This story originally ran in our 2014 Graduation Issue. To purchase a copy of the issue, which includes a list of this year’s Nikkei high school and college graduates, please stop by our office or call us at 213-629-2231.
By Ernest Nagamatsu
I would slowly make my journey each day along First Street from the Sun Building and each curb was becoming more of a challenge, as my limp seemed to be getting worse each year. It was the fall of 1954 in Nihonmachi of Los Angeles. I would always end my walk at the cavernous opening of the Taul Building and there was always a boisterous greeting from “Horse,” who had the shoeshine stand to the left. The bookies would be standing along the left wall reading the “Daily Turf,” as they sometimes took bets from stopping cars. I would stop at Sue’s tiny food counter that was somehow tightly squeezed under the angled staircase and it had only five small wood stools. The LAPD cops would come by at noon to Sue’s for her famous recipe Chili Hot Dogs. Sue was barely 5’ tall and always had a smile …and a cup of coffee with one day-old donut ready for me at no charge. Herbie Boswell was the local mailman and could tell you all the dark secrets of Little Tokyo. Herbie was our unofficial “mayor,” as everyone just loved him. Herbie and “Horse” (Horace) were black and would get into a loud and jovial chatter about “spit shine” on Cordovan shoes that could reflect like headlights to talking about relatives that lived in Bronzeville …and of course talking jazz. Everyone called me “Hammer,” as my last name was Hamamoto. After coffee, I walked towards the single elevator door and turned left to the black nondescript door with the small sign – “Pool.” No matter how I felt, I could feel the solace and a “safe harbor” feeling, as I would walk down the long steep stairs to the Pool Hall. In the dark room there were six illuminated pool tables that reminded me of the Edward Hopper painting “Night Hawks.” Only one table was lit when nobody was playing and it looked like a green emerald island floating on a dark sea. The Pool Hall manager, Mako, would let us ex-GIs sit along the left side on the wood benches. We would always greet each other with a friendly “Doka.” Across the dark cavern were the droopy strings across the room with “markers.” Most times we would not talk, but we all enjoyed the Glenn Miller period music that Mako would always play. That special music took us back to safe times and places, as we remembered the dances on the weekends in camp. When we climbed the stairs to the outside world, the bright sunlight seemed to be so blinding and we could barely focus our eyes for a while.
I had to leave the family home in Boyle Heights, as my father kept on yelling at me to get a job after WWII and somehow I just could not even deal with a job interview. I married Toshi just before “signing up” in Manzanar. She just could not take the constant and hurtful bickering between my father and myself in Boyle Heights. My wife and our young daughter Jean moved to Chicago to move in with her parents. I would hear the words of my father in a samurai tone… “Baka,” “Social work,” “Bakatare!” He knew that I left the service and also lost my GI Bill benefits. It was my father that encouraged me in camp to “join up” and bring honor to the family. I had to leave my wife in camp — that was so difficult and heartbreaking for me. My father Taka knew I quit the war. After I left the house that was just off of Brooklyn and Soto, I found a tiny apartment in the Sun Building. I would once a week drive our family 1938 DeSoto Airflow from Jessie’s Auto on Second Street to Boyle Heights to pick up my mother’s special hand embroidery work on elegant crisp cotton ladies’ blouses and hankies… then drive to I. Magnin’s department store on Wilshire to deliver them and get the new orders for mom. My mother, Marie, would slip me money in an envelope to keep me going. We were so lucky as our good neighbor “Goldie” Steinberg saved our house during WWII by renting it out and stored our ugly gray DeSoto Airflow in the back yard covered with a tarp. The Ramirez family saved our Maytag and furniture. Jessie, who had the garage on Second Street, was a mechanic during the WWII campaign and he knew my situation and he stored the DeSoto at his garage … and never charged me for any repairs. I was just hoping one day I could explain everything to my father and for causing him all the pain in his life. I was just short of a dishonorable discharge in his mind. My father had a constant percolating anger, as he was a somewhat machinist before the WWII and then was a “chick sexer” for a period of time. Eventually my dad ended up doing part-time gardening like so many others and sadly he started gambling.
