A few days before his Bayview United Church Remembrance Day address, Second World War veteran Frank Moritsugu took part in the Toronto JCCC’s observance of the same annual event. Photo credit: Kelly Fleck
TORONTO — Because of the pandemic, our annual observance of Remembrance Day has been cut down or limited to online services. So, I decided to share with you the talk I was invited to give two years ago to the JC congregation at Bayview United Church in Toronto. I was happy to recall the turnout was considerable and younger members expressed gratitude for my helping them learn more of our history.
Here is the speech I gave to that special service in 2019:
Thank you very much for inviting me to share with you my thoughts about Remembrance Day.
This past year, as you probably know, three more Nisei veterans of the Second World War left us, Roy Matsui, Ray Takeuchi, and Mickey Nobuto. The reason was natural attribution that can come to those of advanced age. And two years ago, Min Yatabe also left us.
One thing I am reminded of each year when November 11 comes around is what happened one year when Min Yatabe and I were in our early teens. Min, who has spoken to you in the past, and I were schoolmates at Henry Hudson Public School and Kitsilano High. And because Armistice Day (as it was called then) was a school holiday, I went over that morning to his home, which was a couple blocks away from ours in Kitsilano’s Japanese community (in Vancouver).
Then as 11 o’clock drew near, we kept our eyes on the clock hand slowly going towards the World War I Armistice time. A few minutes before, Min and I went out onto his front porch which faced downtown Vancouver’s tall buildings, including the Birks tower with its most visible clock. Then when the clock struck 11, we both stood at attention and stayed that way until the factory whistles and boat whistles and some car horns died down.
The reason for our behaving that way was not because we were playing pretend soldiers. It was because Min and I—like most of the Nisei of our age—had been told about the Japanese Canadian Issei who had fought heroically for Canada in the Great War. And when visiting Stanley Park, after checking out the animals at the zoo and the tall totem poles, our parents would often take us around to the Japanese memorial monument honouring those Issei soldiers.
As Roy Ito recorded in his history, We Went to War, 184 Issei served in the Canadian Army during the First World War, which we used to call the Great War. And those Issei had to go to Alberta to volunteer in the Canadian Army because racist B.C. wouldn’t let them. Of those 184 men, 54 were killed in action at battles in France and Germany, while 118 others were wounded. Of the original 184 men, only 12 escaped injury. It was a remarkable achievement by members of our parents’ generation. And so Armistice Day meant a lot to us Nisei when we got old enough to understand the significance of what those brave Issei had done for Canada and for our community.
Then came the Second World War in 1939. Again, those of us in B.C still could not enlist in the military—Army, Navy, or Air Force. Even though we were born in Canada. While our hakujin (white) school buddies volunteered when old enough and served in Europe and North Africa, and so on. It was only in late 1944 that Canadian Nisei in B.C. finally got the chance to enlist. That was because the British forces in Southeastern Asia were capturing numbers of Japanese prisoners of war. But the British didn’t have enough Japanese-language interpreters to interrogate the prisoners or to translate captured enemy military documents that might be useful for our side.
Ironically, the only country in the British Empire then with a sizable number of people of Japanese origin was Canada. So Britain kept pressuring Ottawa, and finally, Mackenzie King’s government, which had approved the mass evacuation and sent us to inland detention camps, had to secretly recruit us.
Among the Nisei who volunteered when this chance finally came were Min Yatabe in Toronto and me in St. Thomas. We volunteered to show we truly were Canadians even though our government had decided we all were “enemy aliens.” Actually, there already were some Japanese Canadians in the Army and Air Force, but they were residents of provinces outside British Columbia.
In the 1944-45 campaign for interpreter-translators, 148 Nisei volunteered. Most of us had undergone the 1942 mass expulsion from the B.C. coast. With 63 mainly from other provinces, the total of Japanese Canadians who served in the Second World War was 211.
One Canadian Nisei soldier was killed in action. He was Minoru Tanaka from Wymark, Saskatchewan, who fought in Europe in the Canadian Armored Corps. He was killed in Germany when the tank he was in was hit by a bomb. The other Nisei killed during the Second World War was Leading Aircraftsman Winston Claude Mawatari of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was from a prewar Toronto family. I’m sorry not to have any details of how he died in 1943, but he was only in his 20s. Three other Nisei soldiers were wounded. One was Tamotsu Matsuoka from Coaldale, Alberta. He served with the Royal Canadian Engineers in France, Holland, and Germany and was wounded by a grenade. The two others wounded were among the Nisei sent to Southeast Asia as interpreters.
George Suzuki (who was a Kitsilano High School classmate of Min Yatabe and mine) and Fred Nogami were hurt in a plane crash some months after the war had ended. They were bound from Singapore to Hong Kong on a flying boat that crashed into a barge shortly after takeoff. Of the 23 men on board, only seven survived. Luckily, they included George Suzuki and Fred Nogami. Fortunately, their wounds were not serious, and they were able to continue their postwar duties in Asia.
