Five Bellingham ‘brothers’ were sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor. All five joined the Army, but not all came home. Jim Okubo returned a hero. Decades after his death, he was awarded a Medal of Honor.
ALMOST NO ONE knew his story, and that’s how he wanted it.
His colleagues, friends, even his children: They knew he had bravely served, but like so many soldiers returning from vast battlefields in Europe and the Pacific, that part of his life he kept to himself.
His name was James K. Okubo, but everyone called him Jim. He grew up in Bellingham, attended college there until he no longer could and joined the Army from an internment camp a week before his 23rd birthday.
One day last year, I stumbled upon a copy of The Bellingham Herald from 1938 when a picture caught my eye: a Japanese-American teenager, Isamu Kunimatsu, dressed in football pads, hands behind his back. Given what would happen in the next few years after 1938, I wondered what had become of him. And that’s how this story, about an amazingly dedicated and resilient family, started. All quotes and details in the story come from letters, records, newspaper articles and interviews with relatives.
In 1996, Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii sponsored legislation that required the military to review Asian Pacific Americans awarded the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II. He had a specific intention: He wanted to see whether those soldiers should receive the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest distinction. The review found more than 100 names, and from that group, the Army recommended that 21 be upgraded in an elaborate ceremony at the White House.
More on internment
But days before the ceremony, in the summer of 2000, Sen. Akaka heard the story of an unknown medic, a man whose courage initially went undiscovered because he had not been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He had received the Silver Star instead, an even lesser distinction.
It was Jim Okubo.
HE WANTED TO BE a dentist, but by the spring of 1942, he realized that dream would have to wait. His family, along with the rest of Bellingham’s tiny Japanese population, had received orders that soon they would be forced from their homes, leaving behind their businesses, friends and personal possessions.
Jim dropped out of college to prepare. It had to be a devastating decision, because until that point, he had been an above-average student admired by professors, peers and the president of the Western Washington College of Education. He had joined the ski club and the press club at Western, spent summers shucking oysters, and subscribed to Life Magazine. His parents owned a local restaurant, the Sunrise Café, a few blocks from their home, which Jim shared with his siblings, and with cousins his family had raised as their own.
At Western, Jim had developed a close relationship with Ruth Platt, a rosy-cheeked and upbeat professor who taught zoology. Platt had relatives in China, and after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, she and Jim had talked about the “tremendous challenges in store for him.”
The day after Pearl Harbor, The Bellingham Herald described the community as “seething with indignation.” Armed guards patrolled bridges. Watches along the waterfront were doubled.
The campus at Western was subdued, and student journalists wrote in the school paper that it was wrong to “terrorize Japanese in this county, although there would be no harm in ‘watching.’ ” Jim, just a sophomore then, participated in campus discussions and expressed horror at Japan’s attack.
But on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, allowing the military to designate areas in “which any or all persons may be excluded” — the gateway for internment camps. Two days later, Washington Gov. Arthur Langlie declared the state a “protective defense area.” Jim was no longer eligible for the draft.
“It made him realize again the part color is going to play in the war,” Platt later wrote in a letter, “and he was hurt and bewildered.”
In March that year, Platt’s zoology class hosted a dinner, with Jim as the guest of honor. The feast began with what the student paper called a “delicious cocktail” consisting of “nothing but fish eggs with some fancy name attached.” Then came salad with crab legs; cow tongue; breadsticks; and, finally, ice cream with chocolate sauce. Jim also ate shrimp, which he loved.
This being Platt’s quirky zoology class, however, Jim and his classmates quizzed each other in a competition of wit (“Which part of the chicken is of most value to the farmer?”). Jim finished second.
A month later, the class threw an “evacuation party.” Jim handed out gag gifts: blackout paint, a Japanese newspaper and a piece of rubber he predicted would be of great value. To Platt, this was all proof that Jim had kept his “American outlook,” that he hadn’t become bitter.
Two months later, Jim and his family were sent to California on a train, labeled “enemy aliens.” They would never live in Bellingham again.
AT TULE LAKE, Jim worked in the camp hospital. In monthly performance reviews, his supervisors raved about his diligence and inquisitive mind, first as an orderly, then as a nurse.
“James Okubo is a very conscientious worker,” wrote one supervisor. “His work in Ward A has been the best. He is always willing and eager to know new procedures.”
“He takes excellent care of his patients,” wrote another.
Jim made $16 per month and lived with his family in a crowded barracks. His father was a cook. His mother was diabetic and in too much pain to work. In letters of support, white neighbors and business owners from Bellingham called the Okubo family “good friends”; “wonderful neighbors”; and, most complimentary of all, “loyal Americans.” As one longtime neighbor wrote, “I forgot they were Japs.”