When I decided to leave the family home, I was so lost and confused. Nihonmachi was like a welcoming beacon light with “like kind” people, but for months I would just stay in my tiny apartment in the Sun Building. My tiny room in the Sun Building had a jigsaw puzzle-like pattern on the floor with missing linoleum pieces and a naked lamp without a shade. The bed was an old Army surplus bed frame with sagging springs. On the windows I hung Mom’s rice-sack curtains with her fine embroidered flowers.
I met a wonderful waitress named Michi at the Sugar Bowl restaurant on San Pedro Street and she was always friendly to me. I always sat at the very end of the round counter seats. I did not talk, but she patiently communicated with me by serving me extra food or coffee. She asked me if I served in WWII and if I was OK. Michi often told me quietly in her soft voice that she seemed to fully understand my situation. Michi said very sadly that she lost her husband in WWII and would tear up at times and could barely speak. She had a university education, but was working at the Sugar Bowl. I had an education at City College and majored in social work, but I was still without a job. Michi would always greet me with a long, firm handshake. Sometimes we would have early dinner at the Far East Café and order egg fu yung and ginger beef. The Far East felt like walking into a “speakeasy” with all the old-style dark wood booths with curtains that could be closed. Once Michi wanted to invite me for dinner at her house and I told her I was happily married and could not go. I went to Maryknoll School long before and I tried to talk to the priest about my mind always being in a state of suspension like a “cat’s cradle.” Sadly the priest could not help me. I could not deal with crowds and had anxiety, but Michi was patient with me. We would laugh and talk about mess hall food and the dances on the weekends in camp. She talked to the manager and got me a job from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. to clean up the kitchen. Michi would stay beyond her shift to help me get my job done.
Mako at the Pool Hall was from Hawaii and always called us “Kotonks,” as he was in the 100th and a cook. He would growl and bellow at us at times, but had a kind and warm side with cooking good food for our growing group of GIs at times, as he knew what we went through. Now and then Mako would shout at me, “Hammer… play this guy,” as it was a single guy wanting a game of pool and he did not want to lose table time money. Mako would allow me get my mail delivered to the Taul Building, 312 East First Street, B-100- Pool Hall, as I did not want my family to know where I was. My wife living in Chicago always was positive and wanted me to join her and our daughter, but the time was still not right. The letters from my wife Toshi and daughter Jean kept me alive.
“Doc G” always stopped by the Pool Hall to place a bet with the bookies. Doc G was a medic during WWII and he always came over to talk with his caring and benevolent voice. There were about nine of us ex-GIs and Doc G would make us come to his office for treatment or medication if we were sick… at no charge. Doc encouraged us to talk more and two of the men never said one word and just shook their heads yes or no. With Doc G encouraging me to arrange regular “talk story” sessions, our group of ex-GIs grew to up to over 15 at times. We were not like the VFW then, as we all went to the same basic training at Shelby and served in units we all knew of. We were hurting more, as we lost more soldiers than other units. Doc talked to me directly and into my eyes and said, “Hammer, you went to school for social work and you need to take the lead now and help the others without jobs… and they are really struggling.” We all seemed to carry the load of “gaman” on our backs and we could not cry or complain and yet we saw the horrible blood and guts of war. Our hearts were as crushed like other GIs and yet something in our genes did not allow us to mourn like others, even in the deep agony of war and having to see our buddies having their bodies blown apart in pieces. All of that never left us, but we cried by ourselves alone and those wounds never healed. Mako would play Glenn Miller music in the Pool Hall with songs like “In the Mood,” “String of Pearls,” and of course the song “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” which always made some of the men recall the girls that they left behind in camp when they enlisted. I started to record a very organized journal of our “talking stories” sessions and everyone felt safe, as they knew it was a called a “No Names Journal.” Through these sessions and also constant discussions with Doc G, we somehow started to get the ex-GIs out of their very sealed cocoon and slowly and carefully we unwrapped their stories, which we thought were never to be told or discussed. Sometimes some men got so choked up and their voices would trail off and we always allowed very long periods of silence with deep respect for each other. Sometimes there was a different kind of pain inside us such as thinking of our parents in camp watching the dark-colored official military vehicle come slowly through the front gates and wondering… what mother would get the neatly folded American flag today. The deep anger and rage would seem to spill out and it was like having buddies in a war again. “Tabo” had a steel split hook left hand that looked menacing, as I thought of all of our injured buddies. The comment that I will never forget was said by the GI that never talked and he just said once, “We were used and misled, but I will always be an American.”
