Share story

He was born the son of an émigré grocer in Southern California, survived a sniper’s bullet during a key battle in the South Pacific, and settled down to raise a family in Seattle.

All the while, prejudice followed Masao Abe, the American-born son of Japanese immigrants, who for much of his life was caught between two worlds.

But for Mr. Abe — a decorated soldier who ultimately received the nation’s highest civilian honor for his service during World War II — bigotry was no match.

“He was a strong man with lots of pride,” Alan Abe, the youngest of Mr. Abe’s three sons, said of his father. “He didn’t want to complain about his pain, racism, whatever. Like a lot of the Nisei vets, that stuff never mattered.”

Mr. Abe, a member of the United States’ secret Military Intelligence Service who decades later received the Congressional Gold Medal, died of natural causes in Issaquah on Aug. 6. He was 96.

He was born in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1916. His Japanese-born father had immigrated to the Los Angeles suburb in his teens, then later started a grocery and a family. When he was 7, Mr. Abe’s parents sent him to Japan for schooling.

“He’s considered Nisei, or second-generation Japanese,” said Patrick Abe, Mr. Abe’s oldest son. “But over there, he’s really Kibei.”

The term — used to describe children of expatriates sent to Japan to be educated — literally translates to “go home to America.”

When he arrived in Japan, Mr. Abe “didn’t know any Japanese or really anything about (the country),” said Sandie Vea, a girlfriend of Mr. Abe’s son Alan. “It was a bit shocking for him.”

Mr. Abe learned the language, finished high school and later returned to work at the family grocery. In September 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army — three months before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

He joined about 300 other Nisei soldiers for basic training at Camp Grant, near Chicago, before transferring to Camp Robinson, Ark., to work as a hospital orderly.

While stationed there, President Franklin Roosevelt toured the camp, and Mr. Abe and other Nisei soldiers “were told to hide so he wouldn’t see us,” Mr. Abe told The Seattle Times in a 1979 story about his military career.

“When we’d go to town on leave, the people would ask our nationality,
and we’d smile and say, ‘Oh, we’re Indians from California.’ ”

He later went to Camp Savage, Minn., enrolling in the Military Intelligence Service Language School to study Japanese, military tactics and interrogation techniques.

Eventually assigned to the 81st Infantry, 321st Regiment, Mr. Abe was sent to the South Pacific. His division was among the first wave of U.S. soldiers to land at the Palauan island of Anguar during a September 1944 assault on Japanese forces.

About a week later, his division was sent to Pelelieu, a small coral island nearby, to help the Marines try to capture a cherished Pacific airstrip. Under heavy fire, Mr. Abe later recalled, he hiked to caves to flush out Japanese. He’d then interrogate Japanese prisoners to gather intelligence. Meanwhile, two bodyguards were assigned to protect him not only from the Japanese, but from his fellow Americans.

“There was a lot of mistrust,” said Vea, who interviewed Mr. Abe extensively for a book she is planning. “The Japanese knew these MIS guys were embedded in the Army and working intelligence. But our guys didn’t really know who they were.”

Hours before Mr. Abe’s outfit was set to be evacuated from Pelelieu, he agreed to fill in for one of his Nisei buddies scheduled to make one last trip to the front lines.

While ascending to a cave, a sniper’s bullet caught him near his groin. The combat injury would earn Mr. Abe a Purple Heart, but it wasn’t his ticket home. As an interpreter, he’d become too valuable. Three months later, he was sent back to the front lines on Leyte, in the Philippines. While he was there, the war ended.

He finished his military career in Tokyo, censoring sensitive dispatches during the American occupation. He later used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend aviation-mechanics school and took a job for Pan American Airways in Honolulu. In 1953, he moved his wife, Doris, and three sons, Patrick, Michael and Alan, to Seattle.

Mr. Abe told The Times he initially found “nobody would sell or rent to my family because of our nationality.” A Japanese realtor ultimately found them a rundown Central District apartment.

Years later, with Mr. Abe working as a Pan Am crew chief inspecting Boeing aircraft and his wife a Seattle schools employee, the family lived in a spacious home in Rainier Beach. He grew to love the Northwest, as an avid salmon fisherman, mushroom hunter and skier.

His military career earned him a cluster of awards, including two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. But it took nearly seven decades before he received full recognition for his service. In 2012, he and hundreds of Nisei soldiers received the Congressional Gold Medal — the nation’s highest civilian award.

“He was proud to receive it,” Patrick Abe said. “It was important for all of them to get recognition after all those years.”

Mr. Abe’s family plans to inter his remains alongside his wife, Doris, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu

Lewis Kamb: or (206) 464-2932. Twitter: @lewiskamb