By Frank Moritsugu
This column was written a couple weeks before this year’s November 11th observance. As that special day approaches, it gets me thinking about that day in years past. For example, when I was young and living in Vancouver, November 11th was a school holiday. And it was called Armistice Day.
For those of you who only know it as Remembrance Day, here is the origin of the original name. The First World War (which we called the Great War) ended on November 11, 1918 and the name came from “armistice” meaning “cessation of hostilities.”
The reason why the name was changed to Remembrance Day (which some now call Veterans Day) was because there have been other wars since that our country was involved in, such as the Second World War (WW2), Korean War, etc. So the month and day were kept but the name updated.
And as a WW2 veteran, the day celebrating the end of wars is something very special. It does not glorify conflicts between countries. It allows us to remember the men and women who sacrificed themselves for our country.
So attending events connected with Remembrance Day is something special for me. And although I am no longer up to giving talks, this Old Guy will show up wearing his few medals to show comradeship with other surviving veterans who each has his or her own memories to cherish.
The last talk I gave at a Remembrance Day event was three years ago. As one of the surviving Canadian nisei veterans, I was invited to speak at Toronto’s Centennial United Church. And as the congregation is mainly Japanese Canadian, my talk was made up of personal experiences and facts gleaned from Roy Ito’s superb history, We Went to War, which tells about the Japanese-Canadian military participation in both World Wars.
Here are some extracts from what I said:
One thing I am reminded of when November 11th comes around is what happened one year when I was in my early teens.
Min Yatabe (also a veteran), who spoke to you last year, and I were high school classmates. And because Armistice Day (as it was then called) was a school holiday, I went over in the morning to hang out at 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. And at a few minutes before, Min and I went out onto his front porch which faced downtown Vancouver including the Birks clock tower and other tall buildings. 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 because of the B.C. ban on Japanese Canadians serving in the Canadian armed forces, those issei had to go to Alberta to volunteer. 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 back in the 1930s 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. 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 who had been based in B.C. finally got the chance to enlist. That was because the war in Asia was turning our way and 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.
Ironically the only country in the British Empire then with a sizable number of people of Japanese origin was Canada. So Britain put pressure on Canada, and finally Mackenzie King’s government which had approved the mass evacuation and sending us to inland detention camps began 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 that was because they were residents of provinces outside British Columbia.
In the 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.
Only two Japanese Canadians were killed during the Second World War, because the majority of us were only allowed in as the war was gradually ending, and to serve in intelligence work not combat operations.
One fatality 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 who died serving Canada was Leading Aircraftman Claude W. Mawatari of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
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 fighting had ended. They were bound from Singapore to Hongkong on a flying boat which crashed into a barge shortly after takeoff.
Of the 23 men on board, only seven survived. Luckily they included George Suzuki and Fred Nogami. And their wounds were not serious and they were able to continue their postwar duties in Asia.
And 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 in 1980s, I’m sure it helped that President Arthur Miki of the National Association of Japanese Canadians had two World War 2 veterans at his side: Roger Obata of Toronto as vice-president, and Harold Hirose of Winnipeg as treasurer.
And may we have many more Remembrance Days to celebrate.