As for my time in the Canadian Army, I was among 23 Nisei who were selected soon after enlistment (in April 1945) to be rushed overseas with minimum training. The British were desperate for interpreter-translators, so two such groups were rushed overseas. The first group, which numbered 12 men, had left Canada in March 1945. We were the second lot and left in June. Meanwhile, the majority of the Nisei volunteers took basic training in Ontario camps and then attended the Canadian Army’s Japanese Language School in, of all places, West Vancouver. Upon graduating from their training, they were assigned to their specific tasks—mostly in Asia, except for a few sent to Washington, D.C.
In our case, we sailed in June 1945 to Asia via Britain. But it wasn’t until we reached India that we were tested for our Japanese-language ability. Only a handful of us passed, as we ourselves had known. Until then, the assumption shared by the Canadian and the British Armies seemed to be that because we were of Japanese descent, naturally we spoke and read Japanese. After our testing, we were sent across India by train to await our orders. But a few days after arriving in a camp outside Calcutta, the big news came by radio. The Americans had dropped a new kind of bomb on Hiroshima—genshibakudan (atomic bomb) in nihongo (Japanese)—and soon after, the Second World War was over.
So all our orders had to be changed. Those who could interpret and translate were now given assignments such as working with British units to get the Japanese forces based in such places as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur in Malaya, Saigon in Indo-china, etc., to surrender officially. I had been lucky enough to have passed the language tests so wondered where I’d be sent. Then came the quite different news for me:
Those 17 in our group who needed language training were to be sent to a remote military camp north of Calcutta, and I was to be one of the two instructors. The other was the officer in charge, a Canadian hakujin (white person) who had graduated from the Canadian Army’s S-20 School in West Vancouver, where the majority of Nisei soldiers were being trained. So Lieutenant Lloyd Harvey was in charge, and he decided to teach the beginners’ class beginning with the Japanese alphabet—while I, Private Moritsugu, took on the advanced class.
I did this for about a month during the monsoon season, sweating in our tent after classes while preparing the next day’s lessons. Then in early September, orders came for me to report back to Calcutta. There I was told I had been promoted to a sergeant (as a qualified linguist) and would be flown to Bombay to join a British counter-intelligence unit scheduled to fly to Japan, which the Americans now occupied. The British were to occupy parts of Japan, too, but that was still being organized.
The goal of this unit—for which I was the interpreter-translator—was to discover how much the Japanese forces had found out about the secret British intelligence operations in Southeast Asia. So in Bombay, I got to know the four other lads—all British. Ted Cornick and Johnny Sharp were sergeants in the Royal Signal Corps and experienced wireless operators. Alf Rose was a driver-mechanic. And Taffy was a clerk. The officers in charge of us were two British lieutenant-colonels. So while we waited and waited in Bombay for our orders to fly to Japan, most days I tried to teach our group of Brits conversational Japanese.
After almost three months of this waiting in Bombay, news came that our mission to Japan had been aborted. Typical inter-Allied co-operation. The American G-2 intelligence forces didn’t want any British agents poking about in Japan, which they considered was their domain.
So we went our separate ways. After stops in Ceylon and Madras, I ended up at Calcutta again in December 1945. There, I ran into George Suzuki and Fred Nogami. They had just received orders to report to Singapore and asked if I’d like to join them. I said no thanks, feeling I’d done enough waiting around and would prefer going home. Which is how I avoided being on the same flying boat as George and Fred when three months later it crashed into a barge near Singapore harbour. How lucky I had been because even though I had grown up only a few blocks from Kitsilano Beach, I was the rare Nisei who had never learned to swim. So I probably wouldn’t have survived that plane crash that George and Fred did.
After more waiting around in camps in Northern India, etc., as one of nine Canadian Nisei sergeants who had served in different parts of Southeast Asia, I finally left for home from Bombay in March 1946 and became a civilian again in June.
What did I get out of this military experience? On the practical personal side, I got a university education financed by veterans’ benefits and even became a mainstream journalist in Toronto and Montreal—an unbelievable happening I never dreamed was possible while growing up in the racist British Columbia. And that opportunity was one of the signs that in the postwar era the world had changed for the better for us Japanese Canadians. And as civilians or being in the military, we had done what we could to make our Canada a better place.
Each Remembrance Day, I indulge in memories like these. To me, the annual observance is not only about those who gave their lives for our country but about all those who did what they thought was best in the difficult times when Canada was at war. And in the 1980s, when we campaigned for redress, I’m sure it helped that Arthur Miki, President of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, had two Second World War veterans at his side: Roger Obata of Toronto as vice-president, and Harold Hirose of Winnipeg as treasurer.
To add to the 2019 talk, fellow Nisei veteran Tom Nishio recently passed away, leaving me as one of the very few Second World War JC vets still around. Tom was a year ahead of Min Yatabe, George Suzuki, and me at Kitsilano High School. And he was a sports star on the KHS football teams, which made us feel proud.