By GWEN MURANAKA
Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
George Yamaguchi was a young soldier in the Military Intelligence Service stationed in the Philippines during World War II when he met one of the icons of the 20th century: comedian Bob Hope.
Famed muralist Kent Twitchell pays tribute to that moment in his mural “We the People, Out of Many, One” at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall.
The mural, part of a triptych commissioned for the reopening of the Patriotic Hall in 2013, depicts diverse veterans of all generations. To embody Hope’s dedication to veterans, Twitchell turned to a Nisei soldier.
“That was the Greatest Generation and there has never been a generation like them,” said Twitchell, himself a Vietnam veteran.
Hope, wearing a simple green fatigue jacket, as he often did when he entertained the troops during USO shows, smiles broadly as he rests his hand on Yamaguchi’s left shoulder. Yamaguchi, seated at a table, looks proud as wears his blue MIS cap, dark suit and patterned tie.
Yamaguchi passed away on Sept. 17 at the age of 96; his likeness will remain as a lasting tribute to the sacrifices of America’s veterans. Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, built in 1925, is the home of the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
“I am so privileged to have met George and have him come and pose for me. I still get tears in my eyes that I was able to paint him and meet him,” Twitchell said.
Yamaguchi was introduced to the artist by his granddaughter Erin Yoshi, a muralist who worked with Twitchell at the time. During portrait sessions, Twitchell described Yamaguchi as self-effacing and “a good sport.”
“He was my most perfect model. He would do everything exactly as I asked him to do,” Twitchell said.
“As it evolved, I realized that there were some very, very heroic Japanese fighters for America, so I wanted to bring that fact out with the symbolism. No one more supportive of our military than Bob Hope, many times his life was in danger and he never talked about it.
“So I decided I would honor the Japanese fighting man by putting his hand on the shoulder of George, so people would know that story.”
The mural also depicts John Fujioka, also a veteran and an actor known for roles in “Midway,” “Pearl Harbor” and “The Last Samurai.”
Fujioka was a good friend of Twitchell’s uncle Paul Twitchell, an Army Air Corps veteran who is also portrayed.
Yamaguchi, born Nov. 11, 1919, in Brawley, Calif., and was incarcerated along with his family at the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona. During World War II he taught Japanese to U.S. Army officers at the University of Chicago and later joined the MIS, serving as a translator in the Pacific and in the Philippines.
After the war, Yamaguchi served in Kyoto as part of the First Army Corps. There he met his wife Florence, who was working in the secretarial pool. He graduated from USC as a pharmacist and was a beloved mentor to many Japanese American students applying for the program.
He was active in Little Tokyo, serving for many years on the board of Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and as president of Little Tokyo Towers.
His daughter Georgiana Yoshioka smiled as she recalled her late father.
She said that a twist of fate early in life left her father with a sense of public service.
During World War II he was to board an airplane but an eye injury left him unable to fly. The plane crashed, killing all on board, and his mother was mistakenly informed that he had perished.
“My father is George Yamaguchi, no middle name. The man who died was George T. Yamaguchi. What are the odds of something like that?” she wondered.
“After that he felt a duty to make his life more meaningful,” Yoshioka said.
In November 2011, Yamaguchi traveled to Washington, D..C. to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress.
Last April, Yamaguchi, in failing health, was with his family when he went to see the mural. Although another event was taking place, the family was given permission to visit the hall for 30 minutes.
“The week before Easter I was able to gain entry for my family. My father got to see himself and it was a week later that he fell and broke his hip and he never recovered. That was the premonition that I had. I’m glad that we didn’t wait,” Yoshioka said.
“He looked at the mural and said, ‘That’s Bob Hope! I met Bob Hope.’”
Memorial services for George Yamaguchi, PharmD., will be held at Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, 815 E. First St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 10 a.m. He is survived by wife, Florence; children, Georgiana, Miles and Willard; grandchildren, Shelby, Erin, Lauren and Brandon; and great-grandchildren, Kaimana and Asher.