By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
WESTMINSTER — The story of the Nisei soldiers of World War II — and of one soldier in particular — was told during Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670’s annual Memorial Day service at Westminster Memorial Park.
Staff Sgt. Kazuo Masuda, who is buried at the Westminster cemetery, was killed in action in Italy while serving with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 1944 and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. His family was represented at the program.
Redondo Union HS Marine Corps Jr. ROTC posted and retired the colors and conducted a 21-gun salute. Nori Uyematsu led the Pledge of Allegiance and Lauren Kinkade sang the national anthem.
Rev. Fred Tanizaki, Wintersburg Presbyterian Church who opened and closed the program with a prayer, called Masuda “truly a brave warrior who was indeed strong and courageous as he gave his life for this country … We celebrate and honor those who have given so much for this country, for our families, our friends, and neighbors. May this time be more than just a ritual, but a fond recollection of times past. May we learn and be inspired by those who gave so much.”
Dennis Masuda gave a brief biography of his uncle, “a man I never met but I know well.” Born on Nov. 30, 1918 in Westminster, one of 11 children of Gensuke and Tamae Masuda, Kazuo Masuda graduated from Fountain Valley Elementary School and Huntington Beach Union High School, where he was a four-sport athlete (track, swimming, football and basketball).
“When I was about 5, I remember my dad and Uncle Mas looking through some picture albums … There was a picture, a picture of a man I did not recognize. He was in a soldier’s uniform,” Dennis Masuda recalled. “All my dad and Uncle Mas told me at that time was, “That was your Uncle Kazuo and he died in the war. At 5 years old, you really don’t have a concept about death or war …
“I also noticed on this picture album places I didn’t recognize. It was explained to me that it was at a camp in Arkansas. I remember thinking at that moment, ‘My family went to Arkansas to camp in a tarpaper garage?’ It wasn’t until years later that I found camp was explained to me.”
Kazuo Masuda was drafted into the military in October 1941 and sent to Fort Ord. On October 17, 1941, Uncle Kaz and my Uncle Takashi were both drafted into the military. Uncle Kaz was sent to Fort Ord on Monterey Bay. Because of his dark skin, his buddies nicknamed him “Arab.”
“He was there on Dec. 7, 1941, and it was there he felt the discrimination begin,” said Dennis Masuda. “He was one of the top graduates of the signal corps but wasn’t accepted because of his Japanese descent.”
After their families were interned, many Nisei men joined the Army, Masuda noted. “If you look at their situation, they really had no choice, because if they didn’t volunteer, people would be pointing fingers at them, saying they didn’t care about America. Uncle Kaz probably put it in words best. In a letter back to the family, he said, ‘I and the rest of the combat team know what we are fighting for. It is for us, for our future in America.’”
Known as a risk-taker, Kazuo Masuda once forced enemy troops to retreat using just a mortar. But his luck ran out, his nephew said. “Uncle Kaz encountered a German machine gun at a distance of only six feet. He commenced firing with his Thompson submachine gun so his two comrades could escape. It was Uncle Kaz’s last stand. A few days later, on Sept. 1, they found his body. His buddies recalled Uncle Kaz saying, ‘Not a single step back. Never. You can’t win by going backward.’”
The war was not yet over for the family, as Masuda’s brother Takashi was still in Italy and his brother Mas was in the Military Intelligence Service, getting read for the invasion of Japan.
“The next battle was actually fought by my Aunt Mary,” Dennis Masuda said. “Aunt Mary returned to the farmhouse in what is now Fountain Valley (known as Talbert at the time) to check up on it. There she was met by some unfriendly former neighbors and bullied her not to return. Well, she didn’t listen and she returned September of 1945 …
“In December 1945, Gen. Joseph Stillwell came to the farmhouse … and presented the Distinguished Service Cross to my Aunt Mary. There was also a rally at the Santa Ana Bowl and a fortuitous meeting with a captain named Ronald Reagan. My grandmother refused to take the medal from Gen. Stillwell, but did accept it from my Aunt Mary …
“Uncle Kaz had one more battle to fight, and it was right here. When his body was returned stateside on Nov. 9, 1948, his request to be buried here was not denied, but they offered to bury him in the far corner of the park in a dirt lot because it was a ‘Caucasian cemetery.’ Amid protests from various groups, they changed their mind and they buried him here. At that time, this was still one of the far corners of the cemetery. If you look around you right now, we’re almost in the middle in probably one of the most beautiful parts of the park …
“When President Reagan was thinking about signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 … it was my Aunt June who wrote a letter to the president reminding him about his speech some 43 years earlier at the Santa Ana Bowl and about Uncle Kaz. In that speech the president had said, ‘Blood that has soaked into the sands is all one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but in a way, an ideal.’ The president soon signed the bill after getting Aunt June’s letter.”
