Akira Horiuchi: A Reluctant Hero's Journey to the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony

"To be drafted by the Government, to serve your country in time of war under such conditions that existed at that time, incarceration of all persons from the west coast with the wrong color face by abrogating all constitutional rights, racist discrimination wherever you went…left me quite apprehensive about my future."
—Aki Horiuchi, testimony to the 1981 Los Angeles Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians

Of the three hundred and thirty-three Japanese American veterans of World War II that convened in Washington DC last November 2011, Aki Horiuchi felt that he "wasn't like some of the guys who were in before me while the fighting was still going on". In fact, his personal journey to the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony to recognize the more than 30,000 Japanese American World War II veterans was peppered with small doubts and memories of a war that had cost him so much. He was eighteen years old when he was drafted into the Army- a mere two weeks after he had graduated from high school in Utah, and served in occupied Japan as a translator for the Military Intelligence Service. Having served his time in the Army, combat or not, Horiuchi qualified to partake in the prestigious award ceremony held in the nation's capital. For the first time in more than sixty years spent in a quiet, humble life, Horiuchi stepped into the national spotlight, even if just for a moment, wielding this triumph for the veterans with a humility and shoulder shrugging that almost suggests that he had nothing to do with the World War II quandary that has transformed every American of Japanese descent.

"Spry" was the word my father, Donald Wakida, used to describe 84-year-old Aki Horiuchi, upon meeting for the first time in Visalia, California. Wakida and Horiuchi were paired together as a part of the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit based in Virginia, whose mission is 'to transport America's veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.' Out of the over 300 veterans who attended the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in DC, 156 were transported by Honor Flight on Southwest Airlines, with approximately 100 volunteer "guardians" who traveled with the veterans as their personal escorts. Torrance-based National Veterans Network (NVN) first approached the Honor Flight program about the possibility of hosting the Nisei veterans very early on; before it was known what day, or even which month the ceremony would be held in. Once Honor Flight accepted the request, NVN appointed an Honor Flight Coordinator for each geographic region to contact veterans and coordinate efforts. According to recent statistics posted on the Honor Flight Network website, the nation is losing WWII veterans at the rate of approximately 900 per day, so in response, Honor Flight Network does whatever it can to fulfill the dreams of WWII veterans to travel to national memorials honoring our military, absolutely free. Even with the offer from Honor Flight, Horiuchi still hesitated.

It took the efforts of brother Edward Horiuchi, who lives in Chicago and is a Korean War vet to convince Aki to fill out the necessary forms and book an actual ticket. My father, who is in fact a Vietnam vet, had never met Aki before, but he took his responsibility dead seriously; emailing travel plans to him repeatedly and enthusiastically.

I was one of many family members who were at the Los Angeles International Airport at 5 a.m., but sure enough we were "cutting it pretty close" according to Nisei earlybird standards. Aki had already been at the airport two hours ahead of us. As his Honor Flight escort, my dad's responsibility was to treat the war heroes as if they are family and ensure that the veteran he is in charge with had a safe and rewarding experience. As it turned out, Aki needed absolutely no escort whatsoever—he turned out to be so splendidly in shape and had planned to meet his brother in DC where they spent the bulk of the trip touring together, which meant my dad was pretty much free to haul around 5 lb bags of almonds and pistachios from the Central Valley and socialize with buddies he'd met at annual Friends and Family of the Nisei Veterans reunions held in Las Vegas. Still, since my father boarded the plane before Aki, he reserved a seat for him right up in front, which meant that Horiuchi was the very first veteran to deplane in Chicago where they changed planes. At every junction, Nisei were met with enthusiastic greeters donning green t-shirts, lining both sides of the gate, a sight our hesitant hero wasn't entirely prepared for. When a gentleman gently stopped Horiuchi and asked him, "442?" Aki admitted that he just flushed through as fast as he could and said no, rushing past the brou-haha. It was no better for him in Baltimore, where a cluster of bearded veterans (Horiuchi guessed they might be Vietnam veterans) awaited to cheer on the Nisei envoy. "I took one look at this and took a breath… Oh boy, here we go."

"You fought World War II on two fronts," Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California reminded the veterans at the ceremony, quoting former President Harry Truman. "You fought not only your enemy; you fought prejudice, and you won." Senator Boxer and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, were primary forces in pushing the Senate version of the bill forward in early 2011, granting the Congressional Gold Medal in the House of Representatives. However, upon first hearing about the ceremony in Washington DC, Horiuchi didn't bother with ideas of participating. "I wasn’t in combat," he insisted. By the time I was in the MIS, the war was over so, I just forgot about it."

