Hawai`i Japanese Internee Fathers and American Military Sons in Santa Fe

Dr. Gail Y. Okawa
Department of English
Youngstown State University

An underlying blessing of research is unpredictability. I was searching for materials on the U.S. Department of Justice World War II internment of Japanese immigrants from Hawai`i in locations like Lordsburg and Santa Fe, New Mexico, Missoula, Montana, and Camp Livingston, Louisiana. In the nondescript grey file boxes of the National Archives, one of the most startling and disturbing documents that I came across was a list titled “Japanese Civilian Internees from Hawaii with Sons in the Armed Forces of the United States--Consolidated and Revised List, 20 June 1945,” an eleven-page list of names of Hawai`i Japanese internees with sons serving in the U.S. military while their fathers were imprisoned in Department of Justice internment camps.1 Some sons were drafted; many volunteered. In numerous cases there were two sons; in more than rare cases, as with Matsujiro Otani, there were three and four sons in the military by June 1945! A twisted irony of the Japanese American experience during World War II.

Another irony: it was precisely because these young men, all American-born and in their late teens or early twenties, had been shipped from Hawai`i to the mainland for their military training that they were also able to visit their immigrant fathers who had been exiled from Hawai`i to mainland internment camps. Since many internees were incarcerated for longer periods at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Internment Camp/Detention Station than anywhere else, their sons had to make their way there from army camps like Camp Shelby, Mississippi (basic training for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team2), and Fort Snelling, Minnesota (language training for the Military Intelligence Service3).

“A Perfect Visit”: The Otanis

Akira Otani, the oldest of Matsujiro Otani’s four military sons at age 22, visited his father in Santa Fe in November 1943. His letter is one of the earliest accounts that I’ve found of such a visit. The elder Otani had been a successful businessman in Honolulu, building a small fish market into a thriving enterprise. Akira, who recalled clearly in his 80’s how his father was arrested at their Mänoa home on December 7, 1941, hours after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, had become a member of the Hawaii Territorial Guard (HTG) as a University of Hawai`i ROTC student, then joined the Varsity Victory Volunteers (VVV) when the HTG was disbanded, and finally volunteered for the segregated all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) on February 1, 1943, soon after the unit’s formation. He was a staff sergeant stationed at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, at the time of his visit. Akira had traveled with his cousin Morio Yanagihara, also in the 442nd, by train from Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Santa Fe, and wrote this letter to his older sister, Florence, in Honolulu on his way back to Camp Shelby, reflecting his youthful enthusiasm and affection for his father:

November 14, 1943

Dear Sis,
Am in Houston, Texas, on my way home after a perfect visit to Father at Santa Fe. Father was really overjoyed to see us, and it was the same with us too. Every day of the 8 days that we stayed in Santa Fe, we visited him, always at the same time, always for two hours. Every day we would bring to him things that he would ask us to bring for him, or, if he did not ask us, we would bring him some kind of fruit for him to eat and enjoy. He in turn would buy some things for us at the canteen, and we would have a swell time at “Visitor’s Hall” eating and swapping stories at the same time. The last day of [our] visit, we had a farewell party, just as he requested. For eats, we had fried chicken and some ham and hamburger sandwiches, plus a few bottles of coke. We enjoyed it immensely. . . .

Because their father had a heart condition that caused the family great concern, he also reassured his sister “and the rest at home” that “he’s in the best of health, having recuperated almost completely from his illness.”

Although he didn’t write this to his sister, in a phone conversation with me in January 2007, Akira recalled a prison-like situation initially, where his father was seated across the table from him and his cousin with an armed guard loaming over them throughout their visit. This discomforting situation was subsequently relaxed, most probably after he brought it to the attention of the authorities. Akira also remembered that his father gave him his ring, made from a silver dollar, as a memento of their visit, and that he, in turn, bought a Native-made turquoise ring in the town of Santa Fe to give to his father.

On two occasions, they were allowed to step outside to have their photograph taken with the juniper dotted hillside in the background. In one, the Japanese father, formal, unsmiling, and dapper in a leather jacket, stood beside his American soldier son, ruggedly energetic in his army uniform. In another photo with the same hillside background, both are bundled up in coats and gloves, suggesting a lower temperature if not a different season.

“How come . . .?”: The Izutsus

Like Akira Otani, Tadami Izutsu also volunteered for the 442nd RCT, U.S. Army, in 1943, “much to the dismay of my mother who was very upset for Father had been recently interned . . . .” He was 18. Shipped from a sugar plantation camp in Makaweli, Kaua`i to Camp Shelby, Mississippi for his basic training, he “clung tightly to the good luck charm (omamori), which Mother had [had] blessed at her Buddhist temple to keep me protected at all times. I carried this priceless charm with me from Makaweli to Mississippi . . ., during 18 months of front line combat and hospitalization for my war injuries” (Izutsu, memoir).

