LITERATURE: How to Be an American Soldier

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This story originally appeared in our holiday issue on Dec. 9, 2014. To purchase a copy of the issue, stop by our office or call us at 213-629-2231.

By SUSAN ITO

Susan Ito's father, Masaji Ito, in Naples, Italy in 1944. (Courtesy of Susan Ito)

Susan Ito’s father, Masaji Ito, in Naples, Italy in 1944 (Courtesy of Susan Ito)

Sneak a transistor radio into Sunday school, and listen to buzz of the football game through your trousers pocket when you’re supposed to be reading the Bible. Ignore the squealing threats of Miss Nakayama, the church teacher, who thinks you’re a wise guy. When the game is interrupted in mid-play by the high-pitched emergency tone, and the announcer bleats out that Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor, raise your hand. Say: Um…Miss Nakayama?

Say, there’s something about Japan on the broadcast. Watch as annoyance, disbelief and confusion battle it out on her face. She doesn’t want to give a wise guy too much attention. But she closes the Bible, her index finger holding her place in the Chapter of Luke. Tell us, she says. What about Nihon?

Savor the moment. You’re holding a little bomb of information in your pocket, and all you can think about is the ruckus that’s going to explode when you say it. Take a deep breath. All of the faces in class turn to you, each glossy black head. Say it: Japan’s gone and bombed us.

Hold your breath as the room ripples through with little gasps, and one of your buddies, Tak Ishino, lunges for the radio. He calls you a liar. But you raise it above your head, giddy with importance, and turn up the volume. There’s the scratchy voice, repeating it over and over. There’s the president. There’s been an attack on America. The war is on.

Listen as the news spreads through the church, as the other kids lean over the balcony and yell downstairs, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor! There is a clattering of shoes on the stairs, as people rush up and down, shouting, crying, huddling. Lean back into your wooden folding chair and shrug. Say, big deal, it’s a war. Big flipping deal.

Nod when Miss Nakayama tells everyone that the rest of Sunday school is cancelled. “Everybody go home,” she sobs. “Go home.” Twist the dial on the radio, searching for the football game, but it doesn’t come back on. Notice that nobody is going home.

Go downstairs to the fellowship room, where your mom is in choir practice. See her huddled with all the other church ladies, patting their eyes with hankies. Act cool when she cries out and tries to hug you. You’re sixteen, and don’t want any part of that.

Go out to 57th Street and look around. Everything looks the same. A black Chrysler full of hakujin guys drives slow past the front of the church. You see their greased-back yellow hair, their arms flinging eggs from the windows. The little yellow yolk-bombs splatter on the stone steps, and one of them hits Mochizuki-san’s pocketbook. She’s eighty years old and you can tell by her face that she’s scared enough to wet her drawers. The howling voices twist out of the car — You’re gonna get it, Japs! — and the car peels around the corner.

Offer to take your mom home and even though it kills you to do it, hold her hand on the train out to Ozone Park.  She’s shaking like a bird.

Spend the rest of the afternoon at home, listening to the radio. Sit around with your sisters and parents and grandfather and listen to it over and over until your brain goes numb. You keep listening, wishing they would’ve let the Redskins finish their game, but nobody seems to give a damn about the game anymore.

At suppertime, eat twice as much rice as usual. Notice that war makes a person hungry.

When the FBI knocks on your door in the middle of dessert, act like a tough guy. Say, whaddayou want here? Smirk in their faces when they can’t even say your grandpa’s name right. Shigetosi Ueno. But feel the ball of ice forming inside your stomach, a cold hard mass that won’t melt, no matter how much hot tea you drink down.

Listen to their stupid questions about loyalty to Japan. Tell the FBI men, He’s just a gardener. He owns a greenhouse. When your father barks at you to shut up, shut up. Watch them take out a pair of handcuffs, glinting in the kitchen light. Listen to your mother make a noise you’ve never heard before. You don’t need those, says your grandfather. I’ll go.

Lean over the fire escape and watch them shove him, an old guy, your O-jiichan, in the back seat of their black car. Spit on the roof before it drives away.

Your dad says, I’m gonna call Mancinelli. Most powerful Italian guy in Ozone Park. Follow him upstairs to Mrs. Nye’s apartment, watch him bow his little bow and ask to use the telephone. Listen to him talk to his friend, this Mancinelli, in a voice like cracking ice. Please, Eddie, he says, can you pull some strings for my father?

