Tetsuo Nomiyama, Kibei Military Resister, Dies at 96

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By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Tetsuo “Tim” Nomiyama, a Kibei Nisei military resister, passed away on Dec. 10 at the age of 96.

Nomiyama was born on Jan. 20, 1916 in Alameda, Calif. Around the age of four or five, his parents sent him to their ancestral home in Fukuoka-ken to receive a Japanese education.

Tetsuo “Tim” Nomiyama

Initially, the children in Fukuoka teased Nomiyama since his Japanese language skills were limited, but he learned fast. After graduating from high school, Nomiyama, who had dual citizenship, decided to return to the U.S. since he was the second son and was not expected to head the household in Japan.

Before leaving Japan, however, Nomiyama had to check in with the local military office since the country was in a midst of a war in Manchuria and China. The officer Nomiyama spoke to called him a traitor for wanting to leave Japan.

Incensed, Nomiyama appealed to a higher Fukuoka prefectural military office and spoke to another officer, who informed him that since he was already 20 years old, he would have to take a physical exam.

Nomiyama passed his physical, and during the final interview session, his interviewer was the officer from the prefectural office. When it came time to call out names of those accepted into the Japanese Imperial Army, Nomiyama’s name was not called. He wondered if the officer from the prefectural office had understood his plight, allowing him to return to the U.S.

When Nomiyama returned to California, he had forgotten all his English. He lived and worked on his cousin’s farm in Turlock, while trying to learn English at the local high school.

Later, he worked at a Japanese grocery store in Modesto, where he toiled seven days a week, delivering sacks of beans or flour, cutting the meats, and driving his boss on Sundays.

Nomiyama received his draft notice in late 1941. His boss, not wanting to lose him, offered to have an attorney request an extension, but Nomiyama was already 27 and he wanted to fulfill his military duty before he got too old.

On the day Nomiyama was to report for his physical in Sacramento, he was running a fever and everyone told him to stay home, but he trudged on. When he showed up to his draft board, the Army officer took one look at him and had him admitted into the Army hospital. About a week later, he was sworn in on Dec. 5, 1941.

Two days later, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. “If the American military had told me to fight against Japan, I was prepared to say no,” Nomiyama said in Japanese. “If I saw my brother there, I’m not going to shoot him. I’d rather die myself.”

Nomiyama was sent to the Presidio in Monterey, then to Camp Roberts, Calif., and did his basic training at Camp Robinson in Arkansas, where he was introduced to American-style segregation. “The blacks were all in separate areas,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why. I thought this was terrible.”

From there, Nomiyama was sent to Camp Leonard Wood in Missouri.

During a furlough, Nomiyama visited his brother, Don Hiraku, who was imprisoned at the Tule Lake War Relocation Authority camp. He brought a stroller as a present for his nephew, Kenny, who had been born at Tule Lake.

Nomiyama arrived at Fort McClellan, Ala., on March 20, 1944. Brig. Gen. Wallace C. Philoon was to deliver a speech that day. Just prior to Philoon’s speech, about 100 Japanese American soldiers had appeared before the administration building to voice their concerns about discrimination in the Army. These soldiers were all placed into the stockade for disobeying orders.

When Nomiyama’s unit arrived, they had heard that there had been a commotion but were unaware of the details. After his unit heard the speech, Nomiyama decided to take to heart what Philoon had said about bringing their concerns to their commander.

By that time, Nomiyama was also beginning to question American-style democracy. He had witnessed segregation in the Deep South, had family and relatives in the Tule Lake and Granada (Amache) camps, and faced racist practices in the Army.

As a result, he decided he needed some answers before he was willing to risk his life for the U.S. “I wanted to clear my conscience,” said Nomiyama in Japanese. “I wanted to know what exactly I was giving up my life for.”

Nomiyama and four other Nikkei soldiers met with their commander, who disappointed them by telling them that he could do nothing to alleviate the racist policies of the Army or the government.

At this point, Nomiyama’s group protested that they could not fight for the U.S. if they were not given equal rights as U.S. citizens. They were escorted to the stockade.

On March 21, 1944, a colonel lectured the soldiers in the stockade’s mess hall that what they were doing amounted to treason. He gave the soldiers a choice: Go out the right door and all will be forgiven. Walk out the left door and face a court-martial, possibly death.

Seventy-eight men went out the right door. Twenty-eight, including Nomiyama, chose the left door and became known as the “Fort McClellan Disciplinary Barrack Boys” or “DB Boys” for short.

In April 1944, the soldiers were individually court-martialed and charged with one count of violating the lawful command of a superior officer under the 64th Article of War.

Sentencing ranged from 30 years to five. Nomiyama received the lighter sentence of five years since he technically had not disobeyed orders but had voluntarily requested to be placed in the stockade.

The soldiers were sent to the Leavenworth federal penitentiary, the same prison where the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee leaders and members were incarcerated.

In November 1945, the secretary of the Army issued a clemency act, which reduced the soldiers’ sentences to two years. After the soldiers were released from prison in 1946, they were given dishonorable discharges, making them ineligible for Army benefits.

From 1948 to 1954, Edmund Zane, a friend of “DB Boy” Masao Kataoka, spearheaded a campaign to clear the men’s records. Zane tracked down court-martial records and wrote numerous letters, all on a pro bono basis, but was unsuccessful.

In 1973, attorney Paul Minerich married Nomiyama’s daughter, Lisa. After Minerich learned about his father-in-law’s military experience, he decided to see what he could do. The legal team consisted of Minerich and his wife.

After contacting surviving “DB Boys,” 11 veterans agreed to have their cases reopened. Tom Turcottt, who specialized in court-martialed veterans, advised Minerich on where to start.

In February 1980, Minerich submitted a brief to the secretary of the Army, requesting that the men’s discharge be upgraded to an honorable one and that the court-martial conviction be expunged from their records.

Following two more years of comprehensive presentations, Minerich and seven “DB Boys” flew to Washington, D.C. on Dec. 8, 1982 to testify at the Pentagon. The Army board voted 3-2 in favor of granting the men the various requests of changing their date of discharge to the date that their service time would have normally ended, reinstatement of rank, and restitution of back pay and other benefits.

However, the board refused to set aside the court-martial conviction.

Memorial services were held on Dec. 16 at the Westminster Memorial Park Mortuary in Westminster.

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1 Comment

  1. Gene Dorio, M.D. on

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if the Army Board did not set aside the court-martial conviction of Mr. Nomiyama, then he still was discharged “dishonorably.” And if this was so, then he sadly was not eligible for Veteran benefits.

    The circumstances of his own personal “convictions” against segregation and prejudice stigmatized his actions which we should honorably respect him for. Thank you Mr. Nomiyama for your valor.

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