Continuing in his family memoir, Tadami briefly describes his visits in Santa Fe to his father Ryozo Izutsu, who had been a store keeper in Makaweli before being arrested and shipped, like Matsujiro Otani, from Sand Island, Hawai`i to Angel Island Detention Camp/Ft. McDowell, California, then to Lordsburg Internment Camp and Santa Fe Internment Camp in New Mexico: “Basic training was a grueling experience in preparation for the combat to come. While stationed at Camp Shelby, I visited Father twice at the internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My friend, David Miura, also visited his father there.”

On their first furlough, the taxi driver asked them, “How come you have somebody in here when you’re in that uniform?” How come, indeed! In an interview with Ted Tsukiyama, historian for the 442nd and MIS Veterans Clubs, Tadami described his first meeting with his father:

It was a very intense emotional moment when I hugged my father. I was relieved that he was in good health and appeared to be in good spirits amongst the injustice[s] inflicted upon him. I know he missed the family, and I told him not to worry. . . .

In his memoir, the son writes:

Something stirred deep within me when I saw my beloved father helplessly imprisoned but never complaining about the injustices of war. After my second visit to Father, I was moved and[,] with an 18-year-old’s determination[,] wrote a letter to the then commanding officer of the U.S. Armed Forces, General Marshall, to consider releasing my father . . . from his internment[,] for I was now actively serving the United States of America, proof of my devotion and willingness to die for my country. I later surmized [sic] that my letter was intercepted and never reached its destination[,] for all of our letters and parcels were subject to censorship. However, in my heart, there was some consolation that I had done everything possible to help my father.

“A Wire Cage”: The Ohamas

In November, 1943, at around the same time that Akira Otani was visiting his father in Santa Fe, Katsumi Ohama, a University of Hawai`i pre-med student, received his draft notice and reported to Schofield Barracks on O`ahu. Although he was first sent to Little Rock, Arkansas for infantry training, he was transferred in mid-winter to Military Intelligence Service (MIS) training at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, no doubt due to his proficiency in Japanese. The son of Futoshi Ohama, a Japanese language school principal, who was arrested and incarcerated because he was a Japanese language school principal, was now an asset to the U.S. military with his Japanese language skills. In an email to me, he wrote:

Because I was already proficient in the Japanese language, I was placed in the advanced Japanese military intelligence classes. Within three months, I was ordered to go to the Pacific War. Before departure, I requested to see my father at the Santa Fe Internment Camp. My request was granted.

However, getting to Santa Fe proved to be challenging for him. It took two days by train with several transfers across different states. From Santa Fe Station, there were no buses to the internment camp, so after checking in at a hotel, he hired a taxi to take him to the camp on the outskirts of the city.

As a technical sergeant in the Army Intelligence Section/Military Intelligence Service, Katsumi wore a U.S. Army uniform and already had been assigned to General Douglas McArthur’s Army General Headquarters. Yet he was “not allowed to enter the camp.” “Like in a prison, I was escorted into a waiting room with a wire enclosure separating myself from where my father arrived with a guard who stood by closely all the while during our tearful meeting. Because of the wire enclosure separating us I was not able to hold his hands. Only one hour was allotted for the meeting. I was very sad to see my father so skinny compared to the day he was whisked away by the FBI in 1941 . . .” (Letter to J. Kubota). After his return to Fort Snelling, he writes, “I was assigned to lead 120 newly graduated all Japanese Americans to go to somewhere in the Pacific War. We shipped out of San Francisco in a convoy in summer of 1944” (Email).

Two Camps: The Fujitanis

In June that same summer of 1944, Private Yoshiaki Fujitani was also stationed at Fort Snelling for further military intelligence training after the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage, Minnesota was moved there. Like Akira Otani, he had become a member of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard as a University of Hawai`i ROTC student, as well as the Varsity Victory Volunteers after the outbreak of the Pacific War, but had quit the VVV in disillusionment and anger when his father was arrested and interned. Eventually responding to recruitment efforts, he volunteered to serve in the MIS at age 20 and ended up in Minnesota. On his first furlough, he decided to visit his father Reverend Kodo Fujitani, a Buddhist minister of the Pure Land School (Nishi Hongwanji), who had been in Santa Fe since June 1943.

The son found his father behind a high barbed wire fence, in a “stockade-like place” (Kapiolani Community College interview). “It was an emotional meeting,” he wrote in Japanese Eyes, American Heart (JEAH 98). They had a quiet visit.

