Campaign to Name School After 442nd Soldier Hits a Snag

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Opponents associate ‘Yamamoto’ with WWII Japanese admiral.

Fred Yamamoto was a member of the Page Mill Church Epworth League in 1934.

Rafu Staff Report

PALO ALTO — Fred Yamamoto, a Japanese American war hero, is one of eight finalists as the Palo Alto Unified School District considers renaming two middle schools.

Despite his heroism — the 1936 Palo Alto High School graduate was killed in action in 1944 during the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion” in France — some Asian Americans are opposed to honoring him because he has the same last name as Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Jordan Middle School, named after David Starr Jordan, and Terman Middle School, named in part after Lewis Terman, are set to be renamed because both men were leading advocates of eugenics, which is based on the belief that some races are superior to others. Some 500 names, ranging from Gandhi to Steve Jobs, were submitted and the 13-member Recommending School Names Advisory Committee forwarded its recommendations to the five-member PAUSD Board of Education.

Fred Yamamoto volunteered from camp to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. (Courtesy Pam Hashimoto)

During a public meeting of the committee on March 19, nearly three dozen community members spoke, most of them against naming either school after Fred Yamamoto, according to Bay Area News Group.

One parent said giving a school the Yamamoto surname is akin to naming a school with Jewish students after Adolf Hitler. Another parent said if a Palo Alto school had been named Yamamoto, he would have chosen a different district for his children. Still another parent warned that “parents won’t want their kids to wear shirts representing the school.”

The committee said it would relay the comments to the board, which is scheduled to make a selection on March 27. Two of the finalists are places, and two board members have expressed a preference for places over people. One board member suggested a memorial for all six individuals.

A group called “Concerned PAUSD Members” launched an online petition on Change.org, which reads, in part: “We appreciate the effort that the Advisory Committee of RSN (Recommending School Names) has made for renaming our two middle schools. We also appreciate that ‘Yamamoto’ was thought of, and even recommended, because we feel that choosing an Asian name could reflect diversity, inclusion, and respect.

“Nonetheless, we are launching this petition to respectfully urge you to name our schools by using geographic names (rather than any individuals’ names) to avoid controversy, and even resentment, now and in the future. Please do not use ‘Yamamoto’ as the name of any schools in PAUSD …

“There exist certain hurt feeling when the last name ‘Yamamoto’ is mentioned, especially for Asian immigrants whose families were tragically affected in China, Korea, and Southeast Asian countries during World War II. Likewise, to many Americans who were in the U.S. during World War II, this name could remind many of the chapter in our history when Pearl Harbor was bombed … This Japanese admiral is whom many first think of upon hearing the name ‘Yamamoto,’ and our middle schools should never be affiliated with such a person.

“We still recall that during your discussion of whether the two middle schools should be renamed, most (if not all) of you empathized with those who in our community who were emotionally hurt by the previous names. lease also consider our feelings about choosing ‘Yamamoto’ and the sentiment surrounding the tragedies Admiral Yamamoto was responsible for in Pearl Harbor and Asia. The mass killings under the leadership of Yamamoto occurred not so long ago, and wounds could still be painful even now …

“One may argue ‘Yamamoto’ is a common and popular Japanese last name and, in this context, represents Fred Yamamoto rather than the Isoroku Yamamoto. Mr. Fred Yamamoto is, without a doubt, an inspirational figure, but sadly enough, his last name undeniably also symbolizes a notorious figure from World War II … It is inevitable that explanations about the origin of the name will often be necessary. People may be confused about which Yamamoto a school’s name is referring to: in conversation, the full name of a school is almost never used …

“There is simply no human being in this world who could be considered perfect in all aspects. Even the idea of perfection itself is different for everyone, because individuals come from a wide range of cultures, ethnic groups, religious beliefs, etc. Naming our public school after a person would undoubtedly raise the risk of wasting time and resources in our community in the future, because new issues with a person may arise.

“It is therefore wise for our school board members to streamline and save our resources for our schools and children, instead of renaming a school after a person which may require a subsequent change in the future.”

More than 1,000 people have signed the petition.

The committee’s report notes that in addition to the admiral, there are more than 60 other “notable Yamamotos, including artists, athletes, scientists and politicians.”

Committee member LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County judge, said during the meeting that tensions among different racial and ethnic groups in the community need to be addressed: “I encourage those of you in this room and I encourage the Board of Education to do something affirmatively about having these conversations so we can confront what it is we’re feeling.”

JACL Responds

Fred Yamamoto’s grave at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. (Photo by Brad Shirakawa)

National JACL Executive Director David Inoue, in a March 19 letter to Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks and members of the school board, wrote: “On behalf of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization in the United States, I am writing to express our support of honoring Fred Yamamoto with the naming of one of your middle schools.

“Part of my job as executive director of JACL is to engage the public with the history of the Japanese American experience during WWII. I have been struck by how far reaching the appeal of the Japanese American story — a story of resilience, courage, and patriotism — is, and how many different communities are able to learn from and be inspired by it.

