Just months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Tanikawa family lost everything. Gone were their belongings, their California house and their citizenship — all because they were Nisei, or of Japanese ancestry.
Their new home was an internment camp.
Life in captivity was rough for the Japanese-American family, but they managed. The head of their household, John Tanikawa, a decorated World War I veteran, was again drafted to serve in the military, away from his wife and four children.
He served in the Pacific Theater as a translator for the Military Intelligence Service, alongside more than 6,000 Japanese-American soldiers. His unit recently received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest possible civilian award, for their efforts — 65 years after World War II ended.
“It’s long overdue,” said grandson Eric Tanikawa of Florence. “I wish my grandfather and father were here to see this.”
Eric called his family’s past an “unfortunate history” that must be remembered. The 50-year-old will talk about his grandfather and family today at noon during the local Kiwanis meeting at the Elks Lodge.
His grandparents, along with his father and three aunts, lived in the Sacramento area when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Because of their Japanese ancestry, the family was uprooted and lost most of their possessions.
While Eric’s grandfather was recalled to active duty, the rest of the family bounced from one internment camp to another, beginning at Tule Lake, Calif., and ending in Camp Amache, Colo. His father, James, was only 12 years old at the time.
“Each camp had to be self-sustaining,” Eric explained. “Families lived in a horse stall-style area and grew their own vegetables and garden and livestock. They built their own churches. They tried to make everything seem as normal as possible.”
Internees provided the labor to operate the camps, including running the mess halls, growing crops, raising livestock, teaching schoolchildren and organizing church activities and baseball games.
Families lived in barracks measuring 20-by-100 feet, with most divided into four apartments. Meals in the camps contained meager portions of fruits and vegetables that were cultivated on the land.
Though living conditions were difficult, Eric said his grandfather believed his family was safer in the internment camps than being in the public eye during the war waged against Japan and Germany.
“He believed it was safer for them to be in an internment camp instead of being out in public, where they might be hated or have rocks thrown at them,” he said.
While in the Military Intelligence Service, his grandfather and fellow soldiers conducted highly classified operations that included intercepting radio transmissions, translating enemy documents and interrogating enemy prisoners.
Their work proved to be vital to the nation’s success in the war.
“What they did with all this, they shortened the war by at least two years. It was an incredible amount of work,” Eric said.
In 2010, the United States Congress granted a Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the Nisei soldiers of the Military Intelligence Service, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team for their valor during World War II.
They are only the 147th recipient of this top civilian honor.
A national ceremony in Washington, D.C., was held last November for more than 1,500 Japanese-American representatives, including soldiers, widows and family members associated with the three U.S. Army units, to receive the medal.
In February, Eric and his sister, Metta, helped sponsor a regional ceremony in Portland honoring local representatives. Both attended the event in honor of their grandfather, who died in 1977.
The single, original gold medal, featuring each unit’s insignia, will be permanently displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., after a regional tour. Bronze replicas of the medal were available for keepsakes.
Eric plans to put his grandfather’s medal and other historical items on display at the Oregon Coast Military Heritage Museum, which is currently under construction, in Florence to preserve the memory of his family’s adversity.
“I’m proud of my grandfather, and I’m proud of my father for what he had to go through,” he said. “Both of them had to endure war, which is never a positive thing. A lot of men lost their lives.”
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