. To this day, the family does not know why. His mother was brought to Heart Mountain in Wyoming and spent the war there. Not until 1945, when he was released from prison, was she reunited with her husband.
Fred returned home to the United States but saw the toll it took on his mother. “She didn’t last much longer after that…it took too much out of her.”
Even with a teaching degree, post-war prejudice did not allow Fred to find a job in his educated field. He went to work for Lucky’s grocery store for decades, married, and had three children, all graduating from UCLA. The oldest went to Stanford Medical School and is now saving lives as a trauma doctor in the Midwest; the second is an aerospace engineer who has worked on missile defense; and Ed works at a major university as a teacher and specialist in computer technology.
Fred’s father came to the United States to be a cowboy, and as most of us know, we can’t all be what we aspire to be. The family faced a challenge of life-altering racial prejudice with fate taking a twist and turn, even exploding in front of them. How they faced these vacillations of life in spite of adversity empowered and enhanced their character and those around them.
Fred has no last name in what I write here, and I respect him for that. But because of his family’s courageous struggle, their names will be forever etched in me with reverence and admiration.
Gene Dorio, M.D. practices internal medicine in Santa Clarita. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.