I just returned from a memorial service of a man I’ve never met. He was a distant relative of my elderly father-in-law who would not have been able to go if I hadn’t taken him.
The deceased was born in 1918. When he was in school his class took a bus on a field trip to a public pool to go swimming. When they arrived, he and another boy were told they couldn’t go swimming and had to stay on the bus the whole time while all of the rest of the students got to go swimming. They had committed a terrible crime. They’d neglected to be born white.
He was dirt poor. So poor he had to drop out of school to help support his family. He didn’t get to go to high school until he was 21–a freshman in a class full of 14 year olds.
He joined the Army six months before Pearl Harbor was attacked. When the war began he joined a secret unit called MIS, an intelligence group that was never mentioned in the news throughout the whole war and for a quarter of a century later. Ultimately it was credited with helping to save a million American lives and end the war two years sooner.
He served as an interpreter and interrogator to many Japanese POW’s during the war, and then war criminals after Japan surrendered. He interrogated and interpreted for Tojo, Japan’s Prime Minister and top war leader, and for the Japanese General who was in charge of the atrocities that occurred during the Bataan Death March.
For his wartime efforts, weeks before his death at the age of 94 he (and other remaining survivors of MIS) received the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest award for civilians and joining the ranks of fellow recipients George Washington, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King.
I just returned from a memorial service of a man I’ve never met, but wish I had.
Walter Tanaka, thank you for your service and the legacy you left behind.