I presented myself at the internment camp office, asking to see my father. After what seemed a long wait, Father was permitted to leave the barbed-wired and heavily guarded compound. He was dressed in a tan suit, sporting a goatee. He was in good health and spirits. It touched me to think that he felt he had to be dressed in a formal way to greet his son who was serving in the U.S. Army. (JEAH 98)

In an email to me in 2003, then-Private Fujitani, now a retired Buddhist bishop, wrote,

The meeting with Dad in Santa Fe is very vague in my memory. All I remember is that we compared our lives in camp. [With] me in the army, and him in detention camp. We were having the same kind of food, like powdered eggs and luncheon meat. We both complained about the breakfast food, I remember. I think the rest of the time was spent talking about the family. (Email)

“It was an incongruous scene. A son in the U.S. Army meets his father who is suspected by the government of being a ‘potentially dangerous enemy’ (JEAH 98).” In the same email as the above, he wrote candidly,

Later, with Dad still in Santa Fe I remember writing to him saying something like, “when this is all over let’s sit together and enjoy a glass of beer and talk stories,” or something like that, which appears to have been a feeble attempt on my part to say that I miss that kind of father-son camaraderie. I probably couldn't say things like that to his face so I had to write a letter.

During this visit, Yoshiaki also met “Pistol” Uetake, “formerly of Kaua`i, who seems to have been a liaison for community relations. During my visit with him at his home in Santa Fe, he prepared a lunch of rainbow trout, which he had caught himself” (JEAH 98-99). In a conversation/interview with me, he explained that this man was called “Pistol” because the last three fingers of his right hand were missing.

At one point, the father and son stood and had their picture taken by a photographer with the familiar juniper-speckled hillside behind the camp in the background. The father erect in his three-piece tan suit, the son in Army dress uniform with his cap ever so slightly askew. In a filial act of kindness, Yoshiaki had his father stand on an elevated mound so that he appeared the taller of the two--for posterity!

A Request from a Sick Father: The Ishidas

Several months later on November 6, 1944, internee Kyujiro Ishida, a patient at the Santa Fe Internment Camp Hospital, wrote a letter to Mrs. Henrietta Schoen at the hospital requesting her assistance. Ishida had been struck down by a stroke on October 30, 1942, while imprisoned at Camp Livingston, Louisiana, and had been paralyzed and hospitalized since then in the camp hospital both in Livingston and now Santa Fe. The letter was brief and pointed in its solicitation:

Dear Madam:
Enclosed herein, please find a copy of a letter which I had mailed to my soldie[r] son. The letter will explain for itself, my wishes ther[e]in stated.
If ther[e] is anything which might help to bring my son here to see me, I am sure you will be kind enough to do me the favor.
Yours truly,
Kyujiro Ishida

The original letter had been sent to his son Hisao, a private in the 6th Regiment at Fort McClellan, Alabama. In it, the father assures his son of the well-being of his mother and the rest of their family. He also describes the grueling itinerary that he and other internees were subjected to, his own medical condition, and the treatment he received in the internment medical facilities, a rare insight:

My dear Son,

. . . . I am glad you had received my letter. The climate here is ideal, not so cold during the winter and not so hot during summer. Unfortunately, however, I am stil[l] in the hospital where the hospital folks and my friends are exceedingly kind to me and I am grateful to them. You never can expect any better treatment anywhere else. Truly it has been quite long time since I left home. It is nearly three years. I remember I arrived at San Francisco in March, 1942. From there, I was removed to Camp McCoy, Wis. and then to Camp Forrest, Ten. In about a month, I was removed to Camp Livingston, La. While there, in October, 1942, I became sick and was removed to the hospital and ever since, I am confined in the camp hospital. On June 7th, 1943, I was removed to Santa Fe Detention Station Hospital where I am now. . . .I had a very bad stroke on October 30th 1942 and ever since, I am unable to walk because of paralysis of my body. On warm, sunny days, they kindly place me in a wheel-chair and leave me in the sun on the hospital porch. You see they are very nice and I enjoy the sun-bath very much.

Finally, he asks in firm yet polite and solicitous language that his son visit him:

I was wondering for sometime in the past, if there won’t be any chance for you to come here to visit me. You know, sometime[s], I get quite home sick wanting to see you and other home-folks. Quite a few soldier boys from Hawaii had visited their father[s] who are here. I was given [the] impression that the army would consider granting furlough to a soldier to visit his sick father. If such was the case, I would like to have you visit me as early as possible. Of course you remember your duty as a soldier come[s] first and I will never want to cause you or your commander any inconvenience in your training.

