Genesis of the Japanese American Viet Nam Memorial
Genesis of the Japanese American Viet Nam Memorial by Judge Vincent Okamoto (reprinted from the Japanese American Historical Society Journal, 2001)
The Japanese American National War Memorial Court is the only location in the country that honors by name the almost 1200 Americans of Japanese Ancestry who gave their lives in service to America. The four walls honor WWII, The Korean War, the Vietnam War and one honoring the Spanish American War and more recent conflicts in Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan. The walls were built at different times by different groups with the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial built first in 1995 followed by the Korean War Memorial in 1997, WWII in 2000 and the Spanish American War/Grenada/Gulf War in 2005. Together it is known as the Japanese American National War Memorial Court. Website address is: memorialcourtalliance.org
Judge Vincent H Okamoto, a recipient of the AVC’s Joe Ronnie Hooper Award, was the inspiration and driving force behind the building of the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The story of that journey, in his words, is below, written before his passing in September, 2020.
THE VIETNAM WAR:
Vietnam was America’s longest and most controversial war. It divided the nation like nothing since the Civil War. It sent over 2.7 million young Americans to fight in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. More than 58,000 Americans died there. Over 300,000 were wounded. Nearly 30,000 Americans left the United States to avoid military service and went into self-imposed exile in Canada and Sweden. Over 25,000 Americans refused induction into the armed forces and faced federal prison rather than participate in what they felt was an immoral war. Vietnam toppled the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson and revived the political fortunes of Richard Nixon who won the Presidential election of 1968 claiming he had a “Secret plan” to end the war with honor. The War was hotly debated in the halts of Congress, engendered protests on the campus of colleges and universities, and violence in the streets across America.
Americans of Japanese ancestry stood on both sides of the controversy. Many Sansei, 3d generation Japanese Americans, especially college students marched and protested against the War while others volunteered or were conscripted for duty in Vietnam.
Approximately 4000-5000 Americans of Japanese ancestry served in Vietnam. Their average age was 20 years. Nearly all were high school graduates who had at least one year of college prior to entering the military. The majority were from California or Hawaii. Many had fathers, uncles or older brothers who had served in World War II with the 100′ Battalion, or the 442d Regimental Combat Team or the Military Intelligence Service, or fought in the Korean War. Two Japanese Americans Terry Kawamura and Rodney Yano won posthumous Medals of Honor in Vietnam. Four Japanese Americans were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
In Vietnam Japanese Americans shared the hardships and dangers of combat along side their White, Black and Hispanic comrades. They experienced the frustrations of not being able to distinguish friend from the enemy. But Japanese American soldiers faced an additional occupational hazard that other Americans did not…they looked like the enemy. Often firefights took place in dense jungle terrain where visibility was extremely limited. In the heat and confusion of battle a white soldier from Iowa or a Black trooper from Alabama who had never personally known a Japanese American in his life might see an Asian face behind a hedgerow and start shooting.
This problem especially manifested itself at night or when new replacements came into the unit or working with different units who didn’t know there were Asian Americans in the company. It was not advisable for a Japanese American to take a shower or bathe in the field unless other non-Asians were with him. To a trigger–happy gunship pilot or a grunt-short-timer a 3rd generation Japanese American from Maui or Gardena, California was just another naked “Gook” and fair game.
Looking like the enemy posed another problem for JAs, this one psychological. The Viet Cong included in their ranks women, old folks and children. The people who were trying to kill them and whom they in turn were killing often resembled their families in America. It made more difficult what was an already lousy job.
Those who survived returned to a nation divided and frustrated over the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. Many Americans come to blame the War on the warriors. Instead of parades, bands and welcome home speeches they met cold indifference or overt hostility. Anti-war zealots shouted obscenities at them, called them baby–killer and drug addict. No one seemed to care what the veterans had seen or done. No one was interested in what they had to say. There were no politicians to speak for them. In the ten years of the War, not one U.S. Senator’s son, not one U.S. Representative’s son died in Vietnam. The GI Bill benefits for the returning Vietnam veterans were materially inferior compared to what the government provided the veterans of WW II and Korea.
Even family members and friends seemed to treat the veterans with an embarrassed silence. So many Vietnam veterans responded to America’s silence with a silence of their own. They took off their uniforms as quickly as they could. They buried their medals in the bottom of a drawer and tried not to think about the most momentous experience of their lives. They tried to repress the memories of Vietnam the same way America tried to ignore them.