Despite his personal misgivings, Horiuchi's contribution to the war effort cannot be underestimated; he was one of more than 5,000 Nisei who were recruited and specially trained to serve as an US military linguist, before, during and after WWII. Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers on August 14, 1945, thereby ending the war and changing the Army's strategic application of much needed Japanese American interpreters. In addition to keeping a lower public profile due to the nature of their intelligence work, the Military Intelligence Service interpreters who were involved in every aspect of the post-WWII occupation and reconstruction of Japan, might be perceived as less essential to the story of the heroic Nisei soldier, simply since they were no longer in the line of fire. However, the MIS were an essential piece of the US occupation of Japan, playing a significant role in facilitating repatriation, war tribunal, and counter intelligence functions, and immediately following surrender, they were among the first Americans to land in Japan. With their linguistic skills and cultural understanding, the MIS served as a vital link between the US General MacArthur's headquarters and the citizens and government of Japan, helping to implement a peaceful transition to a democratic Japan and cementing a postwar alliance between the two countries.

Akira Horiuchi was born and raised in Southern California. In the pre-war years, his father ran a small fruit stand on the Westside of town, and then picked up work as a truck driver hauling vegetables from farmers to the produce market on 9th street. On December 7, 1941, Horiuchi's father went to visit friends who lived and worked on Terminal Island, San Pedro. Unfortunately, immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, certain businesses and districts along the West Coast came under high security, including Terminal Island, which was suspect for its fishing industry. Before he knew it, Horiuchi's father had been swept up in a wholesale arrest of all Issei and was imprisoned in a local jail, unable to communicate with his family or come home for four to five days.

In March 1942, the first of 108 civilian exclusion orders was issued by the US Army, resulting in the forced removal of forty-five families off of Bainbridge Island near Seattle. By the end of the March, the Army issued Public Proclamation No. 4 prohibiting the changing of residence for all in Military Area No. 1, effectively ending the "voluntary evacuation", when Japanese families could technically leave the government designated military zones in California, Oregon, and Washington, and try to eke out a life in the mountain states, the Midwest or East Coast. Shaken by his experience with the FBI, Horiuchi's father and mother could not interpret the possible meaning of the evacuation into relocation camps that the government were then promising for Japanese Americans living in Military Zone No. 1. So they packed up the paternal grandmother and the seven children into a single two-door automobile and "voluntarily evacuated" to Utah, accompanied by an uncle and niece living in Sawtelle and a family friend living in the San Fernando Valley.

They lived as sharecroppers for the next three years, moving on an average once a year, in search of more favorable conditions, but without much success. Sharecropping work included day and night irrigation, loading cow manure, harvesting tomatoes, sugar beets, fruit, potatoes, beans and working in the cannery when the harvesting season was over. The first year, the family lived in a two-room house in Layton, Utah with only a wood burning stove and kerosene lamps for cooking, heating and light to study by and no running water or electricity. With no beds to sleep in, they put mattresses on the floor and withstood torturous bedbug infestations. Accustomed to city life in California, the Horiuchi children were wholly unprepared for primitive rural living and in extreme weather conditions. As a result, one of the younger children died in an accident while the rest of the family was working in the fields. Months later, they would also lose their mother. After delivering seven children at home with the assistance of a midwife, she agreed to go to an American hospital, where she developed complications and died giving birth her youngest daughter, who never had a chance to meet her mother.

Just before graduation from Layton High School in 1945, Aki Horiuchi received his draft notification to report for induction as soon as school was over. When he received notification, he was both glad and fearful to get out of the slave labor conditions of sharecropping conditions forced upon him and his family, as a result of EO9066. Despite the forced exile and persisting racism he and his family, he willingly went to basic training with over 11,000 other young men to prepare for serving his country at war. "Just before I finished training in Ft. Hood, Texas, they gave the Buddhahead kids a test to see if we knew any Japanese. There were about a half a dozen Japanese in our company, and for the first time in my life, I met Nisei from Hawaii. Then they picked certain ones who got sent to Ft. Snelling in Minnesota."

Aki was one of them. Before the war, the Horiuchi children lived with their Issei grandmother and parents, which required them to speak Japanese at home all the time. In addition, he regularly attended Dainin Gakuen Japanese Language School, which was about a mile away from his regular public school. His proficiency in the Japanese language qualified him for further military training at a top-secret Army program known as the Military Intelligence Service. In 1941, as war between the US and Japan began to seem inevitable, a few members of the US War Department foresaw the need for qualified Japanese interpreters. Assuming that qualified linguists could easily be identified within the 3,700 Nisei serving in the US military, initial recruiters were dismayed to find that the Nisei were “more American than Japanese” and that only about 10% were potential candidates for the language program.

