The following is a short story based on a conversation I had with my late stepdad, Thomas Watanuki, about his experiences from the coastal hills of Orange County, to the Concentration Camps in Montana and Utah, to the march on Messina. A sad postscript, Thomas' elderly father died in Camp while Thomas was overseas...
26 April 1923 - 27 July 2012
The Four Forty Second
"A Jap's a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not. I don't want any of them . Racial affiliations are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second - and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted."
"It was a time when some of us had to take extraordinary steps when our Constitution did not require it, to prove to our neighbors that we were worthy of being called Americans. The price was very heavy. There was much blood that had to be shed. But looking back, I can say with pride that I was part of it."
Thomas Matsui hadn't slept for almost 46 hours. The Italians had long stopped the fight, but the Nazis kept at it. Mortar shells exploded nearby with a frightening consistency. The rocky Italian hillside bucked and rolled with each explosion.
Battle has an uncanny affect on a soldier; it becomes a kind of tedium. The first month of a soldier's battle is the worst, it all being so new. The mortality rate is highest during that first month. After six months, with bombs exploding around the battlement, a soldier will daydream.
Thomas Matsui thought of his family's orange and avocado orchards rustling in the warm coastal breeze. He thought of the smell of his mother cooking rice in the farmhouse just above Pacific Coast Highway near Balboa. He conjured his father in the workshop, standing at the grinding wheel, sharpening the tools.
Those were daydreams that made the tedium of battle tolerable. But Thomas Matsui had other daydreams that were not so idyllic.
He saw his parents crestfallen from the notice tacked on the farmhouse. Civilian Exclusion Order Number 33 gave only two days to sell the farm before the Military evacuated them to the camp in Montana. He remembered the offer that came from The Irvine Company later that day. Mere pennies on the dollar for what the farm was worth.
He remembered the drive to the Civilian Control Station in Los Angeles, his mother crying the whole thirty miles. Twenty years growing avocados and oranges; all gone in a day. Twenty years and all the possessions acquired; gone in a day. Only allowed bedding and linens, some kitchen utensils and clothes; twenty years of Thomas Matsui's life was spent on that farm. He was born there. It was lost in a day.
The Nazis increased the frequency of the mortar attack and shook Thomas Matsui out of his reverie. He knew Marines on the other end of the hillside were getting the brunt of the bombing. The Four Forty Second though, were well hid and dug in. Soon the bombing would cease and the real battle would commence. There would be no time to daydream then.
Thomas Matsui chuckled at the memory of the military recruiter who came to his camp that Thursday in June. How fresh-faced and upright he was; the perfect embodiment of American righteousness. Thomas and his family had been at the camp for a month and life was a brutal series of bad weather and racist guards. The chance to escape that prison, with the hopeful promise of making his parent's life easier was too great to pass up. If he fought hard and patriotically, maybe the war would end sooner and his parents would no longer be incarcerated.
But the farm and all they had was lost. No, not really lost; in effect stolen. But that did not matter any longer. He wanted this war to end so his parents would not suffer any more.
The mortar attack suddenly stopped. Thomas Matsui shouldered his rifle and aimed down the hillside.
The real battle was about to begin.