By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Shig Yabu was 9 years old and living in San Francisco when his family received notice that they were to be shipped to a concentration camp with only what they could carry.
Pets were not allowed, so he had to give his dog, canary, turtle and goldfish to a Caucasian friend. But while living at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, he and his friends knocked a nest out of a tree and found a baby bird inside. Feeling guilty for disturbing the nest, he took the bird home and took care of it.
The magpie, which he named Maggie, became a member of the family and a mascot for many of their neighbors in camp. She was very intelligent and could even say phrases in both English and Japanese.
Yabu, who now lives in Camarillo, told the bird’s story in a children’s book, “Hello Maggie!,” first published in 2007. The illustrator was animator Willie Ito, who has worked for Walt Disney Productions, Warner Brothers, Bob Clampett Productions and Hanna Barbera. He is also familiar with camp life, having spent three years of his childhood in Topaz, Utah.
Two new developments have put the book back in the spotlight. First, new pages about the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service have been added. Second, an animated version is in the works.
“Hello Maggie!” was the focus of an event held Nov. 28 at the Japanese American National Museum with Yabu answering questions and signing copies of the book. Ito was also scheduled to attend but had to cancel due to illness.
Yabu was joined by Darrell Kunitomi, Colleen Miyano and Kerry Cababa — who are siblings — who read the book on stage. A special guest from Texas, Sandra Tanamachi, read the part about the Nisei soldiers.
Kunitomi reminisced about driving to Wyoming from L.A. with Yabu and Sam Mihara, who also attended the event. All three are board members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. Ito would sometimes accompany them.
At rest stops along the way, Yabu would talk to total strangers and introduce Ito as the animator behind the famous “spaghetti scene” in “Lady and the Tramp.” “It becomes this amazing personal, street-level gas station, restaurant, interactive exercise in history. And we wind up telling them we’re going up to the site where … these guys were incarcerated during World War II. Then it leads on to further discussion. Oh yeah, they were citizens. They were denied their rights. They were taken away from their homes and their schools and their churches and incarcerated in prison, put behind barbed wire … Why? As we all know, it was all race-based, unfortunately.”
Similarly, Kunitomi said, the book “teaches you the story in a very nice and gentle and artistic way. And it has the additional material about 442 and the MIS, which our dad was in, who grew up right across the street, who climbed on that big tree and who walked up and down Central Avenue.”
David Ono of ABC7, who has produced documentaries about Heart Mountain and the Nisei soldiers, said, “We all know the story of what happened to that generation, when they had to drop everything and were sent off to camp. Part of the story is that they had to leave their pets behind, and so I think this is such a magical little relationship that they developed with a bird … almost poetic …
“So we did a couple of stories with Willie and integrated the Shig story with Willie to tell the ‘Hello Maggie’ story. It’s beautiful, it’s simple, but there’s a lot of layers to it. When you think about what people had to go through, there’s a hidden message … If the children read this, they’ll start to understand how a generation had to deal with a lot, the fact that you’re incarcerated in the camp, things like that.”
Ono also thanked everyone for supporting the animation project, which will reach even more young people.
Tanamachi said she became acquainted with Yabu and Ito when their book came out, and told them her family’s story: “I had four Tanamachi uncles who served in the 442. My mother, Kikuko Nakao Tanamachi, and her three siblings were born in San Pedro and grew up in Terminal Island, so after Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt, her family was sent to Santa Anita Racetrack, then later sent to Rohwer, Ark.
“One of Mom’s younger brothers, Taira Nakao, was in the MIS due to his ability to speak, read, and write in Japanese; he served during the occupation of Japan. Mom’s younger sister, Ikuko, married Nobumasa ‘Happy’ Kitayama, who was also part of the 442nd. Therefore, our family has six Nisei veterans who served during World War II. Sadly, they have each passed away.
“My Tanamachi grandfather, Kumazo, immigrated to America from Fukuoka, Japan in the early 1900s. He married Asao Hirayama, who was also from Fukuoka. They began their family and began farming in the Seal Beach area of California. In 1921, he decided to move his wife and five children to Texas, where Issei could purchase their own land. On March 21, the day that they arrived in Beaumont, which is in East Texas, our uncle Willie Tanamachi was born.
“While we were growing up in Texas, none of our uncles spoke about being in the 442nd. However, my siblings and I found out about Uncle Saburo by his picture, which was hanging up prominently in our grandparents’ living room. He was dressed in his Army uniform and cap with a superior marksmanship pin on his left side. He had written on the top of his picture, ‘To Mother and Dad, and all the rest’ and signed on the bottom, ‘Just a soldier, Saburo Tanamachi.’
