The Post-it note on the front of the book read, “Just a personal story of an ordinary person, not a war hero,” and it was signed simply, “Bob.” I had just met Korean War veteran Robert M. Wada at the Kazuo Masuda Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3670 57th annual Installation Banquet Awards Dinner, and I couldn’t wait to open up his published memoir.
They say that all Japanese Americans somehow know one another — or may even be related to one another — and our chance meeting proved just that. It turned out that Bob Wada lived on the same block as my family in Poston (Block 30), and he even had a crush on my older sister while in camp. Even more coincidentally, he grew up in Redlands right next door to the family of someone who I now consider one of my best friends (and running partner), Meg Kanatani, whose father George served in the 442nd along with Bob’s two brothers, Ted and Frank.
When I spoke to Bob about these fluky connections, he didn’t seem at all surprised. One of the good things that happened in camp, according to Bob, was that Japanese Americans were united and got to know each other, and those relationships would remain to this day. Even though he now lived in Fullerton, there was no end to the list of our mutual acquaintances.
As fascinating as Bob’s book was about camp, it also conveyed the hardship and heartbreak of serving in a war that called Japanese Americans once again to prove their loyalty to their country. Perhaps because it was written by a survivor whose two uncles were decorated soldiers in the 442nd, perhaps because it was written in such plain and simple prose, or perhaps it was because Bob was more open than I’ve known JAs to be, his memoir made me stop and think.
With attention now finally being given to the rapidly disappearing WWII Congressional Gold Medal awardees, it’s easy to forget about the equally self-sacrificing Korean War veterans. A civil conflict fought by a country divided within itself, it has been aptly named the Forgotten War, yet more than 33,000 U.S. troops were killed in Korea. Among them was Bob Wada’s best childhood friend, Robert B. Madrid.
The book is in many ways a loving tribute to the friend Wada knew from the time he was in kindergarten. Now, 65 years since Madrid’s death, Wada still lives with the torment of knowing that he was the one who asked his close friend to enlist alongside him, which Madrid did without giving a second thought. He also lives with the guilt that he could have faced the same demise had it not been for a strange twist of fate (which I will not go into here lest I spoil the book).
Looking back at a life “From Internment to Korea to Solitude” (the book’s title), Bob bares his soul and reminds us that war is not for sissies. Going through basic training, being subjected to cruel and usual punishment, having to spend hours in a confined tank with men throwing up around him, and seeing both friends and enemies killed were things he described with brutal detail and self-revelation. Still suffering from nightmares from his war experience, Bob talks with gut-wrenching sadness about watching others getting killed, and how he could only imagine the tragic impact their deaths would have on their families — be they Korean or American.
Being a Marine has had a lifetime impact on this man whose camp and war experiences continue to shape his life and work. His contributions to veteran organizations are countless, including being the chairman of the Japanese American Korean War Veterans organization that was responsible for erecting the Korean War Memorial in Little Tokyo, as well as a similar memorial in Seoul, Korea. An active member of the Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670, Bob and his fellow veterans have supported young people through their senior awards program and youth athletic program for many years.
In 1963, Wada founded and served as the charter president of the South East Youth Organization (SEYO), whose JA athletic teams have grown to include more than 1,100 youth today, and whose young people are among those who were the recipients of the VFW Post award. In addition to his too-many-to-mention extracurricular activities, Wada is a highly successful land surveyor whose company holds the distinct honor of being a Disabled Veteran Business Enterprise.
Bob’s modesty belies his courage and outspokenness as a real leader in our community, and his book is a must-read for anyone who would like to know more about what it really means to be a camp and Korean War survivor — both first-hand accounts we desperately need to know and remember. Fortunately, it is still available in paperback at Amazon.com. Maybe if you’re lucky and just happen to run into Bob in Fullerton, he’ll even sign a copy for you.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.