The SFIC commander Ivan Williams apparently did not see the need for such a visit and on November 22, 1944, left a telephone message for the Midwestern Area Red Cross that the “DOCTOR STATES SONS PRESENCE NOT NECESSARY AS SUBJECTS CONDITION NOT CRITICAL.” However, Hisao, who had been transferred to the MIS at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, persisted in following his father’s request in January of 1945, writing to officer in charge Williams the following:

May I have your permission to visit my father, Kyujiro Ishida, during my furlough beginning the 17 to the 24th of February
He has been sick for about two years at the hospital there, and requested me to see him several times since I came to the mainland. But I was unable to secure furlough till now as we are having a school break.
I would appreciate it very much if you would be kind enough to send me the permit to the above address at your earliest convenience, for my entire activity during this furlough will depend upon this permit.

This time, Wiliams granted this permission promptly and Hisao visited his father on February 20th and 21st, 1945. He visited a second time, then at the rank of T/5, from May 21-23, 1945, while registered at the Hotel Montezuma in Santa Fe. From a letter written several months later from Fort Snelling after the war’s end, it is possible to understand that Hisao was actually allowed to stay with his father in the hospital.

August 17, 1945

Dear Sir
Thank you very much for everything you have done for my dad and my stay [making it] possible [for me] to meet and stay with him in the hospital. I am very sorry I wasn’t able to thank you earlier since we were in a rush for packing and processing before shipping [out].
Rejoice that peace has come to the world again. I believe everyone in the camp [is] glad. But we of the intelligence [service] [have a] much more vital job than even before of translating and interrogating.
Closing, I, on behalf of my dad, mom and my brother, wish to express our sincere thanks to you. I wish you best of luck and God bless you.
Hisao Ishida

Williams forwarded this letter to W.F. Kelly, Assistant Commissioner for Alien Control, with the following memo dated August 23, 1945: There is attached hereto, copy of letter received from PFC Hisao ISHIDA, Fort Snelling, Minn., which has reference to his visit to this Station.

PFC ISHIDA came here to visit his father, Kyujiro ISHIDA, who has been seriously ill for quite some time and who has now been approved for return to Hawaii.

It has been the policy of this Station to extend all courtesies possible to these Japanese American boys who are serving in our Armed Forces and who visit their fathers at this camp. Perhaps Williams came to see the contradiction and irony of this situation: the American sons in military service while their Japanese fathers were locked up behind barbed wire. The magnified injustice and poignancy.


No person of Japanese descent was ever charged or convicted of espionage.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which included the famed 100th Infantry (or “Purple Heart”) Battalion (Separate), “earned the honor and distinction of being the most decorated unit of its size and length of time in battle in United States military history” (JEAH 6).

The Military Intelligence Service (MIS), though little known until recently due to its classified nature, involved over 6,000 nisei (second generation Japanese Americans), and is now understood to have changed the course of the war in the Pacific; “General Charles Willoughby, G-2 chief in the Pacific, credited [this unit] with saving a million lives and shortening the war against Japan by two years” (JEAH 8).


(1) See “Sacred Duty” essay for a brief historical background.

(2) See Postscript and Japanese Eyes . . . American Heart for further information.

(3) See Postscript and Japanese Eyes . . . American Heart for further information.

Sources Used:

Fujitani, Yoshiaki. “Kuni no On—Gratitude to My Country.” Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board. Japanese Eyes . . . American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers. Honolulu, HI: Tendai Educational Foundation, 1998. 94-102.

Fujitani, Yoshiaki. Email. Honolulu, HI, October 4, 2003.

Fujitani, Yoshiaki. Interview. The Hawai`i Nisei Story: Americans of Japanese Ancestry During World War II. http://nisei.hawaii.edu. Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board. Japanese Eyes . . . American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii’s World War II Nisei Soldiers. Honolulu, HI: Tendai Educational Foundation, 1998.

Ishida, Hisao. Letter to Ivan Williams. Fort Snelling, MN, January 30, 1945.

Ishida, Hisao. Letter to Ivan Williams. Fort Snelling, MN, August 17, 1945.

Ishida, Kyujiro. Letter to Henrietta Schoen. Santa Fe, NM, November 6, 1944.

Ishida, Kyujiro. Letter to Hisao Ishida. Santa Fe. NM, November 6, 1944.

Izutsu, Tadami. Unpublished family memoir. Honolulu, HI, Nd.

Izutsu, Tadami. Interview with T. Tsukiyama. Oral History Project, Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai`i, Honolulu, HI, May 22, 1997.

Ohama, Katsumi. Email. Honolulu, HI, July 4, 2006.

Ohama, Katsumi. Letter to Jane Kubota. Honolulu, HI, September 7, 2001.

Otani, Akira. Letter to Florence Otani Toyoshiba. Houston, Texas, November 14, 1943.

Otani, Akira. Phone conversation. Honolulu, HI, January 2007.

Willams, Ivan. Memo to W.F. Kelly. Santa Fe, NM, August 23, 1945.