“Mr. Yamamoto’s life and death show a hope and belief in American ideals. In choosing to serve his country that was wrongfully imprisoning him and his family, Mr. Yamamoto demonstrated a profound belief that America’s core values are more than its flawed leadership or an unconstitutional decision, and those values deserved to be fought for. He sought peace abroad to bring it back to his family and the many other members of his community, the Palo Alto Japanese American community who had been unjustly imprisoned.

“This legacy is one that not only deserves to be memorialized, but one that all Americans can learn from. In a time when American ideals are called into question regularly and many struggle to remember why they love this country, we ask that you memorialize Fred Yamamoto who, despite everything, served and died for this country. To Japanese Americans and to most Americans, the name Fred Yamamoto represents courage, hope, and peace, true American values.”

Fred Yamamoto’s name on the Go For Broke Monument in Little Tokyo.

Regional Director Patty Wada of the JACL’s Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District wrote: “Mr. Yamamoto was not only an American hero, but also someone whose life and death are a testament to the very definition of a loyal and dedicated citizen. Mr. Yamamoto, a member of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which served America with distinction and honor, didn’t hesitate to volunteer for the U.S. Army and gave his life for our country in spite of the discrimination and injustice suffered by Americans of Japanese ancestry.

“During World War II, over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens, were forcibly removed from their homes without charges or trial and incarcerated in the deserts of America, simply because they ‘looked like the enemy.’ Mr. Yamamoto, whose own family was among t hose wrongfully incarcerated, gave his life for our country and for freedom at the age of 26.

“Naming a school after Fred Yamamoto, who was awarded the Purple Heart for his bravery, would be a most fitting tribute, but would also provide a valuable lesson for our youth about our Constitution, about democracy, about justice and sacrifice.

“American heroes come in all shapes and sizes — regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and physical abilities. The beauty of America’s diversity is an invaluable and critical lesson for students today and generations yet to come. It is disturbing that those who have not yet heeded this very American ideal are fostering intentional misunderstanding and ethnic tensions around this naming. To hear of such attempts is truly disheartening.

“Young people today are letting their voices be heard because they want a brighter future. An American hero like Fred M. Yamamoto, who did not let blatant racism stop him from wanting peace and a better world, can serve as an inspiration to students to persevere in life and never give up fighting for what is right.”

Brad Shirakawa, who is spearheading the Yamamoto campaign, commented, “Our efforts to honor Fred Yamamoto are based on his accomplishments and the legacy he left, of not allowing hate to color his decision-making process. He could have hated President Roosevelt, or the U.S. government that had imprisoned him. Instead, he chose to fight for America anyway.

“He could have let his resentment keep him from the battlefield and chosen to live his life in safety, but forever with hatred in his heart. He chose to remain positive and died for his country. Passing on hate is what is keeping many of us from coming together. It did so in World War II, and continues to do so. We can all make a choice.”

Yamamoto was a member of Page Mill Methodist Church, the precursor to Aldersgate Methodist Church in Palo Alto. When his family was incarcerated at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, he became a staff member of The Sentinel, the camp newspaper, and was the first to volunteer for the Army.

Several members of Page Mill Church enlisted, but Yamamoto was the only one who didn’t come back. Among those he left behind was his sweetheart, Michiko Yamada, whom he planned to marry.

Pfc. Takehiro Oshiro, who served in the same company as Yamamoto, was quoted as saying, “Fred was never one to sit back — and we GIs admired his courage and forcefulness … His faith in democracy never faltered, and some of us who for the moment had lost sight of the Nisei’s part in this conflict were bolstered by Fred’s realistic outlook.”

Local 442nd veteran Lawson Sakai is expected to speak at the March 27 meeting.

Individuals and organizations interested in expressing support for Yamamoto are asked to contact Shirakawa or write/email a letter of support. Go online to https://fredyamamotoschool.wordpress.com/ and go to “How You Can Help.”

The other individuals being considered are:

• Ellen Fletcher (1928-2012), Holocaust survivor, Palo Alto vice mayor and councilmember, environmental/peace advocate

• Frank Greene, Jr. (1938-2009, holder of patent for advanced processing memory chips, first African American founder of publicly traded firm, founder of venture capital fund for female- and minority-run start-ups

• William Hewlett (1913-2001), Silicon Valley entrepreneur and technologist, creator of innovative electronic products, community leader, far-sighted philanthropist

• Edith “Eugenie” Johnson (1872-1966), Palo Alto’s first female doctor, family counselor and peacemaker, write who challenged racism and sexism

• Anna Zschokke (1849-1929), Palo Alto’s first official resident and first historian, “Mother of Palo Alto Schools” who pioneered creation of a formal public education system for all children

The geographic names being considered are Adobe Creek and Redwood Grove.

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  1. Lars Johnsson on

    Three years ago my son wrote a book report about his school’s namesake, Stanford’s first president and one of California’s leading Eugenicists, David Starr Jordan. We started the campaign to rename our school, to find namesakes worthy of the honor of having a public school named after them. The ideal name should reflect our values and be inspirational to our students and community. Of all the distinguished candidates Fred Yamamoto has by far the most inspiring life story, given his steadfast belief in our country and his fellow citizens, his belief in freedom and equity, whom he chose to defend with his life. As a community we are humbled, as an individual I am inspired. If I had a vote we would have a middle school named in his honor.

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