At its peak, Tule Lake, in northeastern California, a few miles from the Oregon border, held more than 18,000 people. Each family was given an identification number, as was each individual. Small echoes of home could be found — baseball games, Japanese gardens, poetry readings — but Tule Lake was a prison. Internees protested their pay and treatment, and Tule Lake was the largest and most controversial incarceration camp. Summers were dry and dusty; winter nights were chilly.
In letters to friends and Platt, his favorite professor, Jim put on a happy facade. But the sight of scorpions made him crave shrimp, and he missed Washington’s wet weather.
IN JANUARY 1943, Jim made plans to leave. He intended to take advantage of the newly formed student-leave program and pursue dentistry. He applied and waited.
Jim still worked at the hospital when, in March, his father was admitted there. Kenzo Okubo had battled a cold for a week, but every day he cooked in the camp mess until he couldn’t anymore.
Kenzo had spent his life cooking: on steamships, at the family’s cafe in Bellingham and now at Tule Lake. The doctor who examined Kenzo diagnosed him with bronchopneumonia; the doctor also determined that Kenzo was a chronic alcoholic.
The very next day, Kenzo Okubo died.
At 9:45 p.m. that night, Jim’s mother, Fuyu, was admitted to the hospital. She had keeled over, murmuring about her dead husband, and had a mini-stroke. She did not speak English and relied on her children, including Jim, to communicate.
Something changed with Jim after that night. This chapter of his life is partially lost to history, but what’s clear is that after Jim applied for student leave, the War Relocation Authority, the government agency in charge of internment, mailed letters to Jim’s white references. By May, responses started trickling in.
All the while, Jim worked at the hospital. His mom was readmitted in late April because of severe discomfort in her groin area and remained there after having surgery.
On May 17, on a form explaining his request to leave Tule Lake, Jim wrote, simply, “army volunteer.” Five days later, he enlisted. Eight days after that, he turned 23. And just one day after that, one of Jim’s references, Marjorie Kingsley, a secretary at Western Washington, mailed a glowing letter supporting Jim’s return to college, unaware that he had already left for the service.
“He has indicated that he very much wishes he could be doing something for his country,” Kingsley wrote. “I personally think that he could be doing no greater service than training for medicine. With his aptitude and his personal qualifications, I think he will make a splendid doctor, and we are going to need many of them in the near future. I feel sure that you will not be misplacing your trust in allowing him to leave Tule Lake to study.”
Jim was not alone. His cousin, and de facto brother, Isamu Kunimatsu, also enlisted.
BY THE SUMMER of 1944, much in Jim’s life had changed.
His mom and sisters left Tule Lake and had settled in Detroit, where, outside a modest house, Fuyu Okubo had two service flags displaying five stars: one for each boy in the service. Jim was serving as a medic in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team comprised almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, including his cousin, Isamu.
Everyone called Isamu by his nickname, Eke. In high school, Eke was on the honor roll and played football; a picture of him in pads and uniform had appeared in The Bellingham Herald.
Like Jim, Eke had ambitions. One included owning a chicken farm, an idea sparked by the chickens he raised at Tule Lake. While overseas, Eke wrote to Fuyu Okubo, his aunt and Jim’s mom, who raised him as a son. Eke was a machine-gunner with the 442nd, and he wrote, “Sometimes a machine-gunner’s life isn’t worth three minutes, but you can prove a lot in three minutes.”
He was killed in Italy on July 12, 1944. He was 23.
It took several days for Jim and his family to find out. Jim’s older brothers, Hiram and Sumi, who also served in the 442nd, were devastated.
“Eke died in the service of his country,” Sumi wrote in a letter home to his sister. “A country he loved so much that he was willing to volunteer his very life, that all peoples might live in freedom. Some day, and I hope that day is soon, we will have achieved that goal for which Eke was willing to die. Much as we all sorrow at Eke’s death, we can all be very very proud of Eke, a true American in every way.”
At Sumi’s request, Hiram wrote a letter to The Bellingham Herald while he was training in Mississippi. It appeared under the headline “Loyal American:”
“Since your paper devoted a great deal of space to the Japanese of Bellingham at the time of their evacuation from the city, I thought that you may be interested to know what some of the former Japanese American boys of Bellingham are doing.
“For the most part, these boys are out proving that those Americans who questioned the loyalty of Japanese Americans were wrong.
“The first Japanese American from Bellingham to give his life for the United States is Pvt. Isamu Kunimatsu. Isamu was killed in action on July 12 in Italy. Isamu may be remembered by his Bellingham friends as a football player for Bellingham high school.