Many ethnic groups have been targets of backlash over the decades, most recently people of Middle Eastern background after 9/11, said Masuda. “The familiar calls to send them back or round them up and incarcerate them were heard again. Hate, discrimination, prejudice. If we don’t get rid of these, the next group that may be targeted could be yours.”
ABC 7 news anchor David Ono, who has produced documentaries about Nisei veterans and the internment, noted that there was tremendous public support for Memorial Day after World War I and World War II. “A million people would show up to a parade because at that time people understood what it meant to have a country in jeopardy, when we truly did not know the outcome of whether we would survive the war or not. So the men who went overseas and fought for this country, we truly appreciated what they did.
“But as the years go by, the decades go by, people lose track of what this day truly means, what it means to be fighting for our country and fighting for freedom. We look at the ads today and you think Memorial Day is about barbecues and sales and starting your summer vacation. We kind of forget that the reason we have this day is to remember people like Sgt. Masuda and the other fine men that he served with. His story is tragic and beautiful at the same time because we carry his story with us, and it says something loud and bold.”
The issue is personal for Ono because he grew up in a military family and his father served in Vietnam. He remembered his mother watching TV coverage of the war and worrying about his father’s well-being.
“Coming to Los Angeles, I had this tremendous opportunity to meet members of the 100th/442nd/MIS, these wonderful heroes,” he said, “and to do their story over and over again, not just for the news but for other entities as well.
“It allows you the opportunity to go and see what they’ve done. I’ve sat in those foxholes that the Lost Battalion sat in and been to Bruyeres and Biffontaine and the Vosges Forest. I went and visited a lumber mill that has to X-ray every tree in that forest because they’re filled with shrapnel. I got to go to Monte Cassino and see that giant hillside and the tremendous fortress at the top that the Nazis were in, that the 100th/442nd had to attack over and over again. The magnitude of what they did was tremendous …
“They have this unbelievable history that as a journalist is a treasure trove of stories and ideas and thoughts and emotional moments that is tremendous for somebody like me.”
Recalling that there was nothing in the school textbooks about the internment or the contributions of the Nisei soldiers when he grew up on an Army base in Texas, Ono said, “To me, that’s tragic … because the everyday Americans don’t know this story exists. By me standing here and talking to you, I’m preaching to the choir because you know this story. These are your people, your families. You go beyond California, you go to the central part of the United States, you go to the East Coast, and the vast majority of people have never heard this story.”
Ono said that he sees signs of hope. “Young people are taking it upon themselves to tell this story, and to let Americans know how important it is to keep this story alive. It’s not a history lesson; it’s a lesson on relevance and the world that we live in today.”
The idea that one’s fellow Americans are entitled to respect regardless of their background “is what the bottom line to this generation is about, he added. “This generation of World War II Japanese Americans who have given us this tremendous gift, this ability to withstand a terrible time, go beyond that, to persevere … We’ll tell this story, and we’ll teach America and the world what it’s like to right a wrong … Everybody should grab your families’ stories, archive them, hold them close. Because it’s not about one sergeant’s story, it’s about a generation’s story … We all have a tremendous story to tell, and we all have to tell it.”
Floral tributes were presented by Kazuo Masuda’s brother Masao on behalf of the family and by representatives of 20 veterans and community organizations. Ono and Kincade read the names of 104 post members who have passed away.
The audience was asked to join in singing “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”
A display featured a large photo of Masuda and attendees were given literature about the Masuda family story and the Nisei Veterans Network’s upcoming Congressional Gold Medal digital exhibition, which will feature soldiers like Masuda, Takejiro Higa (MIS) and Daniel Inouye (442nd).
So-Phis provided refreshments and some participants gathered afterwards at Furiwa Chinese Seafood Restaurant in Garden Grove.
Masuda family — Masao Masuda, brother of S/Sgt. Kazuo Masuda
Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670 — Commander Geoffrey Chow
442nd Regimental Combat Team — John K. Wakamatsu
100th Infantry Battalion — Don Miyada
Japanese American Korean War Veterans — Sam Shimoguchi
Japanese American Vietnam Veterans — Ken Hayashi
Nisei Veterans Coordinating Council — Jerry Yamamoto
Gulf Wars — Col. David Uyematsu
Gardena VFW Post 1961 — Steve Moriyama
Redondo Union High School Marine Corps Jr. ROTC — 1st Sgt. Steve Mick and cadet commander
VFW 3670 Youth Group — Ted Tayenaka
VFW 3670 Sr. High School Volunteer Organization — Colin Yamamoto
Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church — Mike Tiede
Orange County Buddhist Church — Aaron Nagayama
Wintersburg Presbyterian Church — Randy Otsuji
Orange Coast Optimist — Ally Kubo
South East Youth Organization — Ray Okazaki
Suburban Youth Optimist Club of Buena Park — Dave Higashi
So-Phis — Rolee Hamamoto
Westminster Memorial Park — Jeff Gibson
Orange County Gardeners Association — Yasunori Arakaki
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo