The Unknown Uncle

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Shimpo

Compared with the Congressional Gold Medal presentation at the U.S. Capitol in November 2011 and the gala celebration at the Washington Hilton, the KIA ceremony held the next day was a quieter, more understated affair.

The setting was the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, where the names of 814 Nisei soldiers killed in action are inscribed. Most did not leave behind wives or children.

The Yamamoto brothers (from right): John Tsuyoshi, James Tsutomu and Frank Yutaka.

Some of these soldiers’ siblings were in attendance, along with nieces and nephews, including me. In my case, I was honoring someone whom I had never met and knew little about — Pfc. John Tsuyoshi Yamamoto or Uncle Johnny, my father’s older brother, who died in Italy at the age of 19.

In a scene reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, each relative found a fallen soldier’s name and made a rubbing of it with pencil and paper provided by the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation. I found myself wearing two hats, both covering the event and paying respects to Uncle Johnny on behalf of my family.

So who was John Yamamoto? In recent years I have tried to piece together his story.

It begins in 1924, when he was born to Kanzo and Sae Yamamoto, immigrants from Kumamoto Prefecture. He grew up in Oceanside, where the family worked on strawberry farms. His siblings were older sister “Si” (the renowned writer Hisaye Yamamoto DeSoto) and younger brothers James Tsutomu, my dad, known as “Jemo”; Frank Yutaka or “Yuke”; and Henry Kaname, who died as a child.

Their mother died at an early age, before the war. The family moved and Johnny attended Oceanside-Carlsbad Union High School, where he majored in commercial subjects and did well in typing and accounting. He also joined the football and basketball teams.

Johnny’s copy of the 1941 Pirateer, the school yearbook, contains many of the same writings that can be found in high school yearbooks today. Shig Eddow wrote, “As a senior, I’m sure you’ll be a very successful one. Give O-C the best you’ve got in sports because I’ll be around to see you lead O-C to the championship.”

Among Johnny’s classmates were two people I know — playwright Wakako Yamauchi (Nakamura at the time) and Chizu Omori, a columnist for the Nichi Bei Weekly in San Francisco.

By the time the 1942 yearbook came out, all of the Japanese American students were gone. Johnny received a copy containing an inscription by Laura Bertino, who wrote, “I wasn’t able to get this signed — you know how busy these last days are. I’ll wish you the best of luck from all of them, though.”

The yearbook still contained pictures of Johnny on the basketball and football teams, and he was mentioned in a section called “The Shape of Things to Come,” which imagined what the seniors would be doing in 1962. In reality, Johnny only had two years to live.

His sister later wrote, “The letterman’s sweater, green with two white stripes on the left sleeve, which he was able to buy then, was precious to him.”

John Yamamoto (front row, far right) was on the basketball team at Oceanside-Carlsbad Union High School. (From the 1942 Privateer)

At Poston, Johnny helped incoming evacuees by escorting them to their barracks and carrying their luggage. Later he did bookkeeping for the warehouses. He left camp to do sugar beet work and off-season jobs in Colorado.

“I’d sure like to be back and playing for a team, but it’s better out here. More freedom … fresh air and all that,” Johnny wrote to my dad in December 1942. “The people seem pretty nice where I work. I’m a pot washer …

“Hell, I bet I can’t play basketball worth a darn now. I don’t know what a ball feels like now. I sure would like to play though. Can’t you get into my basketball shoes? You can have ’em if you can. I’ll get me another pair later on …

“You dropped down in your studies. But I don’t blame you. You can’t study in a hellhole like Poston. No matter what they say … ”

In January 1943, Johnny was giving my dad advice on how to play: “I think you guys ought to practice shooting for the basket instead of the backboard. Use the backboard only when you have to. If you practice just on the basket you can make any basket or any shots.”

But in February, Johnny turned to more serious matters. He wrote to Hisaye, “I think I’ll volunteer for the Army pretty soon. Around March maybe. I bet the old man will be sore as hell when you tell him this, but I can do better in the Army than just staying out here. And I don’t feel like staying in camp for the duration.”

Uncle Johnny at Camp Shelby before shipping out to Europe.

In March, Johnny wrote to my dad, “I bet the guys in camp are saying I’m a sucker for joining. Well, let them think that way. I’m not going to rot in camp. And I don’t want to pot-wash or dish-wash all the rest of my life.”