When your grandfather gets dropped off at three in the morning, get him a hot water bottle for his neck, sore where they shoved him into the car. Ask him where he went. Ellis Island, he says. More than three hundred nihonjin over there, and they all still there. And then he doesn’t want to say anymore, but he tells your dad, your friend, Mancinelli, we give him flowers, free, for the rest of life.

Go to school the next day. Feel the ball of ice in your stomach when the principal’s secretary comes to your first class and hands your teacher a note saying you’re being called to the office. Turn around and give a thumbs up to your buds, but nobody laughs. Feel in your pocket for a dime and wonder if they’ll let you look up Mancinelli’s number.

When you get to the principal’s, your sisters are there, looking scared. Mr. Rood, the principal, is sitting behind his big wooden desk, rolling a pencil between his palms. He stutters around your names: Kazuo. Michiko. Emiko. We are all concerned about the tragic occurrence at Pearl Harbor, he says. Nod and look at the American flag hanging motionless in the corner behind his desk.

You are the only students of Japanese ancestry in this school, he reminds you. As if you didn’t know that. I just want you to know, he says, that I called an emergency meeting of all your teachers, before the commencement of class today. Think, they’re going to expel us from school, and send us to Ellis Island. Clench your fists inside your pockets. Listen to Mr. Rood continue.  “… And I told them, that they will be held personally responsible, if any one of you comes to any harm. No taunting or harassment of your family will be tolerated.” Sit for a while in shocked silence. When he opens his door and ushers you back to class, resist the urge to embrace him.

That night, December 8th, it’s your turn. The FBI guys come back, only they’re different guys. Tell them at the door that your grandpa already had a free trip to Ellis Island. Watch them make a mess in every room in the house. Feel your arms ache with restraint as they look under the toaster and haul your mother’s roasting pans out of the cabinet onto the floor, and leave them there. See them take your sisters’ diaries out from underneath their pillows. When they come to your room, ball up your fists and say, snarly-like, Get out. You have no right. When they ignore you, say it again. You can’t do this.

When you get pulled into the hallway by your collar, and you almost fall on your knees, you think it’s one of them and you’re ready to fight, but it’s your dad. Feel the sting of his hand cracking against your face. Shut up, he says. You shut up and do what they say. Shake yourself loose and hold your palm up to your cheek. Ask, why, Dad? They’ve got not right to go through my stuff. I’m an American.

Watch your father slump against the wall. You are, he says. You a citizen here, but I’m not. And Ojii-chan is not. So you just shut up and do what they say, if you don’t want them shipping us both off to Ellis, to where Mancinelli can’t help next time.

So you shut up. You watch the FBI take your map of the Panama Canal, that got you an A in Geography. When they ask you what you need with a map of the Panama Canal, don’t say anything. Let them put it in their briefcase and snap the lock shut.

When you turn seventeen the next year, try to enlist. You and your best buddy, George Grumbach, are hot to be naval aviators. Make whining noises in your throats as you pretend to gun down the enemy. You don’t think much about what the enemy looks like.  You’re gung ho. You’re an American.

Ask your mother to iron a white shirt. Put it on with a dark skinny tie and go down with George to the Navy Air Corps office. Hum while you take the V12 test. When you’re done, ask George, Whadja think? Grin like a bastard when he says it was hard, because you thought it was a piece of cake. Wait in the corridor while the officer grades your exams and when he says, Ya both passed, whoop and holler and sail around like little boys, your arms making airplane wings.

A week later, George is gone, up to Rochester for training. He’s going to be an aviator. You? You’re still hanging around at home. No letter. No nothing. Go back down to the Air Corps office. See your name up there with the test scores, with one of the best grades. Tell them hey, my pal just went to Rochester. We signed up the same day, took the same test. The secretary chews her pencil and says, I don’t know. Lean over her desk. Are they gonna call me? Ask her. When do I get my letter? She shakes her head, and her sausage curls wobble slowly after her. I don’t know what to tell you, she says.

Wait two months. Go down to the corps of Army Officers Reserve office. Sit for the test. Get the same high scores. Sit at home and jump out of your skin when the buzzer rings with the mail. Try not to punch out the mailman when he doesn’t have a letter for you.

Go to the Marines. Ditto. Take the physical and decide that you’re not getting called up because you’re too short. Forget to look in the mirror. Watch all the guys from your high school: Bossi, Frechetti, Van Overloop, as they all sign up and go.

