By SUSIE LING
A couple of years after his elderly father moved to a nursing home, Robert L. Borchers started sorting through his father’s papers in Minnesota. He came across a scrapbook containing 13 handwritten letters and cards, mostly from Japanese American internees and Niseis in the service.
Bob was confused. He knew his dad, Robert E. Borchers, had been with the Second Marines Division in Guadalcanal in 1943. Dad had been with the Fifth Marine Division when it moved to Sasebo and Nagasaki just weeks after the bomb. In between, Borchers was at Camp Pendleton with near fatal malaria.
Dad would have had to carry these letters in his military seabag through those rough days — and then back to Chicago’s Southside.
Robert E. Borchers was born in Chicago’s Hyde Park in 1921. His father, Sam, had been a journalist who attended the University of Chicago. Robert’s mother, Blanche, worked odd jobs as a dishwasher, deli cook, and driver. During the Depression, Sam and Blanche downsized and raised their two sons in a one-bedroom apartment.
But during the summers, the Borchers would take their boys in their Model A down Route 66 to visit their dear friends in Pasadena: William and Bea Carr. The Carrs were originally from Hyde Park too.
Bob writes, “My father received a special visit from the Carrs while he was at the Naval Hospital in San Diego for malaria … As he spent little time reading newspapers while under fire in the South Pacific, they had to inform him about the plight of Japanese Americans interned … When Dad asked if he could do anything, they suggested that he might send a letter to the American Legion of which were enthusiastically involved in the racial hysteria of the time.” Dad did.
The letter from the 22-year-old PFC was reprinted in the Dec. 20, 1943 edition of Time Magazine:
“I am one of the fortunate Marines who have recently returned to this country after serving in the offensive against the Japanese on Guadalcanal … We find … a condition behind our backs that stuns us. We find that our American citizens, those of Japanese ancestry, are being persecuted, yes, persecuted as though Adolf Hitler himself were in charge … We find that the California American Legion is promoting a racial purge.
“I’m putting it mildly when I say it makes our blood boil … We shall fight this injustice, intolerance, and unAmericanism at home! We will not break faith with those who died … We have fought the Japanese and are recuperating to fight again. We can endure the hell of battle, but we are resolved not to be sold out at home.”
Court-martial charges were brought against Robert E. Borchers. California Assemblymember Chester Gannon, chair of the Assembly Committee on Japanese Problems, questioned whether Robert E. Borchers was a real Marine. Borchers was sentenced to six months of hard labor.
A Marine attorney helped Borchers prepare an appeal. Every Marine was needed on the front and Borchers was reinstated. He was permanently marked for bad conduct.
Japanese Americans like Tomiko Sakita at “Rivers, Arizona,” Roy Nakabayashi at USAFISPA (United States Armed Forces in South Pacific Area) in San Francisco, Shuichi Ogura at Camp Shelby — and hundreds of others — wrote letters to thank Marine Borchers for his letter to the American Legion. Borchers could not carry all these letters in his sea bag, but he could not throw all away either.
Taeko Omori of Poston High School had written, “I am more than grateful [for your letter to the American Legion]because I am one who is living in a relocation center, shut away from my dear friends and not free to my unalienable rights. I am an American citizen and I surely think that I am privileged to my liberties, don’t you?”
A Japanese American from Idaho Falls wrote, “We are fighting for the same freedom as you and other Americans. We are doing everything we can to prove our loyalty to America — to prove that we are real Americans.” It is signed, “A Reader.”
Borchers’ son, Bob, remembers, “Dad very seldom talked about the war. When I was in high school, my youth group leader in Minneapolis — Dan Ogata — asked if I was related to a ‘Robert Borchers’ mentioned in this book, ‘The Great Betrayal’ (1969). That’s when Dad told me, my brother William, and my sister Deborah about his court-martial.”
Robert L. Borchers, the son, has spent hours researching to reconnect with the Japanese American authors of those 1940s letters. He found Tom Yoneda (son of Karl and Elaine), Arlene Eddow Kishi, and a cousin of Taeko Omori via the Internet. Over the phone from Wisconsin, Bob would read the new emails, and the 1940s letters again and again to his father in the nursing home.
“Despite serious problems with dementia, Dad poured forth enormous and unforgettable laughter and tears,” Bob said. “Dad grew up in a Jewish neighborhood that became Irish and then African American. He was always very sensitive to the injustices in our nation.”
When asked why he invests so much care on this research project, Bob answered, “I love my dad.” Marine Robert E. Borchers died peacefully in March of 2015, a day before his 94th birthday.
Robert L. Borchers has promised this 70-year-old collection of his father’s letters to the Manzanar National Historic Site.