From Camp Shelby in Mississippi, in a letter written in October 1943 on Army stationery, Johnny worried about his weight. “They don’t give a guy hardly any body exercise. The arms are the only thing that gets it all. Shit! I’m getting too damn fat. Especially my belly. Weigh quite a bit now. Somewhere near 150.”

He advised my dad, “You’d better stay home and try to get out of camp. Maybe find a good steady job for after the war. One guy from a family in the Army is enough.”

Chizu Omori remembers Johnny visiting Poston in uniform, looking much more mature than when he left camp.

In March 1944, my dad was in the camp hospital with appendicitis. To cheer him up, Johnny wrote, “It doesn’t feel so hot lying in bed for a long time, does it? Well you’re so f—ing husky you’ll be out of there in no time. So keep that chin up.”

He also wrote, “I bet you’re going to grow now that you’ve had your appendix out. Hope you get to be big as hell. Not a small shit like me. You were pretty damn big the last time I saw you.”

I was a little surprised by the language, but of course people cussed in those days too, just not in public.

Johnny added, “It’s only talk going around as yet, but don’t be surprised if we go over (to Europe) in the real near future. Anyway I sure hope we do.”

Johnny shipped out with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 2nd Battalion, Company H, 3rd Platoon (mortar section). My dad, Auntie Si and Uncle Yuke left camp to work in Massachusetts.

In an August 1944 letter to Johnny, my dad asked for advice: “What do you suggest for Pop? Should we go after him or let him come out alone? That is, if he wants to come. I sure hate to leave him alone in camp.”

Dad asked Johnny, “How’s it going out your way? From what I hear of Italy, sounds pretty tough. But what I know of you, I know you’ll be OK.”

Uncle Johnny’s name is on a monument to Nisei soldiers from Poston who were killed in action, dedicated at the camp site in Arizona in 1992.

Hisaye later quoted from Johnny’s last letter home, written during the Rome-to-Arno Campaign: “I guess I might as well tell you that we’re in action now.”

“A few days later (July 15, 1944), his mortar company marched day and night without food or water to catch up with the war on the outskirts of Livorno,” she wrote. “After it had dug in below a hill held by the Germans, for some reason Johnny stood up in his foxhole and an 88-millimeter shell exploded full on his chest. ”

While working at The Hokubei Mainichi in San Francisco, I heard from Sus Satow of Sacramento, who was also in Company H. He said that he knew Johnny and was there when it happened. I just recently heard that Sus, who was very active in Nisei vets’ organizations, passed away on Feb. 16 at age 88, leaving behind four children and six grandchildren.

Johnny was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and Bronze Star. He was buried in the U.S. military cemetery in Florence.

My aunt visited Italy with her family in the 1990s and paid her respects at Johnny’s grave. She showed us pictures of the cemetery, a sea of white crosses — about 4,400 men and women are buried there. I’ve never been to Italy, but seeing Johnny’s final resting place is certainly on my “bucket list.”

This trip was the basis of Auntie Si’s short story “Florentine Gardens,” and she also discussed the loss of her brother in Emiko Omori’s documentary “Rabbit in the Moon.” In the story, Hisaye wrote about “the irony of bearing arms for a country which uproots them for no good reason and plunks them in the middle of the desert.”

In 1992, I accompanied Auntie Si, Uncle Yuke and other relatives on a pilgrimage to Poston for the dedication of a monument to the 25 Nisei soldiers from that camp who gave their lives. Regrettably, my dad did not go.

We were pleased that Johnny and his comrades were remembered in this way, and for me it was an opportunity to see Poston for the first time. I could find no trace of the camp, as it was located in a populated area —  the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation. But the intense heat gave me a small taste of what life was like there.

Nineteen years later, I was the only family member that attended the CGM ceremonies. My father lives at South Bay Keiro as a result of a stroke. My aunt also suffered a stroke and passed away last year.

Johnny’s death at such a young age is still mourned by those who knew him, but there is some comfort in knowing that his name — inscribed in stone in Italy, Washington, D.C., Arizona, and right here in Little Tokyo on two different monuments — will not be forgotten.

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Some details in this article come from an online archive — Katherine Baishiki/Hisaye Yamamoto/American Battle Monuments Commission 12/12/02 (revised 5/1/03)

This essay originally appeared in “Proud to Serve: Japanese American World War II Veterans,” published by The Rafu Shimpo in 2012. The book is still available for purchase.

Postscript: Since this story was published, my dad, Uncle Frank and family friend Wakako Yamauchi have passed. There are fewer and fewer people in the community with first-hand knowledge of the camps and Nisei military service in WWII.

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