Think about the Army. No no no. You’ll be damned if you go in the Army. It’s stupid. You’re too good for the Infantry. You’re supposed to be an aviator, a fighter pilot, like Grumbach. You hear he’s already overseas, in Europe. That’s where you want to be, bombing the hell out of those fascists. It’s another thing, thinking about fighting Japan, knowing your grandpa’s brothers are still there, and your mom’s whole family. Try not to think about that.

Masaji Ito in Naples, Italy in 1944

Masaji Ito in Naples, Italy in 1944

You’re eighteen now. Out of high school, and every single one of your classmates is drafted. The war’s been going on a year and a half. But you’re not getting called.

Then the day comes. Try not to hug the mailman when he hands you an envelope from the Draft Board. You have passed your eighteenth birthday, it says, and you are now eligible to be drafted. No shit! Your mother irons the white shirt again and you go down to Grand Central for your physical. Even though you’re short, they pass you. They put the OK meat stamp on you and hey, you’re in the Army, kid!

Go home to wait for your assignment. All your friends are gone now, to Europe, to the Pacific. You help your grandpa out in the greenhouse, and play cards with your sisters at night. Then you get your 1A card. Get another physical down at Whitehall Street and ignore the cracks about your height. They give you a ticket on the LIRR and tell you to go to Camp Upton for basic. Basic training! It’s for real now.

Act like a big shot when your whole family comes out to the station and your sisters cry. When your dad pounds you on the back and gives you the speech about on, a bunch of nihongo about sense of duty and all that crap, just nod and look serious. Yeah, yeah. Tell him you’ll remember.

There’s a thousand guys at Camp Upton. Kick your duffel through the line and hand over your card. The officer looks it up and down. He looks at you like you’ve got bugs in your teeth. Tells you to spell your name. Spell it, backwards, forwards. It’s hotter than hell and you’re getting pissed off. Stand still while he gets another officer and they go off in a corner, glancing at your card and then over their shoulders back at you. Then they come back and tell you to go to the camp office. Try not to shit a brick when they hand you a return ticket on the LIRR, and say, There’s been a mistake. That night, you’re back at home, eating dinner with your family, like they never saw you off, like your sisters weren’t bawling into their hankies. What happened? They keep asking. Don’t say a word.

Two weeks later, rip open another notice from the Draft Board.  You’ve been reclassified, it says. 4C. Go down to the board office and see Mr. Desdimone sitting at the desk. He’s the dad of Fred Desdimone, one of your classmates over at John Adams. Grin and shake his hand like you’re old buddies. How ya doing, Kaz, he says. Great, Mr. Desdimone, but I’ve been having a rough time getting myself enlisted. Let me see your card, he says, and you hand it over.

4C, he says. That’s not so good.

Whaddaya mean, Mr. Desdimone?

You’re an enemy alien. You can’t serve in the military.

What! Feel the ice ball sloshing around in your stomach again. Enemy alien! Lean over the desk. Say, Mr. Desdimone, you know me. You know my family. I went to school with your son. I was born here. I’m a U.S. citizen, and now you tell me I’m an enemy alien?

Pant in his face while he says, Kid, whaddya want from me?

I’m not an enemy alien!

This is the government, kid. I can’t help it. Then he looks over your shoulder and says, Next.

Call him every four-letter word you know, and some you make up, before you leave.

Try not to kill anyone while you sit at home in a stew of frustration. Snip away at your grandfather’s rose bushes with a big pair of shears. Wait another four months. Then it happens all of a sudden: you’ve got another 1A card, and it says no physical needed, you’re on your way down to Florida, boom boom boom. You’re going to Camp Blanding.  The sisters see you off again, but this time they don’t cry. They’re sure you’ll be back for supper.

Get off the train and feel the Florida sun, big and white and hot enough to fry your head. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. There’s about two thousand Japanese guys all together there, and you recognize a couple from church, from the old Sunday school days: Ikeda, and Yo Haruyama, and Kata. There’s not a single hakujin among them, not a single guy without bright black hair, and they’re all doing pushups in the sun. Say, what the hell is this, and drop to the ground.

When you’re picking up your tray of grub, say, my god, where did you guys come from? They’re from all over: Hawaii, California, Oregon. Try not to show you’re shocked. You’ve never been so P.O.’ed in your life. We’re in a segregated unit, buddy, says Kata. Get used to it.