But in 1982 with the erecting of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC veterans singly and in groups began to stand up and speak their minds. And America began to listen. Books and films on Vietnam became popular. The memorial or “the Wall” became one of the most visited monuments in our nation’s capital. Its dignified, simplistic design listing the names of over 58,000 Americans that perished in Vietnam became a place of healing. Several Japanese American Vietnam veterans who visited the Wall wanted to replicate that sense of closure and healing for the JA veterans.
GENESIS OF THE JAPANESE AMERICAN MEMORIAL:
In the summer of 1987 a group of JA Vietnam veterans met in Los Angeles, California and formed the Japanese American Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Committee to erect a memorial to honor the Americans of Japanese descent who fought and died in Vietnam or were still listed as MIA, missing in action. The initial group consisted of Duane Ebata, Gary Hayakawa, Ken Hayashi, Dennis Ishiki, Victor Kato, Dave Kobyashi, Lance Matsushita, Mike Nagaoka, Mel Nakashima, Vince Okamoto, Tom Okamura, Ed Sakihama, and George Tanaka.
Enlisting the aid of other JA Vietnam veterans they organized a joint fund-raising dinner with KEIRO Health Services and CEO Edwin Hiroto. The event held on June 2, 1988 at the Bonaventure Hotel was a smashing success. Over 900 guests turned out to honor and support the Japanese American Vietnam veterans. Armed with the funds generated by the dinner the committee set out to compile a list of the Japanese Americans KIA and MIA in Vietnam, It proved to be a daunting task.
Unlike World War II, the U.S. military had been racially integrated by the time of the Vietnam War. Consequently, there was no definitive list of Japanese Americans who served in Southeast Asia during the War. In the 1960s a soldier’s dog tags or ID discs listed his racial origin as: “Caucasian, Negro, Mongoloid” or “Other.” The committee members contacted the Pentagon in Washington DC, the Military Personnel Center at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and the Casualty Resolution Center in Hawaii to obtain a listing of Japanese American KIAs, but the information provided was woefully incomplete or inaccurate. Some names that were of obvious Japanese derivation were listed under “Other” or “Indonesian” even “Eskimo” as well as “Asian.”
Finally, in 1988 the Committee purchased a dozen copies of the booklet from the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC which listed all the Americans who died in Vietnam and began the pain-staking task of underscoring all Japanese names. The committee placed ads in local Japanese vernacular newspapers on the west coast, Hawaii and Chicago, but received only a tepid response. Many of the KIA were “Hapa,” soldiers of mixed blood. Many had non-Japanese names making it impossible to determine if they were of Japanese ancestry.
Because of this inherent inability to determine the Hapa soldiers the committee decided to limit the names on the memorial to those of Japanese surnames. It was a hard decision. The committee was contacted by a woman whose grandson was a quarter Japanese and asked that be listed on the memorial. It was felt that a consistent policy had to be maintained rather than including some while inadvertently omitting others. Based on the Japanese surnames taken from the memorial in Washington DC the committee came up with 99 Japanese American KIA and 14 MIA from the Vietnam War.
Having compiled a list of names the committee began searching for a suitable location to build the memorial. This also proved to be a formidable task. Confronted by bureaucratic red tape, and residual controversy surrounding the Vietnam War it took nearly seven years to find a home for the memorial. It was the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center of Los Angeles that came to the rescue of the Vietnam veterans. Under then president Min Tonai the JACCC allowed the memorial to be erected on the west side of their property at 244 S. San Pedro street, appropriately in the heart of Little Tokyo. For their generosity and support the Japanese Americans Vietnam veterans will always be grateful.
On Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1995 the Japanese American Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was formally dedicated. It replicates the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC, and consists of three black granite panels etched with the names of 116 Americans of Japanese ancestry KIA and MIA in the Vietnam War. At the base of the memorial is inscribed:
“Due to the inability to verify all those of Japanese ancestry only those with Japanese surnames are represented on this monument. The rest remain forever etched in our hearts.”
Today the memorial stands as a remembrance to honor those who perished in Vietnam. It provides a tranquil place where families and friends can came to remember what was and what might have been. It is a place where veterans can come and commune with their fallen friends. It is a testament to self-sacrifice, loyalty and courage and a reminder to the people and government of this nation that Americans of Japanese ancestry, as in prior conflicts, answered the call to duty and gave their life’s blood in the Vietnam War.