Before I found the Pool Hall in the Taul Building at the corner of First and San Pedro streets, my life was a big gray fog. For me, saying to myself often, “It was them or me” just did not work. I would have my laundry done by Mom once a week. Michi would save me leftover rice for the weekends. I would take a can of sardines, opening with the small turn-key and then added shoyu and some sugar … and put it directly on my hot plate at my apartment. Rice would be put in a tin pie pan with some water with a wet napkin on top of the rice…and steamed it on the hot plate. My father had a cerebral stroke and died suddenly. We had small funeral service at Evergreen Cemetery and the Japanese headstones were towards the entrance gate. I finally told my mom the story about being discharged early. It was in the winter in Italy that my “in the event of” best buddy Jun was blown away in front of me by a German sniper. “In the event of” meant we carried each other’s critical family information at all times and we even exchanged St Christopher medals in our case. My rage was unbelievable, as I grabbed Jun’s rifle and skirted around crawling to the left and surprised the snipers in a bunker above us and shot four soldiers at near point-blank range with insurmountable anger beyond my body. I maybe shot more bullets than was needed, but I had an overload of adrenalin in my veins thinking of Jun. I was wounded and the commander wanted to decorate me and make me an officer when I told him clearly, “I just can’t do this anymore and want out.” I would puke for days after that horrible incident. I could not erase seeing the eyes of the young soldiers and it would make me tremble and shake at times. I asked to leave the Army … the rest was history. Just before lowering of my father’s coffin at Evergreen, I placed into his coffin a white flower…my two Purple Heart medals, uniform patch, and my Distinguished Service Cross …and sadly I just turned and slowly walked away.
Doc G took the many “No Names Journals” to the commanding supervisor of the WLA Veterans Affairs Offices and the supervisor knew of the achievements of the 442nd in WWII. The supervisor agreed to Doc G’s plan to set up a “sounding board” program for all ex-GIs in need of counseling and support. My “No Names Journal” was kept for developing official guidelines for the new program at the VA. Doc G also convinced the supervisor that I should be part of the new program and hired as a paid employee. He found a place for me to live within walking distance to the VA in West Los Angeles. My GI buddies, Mako, Doc G, Michi, and I said our sad goodbyes at the Far East Café. Outside, I had a “long handshake” with Michi and said to her, “You protected me and this is for you,” giving her Jun’s St. Christopher medal.
I somehow have finally adjusted my eyes to the bright sunlight of the outside world with the help of Doc G in Little Tokyo.
Ernest Nagamatsu is the first-place winner of the inaugural Little Tokyo Short Story contest, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society. Nagamatsu is a dentist by profession and a resident of Silver Lake. In addition to his dental practice, he writes from time to time for historic racing magazines. He is also an artist and the author of “Foods of the Kingdom of Bhutan,” the first cookbook to document the cuisine of Bhutan, a kingdom nestled in the Himalayas. The book is a fundraiser for the Bhutan Foundation.
Little Tokyo Historical Society was formed in 2006 to commemorate Japanese American and Japanese history and heritage through various means such as archival collections, photos, exhibits, lectures, and workshops.