You can’t get used to it. You’re not happy. What the hell are you doing in the Infantry, in a unit full of Nisei guys? This is not for you, it was not the plan. You were supposed to be a pilot, you and Grumbach. You wanted to be a fighter pilot so bad, you could taste it. And now Grumbach is a naval aviator and you’re doing pushups in Florida with a bunch of nihonjins.

You’re the only New Yorker in your company. You’ve got an attitude, and other guys think you’re a son of a bitch. Ask them where they come from and when they say camp, look blank. Then laugh. Say, I hope you had a good time at camp. You learn how to paddle a canoe?

Jump up quick when you see they’re about to pound you. They don’t like the joke. Then one of the guys, Watanabe, says, You don’t know about us, do you, Mister New York? New Yawk, he says, mocking you.

You didn’t know they locked us up in concentration camps, did you? Us and our parents all the way down to babies. Tens of thousands of us. You’re shitting me, you say. Oh, you heard something about it, camps, but it sounded like a bunch of propaganda. And you’re pissed off. First of all you’re in a segregated unit, and now everyone’s picking on you.

You’re marching, marching, marching. You stink with sweat and you’re madder than hell. You don’t belong here. You belong in the air corps. Your feet are killing you, and they look like raw hamburger. Say it out loud. The hell with this, I’m not gonna march anymore. Sit down.

Say, OK guys, you go ahead. I’m gonna sit here and wait for the meat wagon.

Feel someone kicking you. Say, what the hell you kicking me for?

Get up, they say. They’re surrounding you, those jerks from California.

Tell them: leave me alone.

They say, you’re not gonna make us look bad. Get up.

Ask them who gives a damn who looks bad. You don’t give a shit.

The guy from L.A. says, I told ya, Ueno, he’s a piece of crap. He can’t do this.

Hirabayashi gets down on the ground and yells in your face. Nobody in this outfit screws up. We are gonna show Whitey we are better than they are, after what they did to us, and we’re not getting no black marks on our record.

Tell him you don’t give a damn.

See? I told ya? Let’s kill him!

Jump up. Take your bayonet and yell: you’re all crazy. Come on, you idiots, I can take two or three of you at once!

They’ve got wide eyes, everyone staring at the bayonet in your hand. I told ya. He’s nuts. They’re all muttering. And then one guy says, OK, Ueno, I’ll carry your rifle. Another says, I’ll carry your pack. Somebody else picks up your bandolier. We’ll carry your stuff if you’ll shut up and stop whining.

Look at them. Say, you guys are all nuts. Go ahead and march then, with your hamburger feet and your stink-dripping body, the rest of the way.

That night, in the hut, nobody will go near you. You’re ostracized, a pariah. The Wise Ass from New York. But you can hear them talking to each other, after the mail call. One says, I got a letter from my sister out in Topaz. Oh yeah? I got a letter from my mom, in Heart Mountain. They’re talking back and forth. This camp stuff again.

Get a little closer to them. Look over their shoulders at the letters, which are all cut up with scissors. Half the words missing. And a sick-feeling curiosity fills your gut. Ask them: look guys, Not for nothing, what you guys talking about?

They laugh. I told you that jerk don’t know anything.

Be humble. Say, give me a break. Tell me.

So they tell you.

That’s when you became a real Nisei. Apologize to those guys, whose grandmothers and parents and little cousins are all locked up behind barbed wire. Ask, why didn’t you tell me from the beginning? Say, how the hell was I supposed to know?

Tell them how you grew up, the only Japanese family in Ozone Park. And they laugh and say, Ueno, you’re nothing but a banana. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. And you realize it’s true.

Get up at 4 am and go to the field house for training films. Think, any movie is better than doing pushups. Clap when the movie starts. WHY WE FIGHT. Groan and laugh along with everyone else. Watch the strips of the Germans and the Japanese. Your enemy looks like this. Horn-rimmed glasses, bandy legged, buck teeth. Japanese soldier. What the hell are they trying to tell you? Everyone’s laughing. None of you look like that. But after that film, some of the older Nisei guys are pissed off.

Figure out that there are only two segregated units in the U.S. Army: you and the blacks. And you start hearing stories. If you guys don’t make it in basic training, they’ll send you up to Maryland where they’ll put Japanese army uniforms on you to show the other troops, the hakujin troops, what the enemy really looks like.