“Isamu’s older brother, Cpl. Saburo Kunimatsu, is serving with a military intelligence unit. My brother, Cpl. James Okubo, is a medical aid man. My other brother, Sumi, is now in training as an infantryman in Florida.
“In view of the fact that Pvt. Isamu Kunimatsu gave his life to prove himself a loyal American, would you please devote just a little space for him in his old home town paper?”
T/5 Hiram Okubo,
Camp Shelby, Miss.
After his cousin’s death, in late October, Jim also faced intense combat, in the Foret Domaniale de Champ in Eastern France.
At one point, he crawled 150 yards and got close enough to enemy lines for two grenades to land near him. Jim treated and carried wounded men under machine-gun and rifle fire.
Over two days, Jim treated 25 men. Less than a week later, he ran 75 yards, again under heavy machine-gun fire, and evacuated a wounded soldier from a burning tank, saving his life.
JIM’S REPUTATION AS a medic spread quickly. When his older brothers, Sumi and Hiram, joined him overseas in 1945, Jim’s heroics were passed from soldier to soldier by word-of-mouth.
“The fellows who know him say he’s the best medic in the regiment,” Sumi wrote in a letter home. “He’s had some close calls but that doesn’t seem to bother him. Maybe someday you’ll read about one of the things he did not too long ago, took a lot of guts to do it.”
To Sumi, Jim looked the same. He was still skinny, and he didn’t drink or smoke — a “rarity in a G.I. who has been overseas a year,” Sumi explained to his mother. But Jim had changed in one way.
He had always been affable, and people respected him because he worked hard. But seeing Jim as a battle-tested medic, thousands of miles from home, Sumi admired his brother’s fortitude, his growing confidence.
“From his doing while in action,” Sumi wrote, “doesn’t seem like the Jim of the old days when he was rather shy about such things.”
Sumi was six years older than Jim and the best athlete in the family. Before the war, Sumi had moved to Los Angeles, where he sold produce and got married. When the war began, Sumi and his wife were sent to an internment camp in Arizona, where they had their son — a boy named Kenzo.
In April 1945, 32 days before Germany surrendered, a shell exploded near Sumi in Italy. The doctors amputated the second and third toes of his left foot. He awoke from surgery in a fog and bragged about his brother’s bravery, for which he said he felt silly afterward.
While hospitalized, Sumi heard soldiers talk about a “rugged tough” medic named Jim Okubo. Sumi even heard members of the 442nd tell “hakujin” soldiers — white soldiers — about Jim. Sumi loved to listen, to pretend he didn’t know the medic in the stories. But eventually, he wrote, he would feel “all goose fleshy and warm and proud inside until finally it just comes out, ‘Dat’s my brudder.’ ”
In May, Jim received the Silver Star, the third-highest honor a soldier can receive. Sumi was disappointed but not surprised.
He knew Jim wouldn’t receive the Medal of Honor, not as a Japanese-American medic. Still, he cautiously hoped that Jim would get the Distinguished Service Cross, the military’s second-highest honor.
“But being Nihonjin,” Sumi wrote to his sister, using the Japanese word for Japanese people, “didn’t figure he’d get it.”
IT WAS RARE for Jim to get away from work, but he loved skiing. So he planned a weekend road trip and headed to a ski resort in Michigan with his family.
It was Jan. 29, 1967.
After the war, Jim finished his degree at Wayne State University, then earned his master’s and dental degrees from the University of Detroit. He finally became a dentist. He was a tough but fair professor at the University of Detroit and did pro bono work on the weekends. Every year, he gave his students a “surprise” quiz on Dec. 7. Although he had a sense of humor about it, he did not talk about the war or what he’d done.
On the way to the ski resort, Jim’s young daughter, Anne, sat behind him. He insisted that his children and wife wear seat belts, even though it would be another year before they were required. Just south of Flint, his car hit a patch of ice and slammed into a stalled car on the side of the highway.
The impact killed him. He was 46.
DAYS BEFORE THE White House ceremony, Sen. Akaka needed a political miracle. He’d learned of Jim Okubo at the last minute, leaving just a matter of days to introduce legislation and have Congress and the president sign it. Otherwise, Jim would be excluded again.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded 22 Medals of Honor on the South Lawn of the White House. Each recipient was introduced by name, his citation read aloud. Jim’s widow and children were there, seated among the crowd, learning the full extent of their father’s service. Finally, President Clinton declared, “It is long past time to break the silence about their courage, to put faces and names with the courage, and to honor it by name.”