“Willie was the first of the Tanamachi brothers to enlist in the Army Air Corps when he was 19 years old. After Dec. 7, 1941, Willie was involuntarily reassigned from the Army Air Corps to other units of the Army. In the summer of 1944 after serving for three years, Willie was sent to Camp Shelby (in Mississippi), where he trained replacements for the 442nd. In June 1945, Wille was sent to France on board the Queen Mary for his assignment in Germany …
“Saburo Tanamachi was drafted into the Army in February 1944 and sent to Camp Shelby. He was assigned to the 442, E Company, 2nd Battalion. He was KIA on Oct. 29, 1944 during the rescue of the Texas ‘Lost Battalion’ on Hill 617 in the vicinity of Biffontaine, located in the northeastern part of France. Oct. 29, 1944 is said to be the bloodiest day of fighting during the rescue of 211 Texas ‘Lost Battalion’ veterans.
“Saburo, the squad leader, died in the arms of his buddy, George Sakato. Saburo was awarded the Silver Star Medal and Purple Heart. Assuming the command of the squad, George Sakato, armed with an enemy rifle and pistol, led the charge against the enemy to avenge the death of his buddy. His display of courage, over and beyond the call of duty, turned impending defeat into victory. Sakato was awarded the Medal of Honor …
“Goro Tanamachi enlisted in the Army Corps in 1940, and was sent to aviation technical school. He was removed from duty after Dec. 7, 1941. When the 442 was formed, Goro was sent to Camp Shelby initially as a member of the training cadre. He was later deployed to fight in Italy and France. He earned four Bronze Medals and was honorably discharged in August 1945.
“Walter Tanamachi, the youngest brother, was assigned to the Port of Bremerhaven, Germany around 1945. He was selected for Officer Candidate School and received his commission as second lieutenant …
“Taira Nakao was incarcerated in Rohwer … along with his mother, two sisters, and younger brother. He was able to find work on his brother-in-law Jerry Jiro Tanamachi’s father’s farm after his older sister, Kikuko Nakao Tanamachi, married Jerry and moved to Texas. It was in Texas where he was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to the MIS … It is said the work that the MIS did in the Pacific as interpreters and translators shortened the war by about two years, thus saving many lives on both sides.
“Nobumasa ‘Happy’ Kitayama was born in Texas and drafted into the Army, where he served his country in the 442nd as a sharpshooter and was promoted to the rank of sergeant after only 18 months …
“It is so fitting that this new edition has six additional pages honoring the 100th, 442nd and MIS, as many loyal and brave young men volunteered to join the Army while being incarcerated in Heart Mountain. It is an honor for me to be here, and I thank both Shig Yabu and Willie Ito for asking me to speak today.”
During Q&A, Yabu said the inclusion of Nisei soldiers in the new edition was inspired by the single-star flags in the windows of some barracks, which signified that a member of that family — his uncle among them — was serving in the Army.
He added, “Heart Mountain Relocation Center was the only camp that had a USO … Guys my age wanted to see what the uniforms looked like … Then the gals that came to entertain these military people … some of them even wore high heels, but we weren’t interested in girls at that age.”
As for his own military service, Yabu said, “I really enjoyed myself in the Navy” at a time when Nisei no longer served in segregated units.
Yabu also shared some anecdotes about his childhood. “Can you imagine I lived in a mansion in Burlingame and Hillsborough? No, my parents did not have money. In fact, the reason why we lived in a mansion was because my mother was a cook and a maid and my stepfather was a butler, and I was a freeloader …
“I went to Hillsborough Elementary School, eighth grade. I really enjoyed the eighth grade because when I walked into the class, all the students were rich … but I’ll tell you what, I was the star football player, the star basketball player.
“But then in 1948, the immigration department caught up with my stepfather. He was an illegal alien. He wrote a letter to all the people that he worked for … all Caucasian. They wrote beautiful letters on behalf of my stepfather. The judge said he could remain in the United States and we moved back to San Francisco.
“That’s where I met Willie Ito at the YMCA. Then we joined the Boy Scouts. Then we had the Drum and Bugle Corps. Willie was the drum major … I played the bugle. One of the hardest parades we ever had was the centennial year at Monterey … The reason for that? It was seven miles.”
Asked what he fed Maggie, Yabu responded, “The dishwashers, after every meal they left a pile of food for anybody that had pets. Maggie was not the only pet in camp … So Maggie loved meat.”
Speaking for Ito was his associate Cinde Fortina, who showed “animatics” of “Hello Maggie” — a rough draft of what the finished film will look like.
“We’ve got a couple really great names in the industry helping us right now, and we are in the process of starting an Indiegogo campaign for fundraising to hire some top animators,” she said. “A lot of this work was done with Nemo Academy, which is an animation academy in Florence, Italy, and also Sheridan College, which is another animation school in Ontario.
“Each image in the book has to be redesigned in order to work in animation, so it’s an awful lot of work. We know it’s going to be beautiful when it’s finished.”
Further details can be found at www.hellomaggiemovie.com.
Fortina expressed hope that Ito will be able to attend another signing event in the near future.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo