By ANNE ASAI
On an early Saturday morning, my Girl Scout leader and I walked towards the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in the heart of Downtown L.A. The weather was cold with a feeling of morning dew, but with a sliver of warmth from the sun. Soon, I met up with Boy Scout Troop 242 as well as with the other girl scouts from my Girl Scout Troop 4345.
Before we jumped into cleaning, we made a circle around Ken Hayashi. He presented each of us a paper with the biography of a Japanese American war veteran. We were able to look beyond the names on the memorial and learn more about the people who gave their lives for our country.
The first person I learned about was Rodney Yano. Yano left college early and joined the Army. Soon in his Army career, he became a crew chief in the Air Cavalry Troop while having the esteemed rank of sergeant first class. It was when he was stationed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam that a grenade went off in his helicopter. The phosphorus of the grenade covered his arm and left him injured. The grenade also started to ignite other supplies such as ammunition. To protect his crew, he sacrificed himself by throwing out all ignited supplies out of the helicopter. With his severe injuries he passed away later that day in January 1969.
After learning about his biography and many others, it was terrible to see that these were young men — that could have become bigger, greater people in life. However, they chose to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of our lives and for us to experience this peace.
After this activity, two workers (Ernesto and Aric) brought out a pressure washer and allowed the Boy Scouts to give a wash to the memorial. It was after the quick rinse that the rest of us got to scrub the memorial. As I scrubbed and dried the surface of the memorial, I tried to clean as best I could. The thoughts of the previous activity continued to rush through my mind. It was the people on the memorial that made America what it is today.
During this polish session, there were also Japanese American veterans present who served for America and participated in the cleaning of the memorial. It warmed my heart that I was able to learn about their experiences and appreciate the sacrifices they made for our lives today.
After the Spit and Polish, we entered the JACCC for pizza. But before the food came, we observed the food veterans were given during the war. There was a variety of foods: peanut butter, tuna, pound cake, and fruit cocktail. The older packaged foods were in tin cans. A veteran explained that many soldiers restrained from holding food as the weight might have been too much for them. This meant that many soldiers during the war did not get to eat.
After gratefully eating a pizza lunch, several veterans from the Korean War, Vietnam War, and even recent conflicts such as in Afghanistan shared their stories. One interesting veteran named Bacon — got his nickname in his childhood — was the one engineering the bridges needed for Army transportation. Although he was not on the front lines, he still contributed a big part to the support of the Army movement.
Another interesting story event involved mandatory Army enlistments. They would receive a letter noting their enlistment. In a few weeks, they were forced to leave their homes. Along with that, many of the veterans had to suffer many forms of shame and racial discrimination upon returning from their service.
A veteran discussed how he had a hard time sharing his enlistment in the Vietnam War as it was dubbed the most controversial war. Many of the other veterans also shared how they have experienced racial discrimination while serving in the Army. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, America still had a hard time identifying Japanese American as citizens. Learning more about the struggles and sacrifices they made during the war, my appreciation for the veterans grew even larger.
This Spit and Polish experience is one that I will never forget. I learned how the veterans gave of themselves for the best of all of us. America today would not have been like this without their sacrifice, hard work and dedication. Without them, I would not get to listen to my favorite music — K-pop. I would not get to enjoy the culture of Korea, Vietnam and more. I have come to realize that Japanese Americans have always and will always be a part of America.
As the Japanese American National War Memorial Court says, “To forget will be a dishonor, to remember will be everlasting.”
Anne Asai is a senior at Vladovic Harbor Teacher Prep Academy in Wilmington. She has been in Girl Scouts since the 7th grade and is currently an Ambassador in Girl Scout Troop 4345. She is working on her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest award that can be achieved by a Girl Scout, with hopes to be able to study in the field of environmental science or environmental design.
Photos courtesy Patti Nishimura