OBITUARY: George Aki, 103; 442nd RCT Army Chaplain

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Rev. George Aki, the last surviving chaplain to serve with the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, passed away on July 4. He was 103 years old.

George Aki speaks in October 2006 at an event in support of Lt. Ehren Watada. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Aki was born in Livingston in Central California on Sept. 11, 1914 and raised in Fresno. He became the first non-white civil servant in that city and later attended Fresno State College. After graduation, he enrolled at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

He met Misaki Iijima at the Berkeley seminary. They were married on April 10, 1942, one month prior to the evacuation. Two days before his seminary graduation, Aki and his family were among 6,000 people moved to the Bay Area assembly center at Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno. A former seminary classmate, Ward Stephenson, presented his seminary diploma inside the center.

The neighboring Congregational churches quickly gathered to form an ecclesiastical council to examine and to ordain Aki. Over 500 gathered for this service around a mess hall. Such things were said by the council members: “We are here for a noble adventure of faith” … “The church reaches through the fences and past the sentries to take hold of the hands of your people. This handclasp, as the fact that the Christian Church, reaching out to across racial, national, and cultural barriers right in the midst of war, holds the world together.”

After four months, the Tanforan evacuees were transferred by trains to the Topaz Relocation Center, a hastily assembled square mile of barracks in the Utah desert. After four months, the Akis transferred to the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. It was here that their first child was stillborn.

In the summer of 1943, Aki volunteered for the U.S. Army, an unpopular decision among his fellow detainees. He told Misaki, “My primary reason is not to fight for America, but to be with the volunteers which will be my church, and wherever they are sent, I want to be with them.”

In March 1944, Chaplain Aki joined the 442nd RCT at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. As the last chaplain to serve the unit, he stayed behind to train replacements and was later deployed to Italy.

At Camp Shelby, Aki witnessed a commanding officer who broke Army regulations and badly mistreated the men. Risking court-martial, Aki documented the commanding officer’s misdeeds and wrote a letter directly to the chief of chaplains requesting an investigation. As a result, the commanding officer was ordered never to command troops again.

George Aki worked to make sure that the fallen soldiers of the 100th/442nd were not forgotten. Many remain buried in U.S. military cemeteries in Europe.

Aki joined the 442nd in Livorno, Italy, where one of his main tasks was to locate the isolated graves of the American soldiers who had been hastily buried during the heat of battle. When they found a body, Aki, along with his assistant, Raymond, would immediately look for the dog tag.

As he identified the dead soldiers, he wondered about their own shattered dreams for the future and “what moved them to fight for the country that stripped them of their birthright and cast them and their families into American-made concentration camps.”

Aki’s lifelong personal mission from that point was to do what he could to honor the men whose lives were cut short in a strange land without loved ones and friends to be near them. “I was never a hero,” he said, “but I was glad and privileged to be on the Go For Broke team.”

Aki served three Japanese American churches in Fresno, Chicago, and Los Angeles before becoming the first Japanese American minister to serve a primarily Caucasian church in San Luis Obispo. In 1966, the Pacific School of Religion conferred upon Aki an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

Throughout his life, Aki stood up against injustices, supporting the Nisei wartime draft resisters and in 2006, he was a vocal supporter of Lt. Ehren Watada, who was the first commissioned officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq.

“Lt. Watada has taken a position asserting a higher loyalty than to patriotism, which right is the guarantee of our Constitution,” Aki stated in a Vox Populi written for The Rafu Shimpo. “He deserves to do his patriotic duty but defines his loyalty to the principles which are truly the foundation of our democracy.”

George Aki (center) receives a Congressional Gold Medal from his son Jim on Nov. 23, 2012. He is joined by fellow veteran Mits Kunihiro.

Aki spent his later years as a resident of Pilgrim Place, a retirement facility for retired clergy in Claremont. In a small ceremony in November 2012, he received the Congressional Gold Medal from fellow veterans Mits Kunihiro from E Company and Jim Yamashita, I Company.

Aki is survived by his daughter, Joanne (David) Gabel; sons Galen (Cynthia) Aki and Jim (Anna) Aki; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He is predeceased by his wife Misaki, who passed away in 2003.

A memorial service will take place on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 3 p.m. at Pilgrim Place, Decker Hall, 625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont, CA 91711. In lieu of flowers, make a donation to Habitat for Humanity or to Pilgrim Place.

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