They tell you about one guy, Ben Fujimoto. He was an older guy, maybe 24, 25, and he was real out of shape. Not only was he short, he was chubby, with a butt like a blob of mochi. No way he could get up and over that eight-foot wall. So he flunked out. And they sent him up to Maryland, and they  dressed him up in a Japanese uniform, and paraded him up and down in front of three thousand white soldiers. He got spit on. They said things to him, day in, day out, and all he was allowed to do was wear that uniform and pretend to be the enemy. The other guys had to study him, the color of his skin, his hair, his face. One set of troops goes overseas, and they bring in another set, and the parade starts all over again. After two weeks of this, Ben Fujimoto shot himself. His parents are over at Heart Mountain, and all they get is a letter saying Sorry, accident.

Understand that you’re in training to replace the guys in the 442nd who are getting all chopped up over in Europe: Italy, France, those guys are getting massacred. Two hundred go in, thirty come out. It’s like that. It’s because you nihonjins stick together. You were actually listening when your parents gave you the speech about on and giri, absolute responsibility. Wonder if you’re going to Italy, and if you’ll ever see those crybaby sisters of yours again.

One morning, you and Kata get called out of the line. Over there, they tell you. Figure you’re getting in trouble for being a wise guy again. You’ve gotta learn to keep your mouth shut. But they tell you, you won the jackpot kid, you’re not going to go get blown up in Europe; you’re going into the MISLS.

What the hell is that, you ask. Military Intelligence Service Language School.

Laugh until you spit up your gum. This New York kid, learning Japanese?

Yeah. You’re gonna learn enough nihongo so you can spy on the enemy, listen in on their radios, and talk the Japanese POWs into surrendering.

Laugh some more. But they’re not kidding.

They ship you off again, put you in a room with a bunch of Kibei instructors, guys who were born in the U.S. but then got sent to Japan for school. You used to hate those Kibeis in church. But admit it; they know their nihongo. They’re tough teachers, but you learn your stuff. Nine months and you start dreaming in nihongo. And then they put you on radio duty in the Pacific. You listen in on the Japanese navy and you write it all down, their plans, their routes, their insults. Write it down, type it on a little machine, and hand the rolls over. That’s it. You sit out there in that boat in the Pacific until the end of the war.

Come home, and learn that more than half the guys you met at Fort Blanding didn’t make it home. Wonder what jackpot you won when they picked your name for that language school.

That’s how you became an All-American Nisei soldier. Don’t ever forget it. March in every Memorial Day parade, in your original uniform, for the next fifty years: the first couple decades on foot, and then with a cane, and then with your grandson pushing you in a wheelchair.

Wipe your eyes with a crumpled up tissue when you see the Twin Towers come down. Think about the hundreds of flowers and plants you delivered to those towers, up and down, to the big corporations, the little offices. Watch the young kids on the news, fists in the air, ready to enlist.

Ask your twenty-year-old grandson: Are you signing up? Look at him with his pony tail, longer than his sister’s, and his combat boots that are never going to see combat. Don’t bother him when he doesn’t answer.

Sit with him in the living room and watch TV. See the mosques being bombarded with eggs and red paint, and remember. Tell him, kid, you’re an American. And you know what that means? You gotta pay attention to something called giri. That’s responsibility. And on. That’s duty.

What’s our responsibility, Grandpa?

Think about it long and hard. Hear the murmurs underneath the conversations: lock them up, send them back, ship them off. Get rid of them.

Put on your old Army uniform. It still fits, with its tangy smell of mothballs. Get a big piece of cardboard. Paint on it, in slightly shaky letters: SKIN COLOR DOES NOT MAKE AN ENEMY. Call up your old 442 buddies, the ones who are still alive. Get your grandson to drive the raggedy bunch of you down to the local mosque.

Watch the men, some of them as old as you, the women in their veils, as they pass you and ascend the steps. See their surprise as they read your sign. Sit up tall. You’re an American soldier.

susan itoSusan Ito is the author of “The Mouse Room,” a SheBooks memoir. She co-edited the literary anthology “A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption” (North Atlantic Books). She is a creative nonfiction editor at the online literary journal Literary Mama, and her work has appeared in “Growing Up Asian American,” Choice, Hip Mama, The Bellevue Literary Review, “Making More Waves” and elsewhere. She writes and teaches at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and in the MFA Program at Bay Path College.

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