Horiuchi also chose to continue his training at the MIS school at Fort Snelling outside Minneapolis, since his family had relocated by then to St. Paul, Minnesota, and the proximity allowed him to visit his widowed father every weekend. By 1943, his oldest sister had found work as an Army secretary to MIS commandant, Captain Kai Rasmussen, and once she had settled in she called the rest of the family to come to Minnesota. In early 1946 Horiuchi's class of MIS graduates made their way to Seattle, where they sailed on a small liberty ship for Japan, which was now under supervision of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. According to Horiuchi, half of the ship's passengers were Japanese Americans who were expatriating and repatriating to Japan from the Tule Lake Segregation Camps in northern California. As a result, this forlorn group of about 100 Issei and Nisei were treated as prisoners, and in the supreme tragic twist of fate, the Nisei soldiers, specially trained by the government were forced to stand guard over their own community of Japanese Americans for eight hours at a time over the ten day trip to Japan. They were forbidden to speak a single word to the expatriates.

The ship landed at the Camp Zama Army Base, and that is when the realization that Japan had lost the war hit the men. "If you went to Tokyo, the main train station were bombed out. They hadn’t started fixing anything yet, buses weren’t running on gasoline but ran on a woodburning stove. The streets were crowded with a lot of horses and carts and everybody you met was hungry and had no clothes." The MIS interpreters were quickly integrated into the Tokyo Kanagawa military government, stationed in Yokohama to help in the monumental task of rebuilding Japan. "Early every morning, five days a week, we reported in front of the Kensho building in Yokohama. All of the different outfits in our general area would call our office and say 'We need 10 electricians, carpenters, skilled workers, plumbers for today.' An everyday, about 3-400 guys lined up before us, all wanting work. None of them spoke any English."

Most remarkable the role that the MIS translators played in building trust and empathy between the US and Japan on a human level; in most cases, the Japanese were astonished to encounter bi-lingual Americans of Japanese descent, and had mixed feelings about how to interpret the Nisei. "A lot of guys didn’t like Nisei guys cause they were going out with girls and acted like big shots. You had to be careful about where you went and not to stray too far from where other people were hanging around. On the other hand, you could also just go to someone’s house and borrow a yukata and geta, change out of your Army uniform, and noone would know that we were Americans." The entire MIS company lived in a small three-story building, waited on by maids who cleaned their rooms, and waitresses who served their meals in the downstairs canteen. Horiuchi remembers that they had a barber in the billet and use of a jeep for assignments that were up to a half a mile away. Horiuchi had never been to Japan before, so when he got leave, he got on a train and went to visit his parents' relatives in Fukuoka, where he added poignancy to his experience in Occupied Japan. "Whew, I had a hard time out in the country. In the bathroom you don’t sit, you squat. I took with me all the canned goods I could carry, and stopped at the PX and bought some doughnuts and stuff like that. They were so happy to get food." In total, his time in Japan was less than a year, and he came home in early 1947.

Upon returning to the United States following service in the MIS, he chose to stay in the Midwest after the trauma of their removal from the West Coast, like many Japanese Americans who once claimed California, Oregon, and Washington as their homes. Horiuchi stayed a decade. He graduated from pharmacy school, got married, and started a family— all in Chicago, where life seemed fresher, with fewer memories for good or for bad. As evidence that the Japanese communities were slowly rebuilding grew, in 1960 Horiuchi made the decision to move back to where he grew up, in the Los Angeles neighborhood bordered by Vermont and Western, on Olympic. He found work in his new profession in Beverly Hills for a year before settling down in Torrance, California. Eventually he and his wife had relocated to Oceanside, but soon after retirement, they considered another move to a drier climate for their health and subsequently moved to the Central Valley, which is how he was ultimately paired up with my father, who lives in Fresno, as his Honor Flight escort, bringing our two families together in this unexpected way.

Sadly, Horiuchi was not reunited with any of his wartime buddies who served in occupied Tokyo, despite his attempts to seek out familiar names and faces and the list of friends he had jotted down on a paper he carried in his pocket throughout the week.
Soon after both of our fathers returned to California, I spoke to Horiuchi's daughter Akemi, who also lives in Los Angeles. According to Akemi, her father rarely ever told her of his life during the war, and had surprised the family in 1981 by testifying for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. It was the first time she had ever heard him openly speak about what had happened to him and his family as a consequence of the forced removal and their harrowing years in Utah. But this trip had changed some things in him and the pleasure of the ceremony and the long-neglected recognition of the Nisei soldier's services and sacrifice couldn't be denied.

"When he got home, he showed me the gold medal. Its really big and really heavy. He didn’t seem embarrassed, as he was before. Going into Congress was an incredible experience for him— seeing the White House, meeting Senator Inouye. I imagine it would almost be overwhelming, knowing how far things have come for someone with these memories and war experiences. He described it as a trip of a lifetime and had no regrets."