War takes innocence from Japanese Gulch

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor didn’t change Mas Odoi.

It did change the world.

Like most of his classmates, the University of Washington student immediately wanted to sign up to fight for his country.

Unlike his friends, Mas wasn’t allowed.

Japanese-Americans weren’t let into the military the same way German-Americans and Italian-Americans were.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to remove Japanese immigrants and their families from the West Coast.

That forced Mas and his twin brother, Hiro, to abandon their UW studies and join their parents at Minidoka Relocation Center in southern Idaho in August 1942. They were among the camp’s first inhabitants.

The camp reunited them with many of their friends and neighbors from Mukilteo’s Japanese Gulch. They learned that the war was changing their hometown.

The waterfront where the twins watched baseball was now where warships heading to the Pacific got their ammunition. Surveillance towers were built to watch for Japanese attacks.

The U.S. Army Air Corps took over Paine Field, the airport that Mas watched being built above Japanese Gulch.

The new airport was used to train pilots to bomb Germany and Japan, and to guard Boeing’s Seattle assembly plant, as it churned out Flying Fortresses and Superfortresses to defeat the Axis of Italy, Germany and Japan.

Miles away in Idaho, Mas and Hiro lived in barracks with dozens of other people.

When they got permission to leave the camp for work, they cut sugar beets, dug potatoes and manned cannery assembly lines.

As World War II escalated, Japanese Americans started to be allowed into the Army.

All Japanese-Americans in Minidoka 17 and older were given a questionnaire. Do you swear loyalty to America? Do you forswear loyalty to the Japanese Emperor? Will you serve in combat with the U.S. Army?

Many balked at the questions.

Some people at the camp decided to fight prejudice by not fighting.

Mas answered the same questions as a boy years ago in Japanese Gulch, where he played and studied with white children. He still had no intention to side with the foreign emperor.

Yet he couldn’t help but feel that America made a mistake by bringing Japanese-Americans to the camp.

The brothers decided to prove their loyalty, to show they were red-blooded American boys like anyone else. Mas and Hiro joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. Army.

The 442nd’s slogan was “Go for broke.”

Combined with the 100th Infantry Battalion from Hawaii, the unit had the highest casualty rate for its size and length of service: 9,846 lives lost in pitched battles across North Africa, France and Italy.

After basic training, before they were shipped out, Mas and Hiro visited their parents in Minidoka.

Their mother, Chikaye, prepared two pieces of cloth, red, black and yellow, little bigger than her thumb. She’d asked neighbor women to sew 1,000 stitches in it, a tradition called senbonbari.

Every time their needles passed through, and came back, was a wish to protect the boys and bring them home safe from Europe.

It was how the Japanese always sent loved ones to the war.

Chikaye gave her twins the charms.

Be good soldiers, she said.

Be careful.

Mas and Hiro waved goodbye from the bus filled with the sons of Minidoka. Mas remembers his parents seeing them off, his mother smiling.

When the bus was out of sight, Chikaye cried.

Momotaro, the boy born from a peach, didn’t need to think twice about fighting the oni, the devils who were terrorizing innocent people.

“Father and mother, I must leave. I must conquer the oni to bring peace to the land,” he said.

His eyes met those of Old Grandpa and Old Grandma.

“Thank you for raising me with such deep love,” he said, and bowed, a deep bow to show the depth of his love and respect.

Old Grandpa and Old Grandma knew their son had made up his mind. It was the right thing to do. They agreed to let him go to war.

Old Grandma fixed kibidango, sweet rice cakes, to give him strength for the journey.

Their parting was hard and tearful.

Mortars and artillery shells rained from the dark sky. Explosions sparked and vibrated the cool air on a barren field somewhere north of Florence, Italy.

Before dawn on April 5, 1945, Mas waited for an order. He was on the frontline of the Italian battle zone. The Army rules kept twins from being in the same company.

Hiro was back at headquarters, which was good, because Mas was taught to protect his brother – younger by one hour.

Mas carried his mother’s charm inside his wallet.

The German line was half a mile away. The soldiers couldn’t smoke: The light would make them easier targets.

In his tension, a moment of doubt surfaced: What the hell am I doing this for?

He knew. He always had.

Growing up in Mukilteo, Mas learned that he’s no different than anyone else. The war was trying to tell him otherwise.

The order came.

Run. Don’t stop. Wipe them out.

Mas ran through the minefield along a narrow trail. He bumped into a soldier who was bleeding.

Mas stopped.

The man yelled: Go! Keep going!

Mas kept running. A mortar dropped behind him, blowing him through the air. He landed on the dirt.

Once his wits returned, he felt his thighs and back. His hands felt something dark and warm. Blood. He sat up.

He grabbed his rucksack, to fish out anti-shock pills. He took the canteen off his belt, swallowed one pill and took a drink.

His throat felt funny. He looked down. Blood was spurting out of a deep cut.

Mas pressed his thumb down between his heart and his wound, trying to staunch the bleeding.

Blood kept rushing out.

He pushed harder.

Finally, the bleeding stopped.

Mas lay on the ground, caked in blood. He heard footsteps, his unit, his friends, all soldiers rushing to meet the enemy.

Mas hurt. He was afraid. Mortars kept exploding around him, one flashing, then fading into darkness just as the next tried to kill him.

At the end, he felt proud. His parents would be proud. Japanese Gulch would be proud.

He shed blood for America. He fulfilled his duty to his country and to himself. Redemption.

The relief carried him into darkness.

Momotaro walked to the ocean. He wasn’t alone.

On his way, he’d shared his mother’s kibidango, sweet rice cakes, with a dog, a monkey and a pheasant.

They became friends, and promised to help Momotaro battle the devils.

The friends found a small boat and started paddling toward the island of the devils.

The ocean was still and quiet, but Momotaro could hear waves crash onto the shore in the distance. Paddle, paddle, paddle, all the way to shore.

A large castle loomed over Momotaro. He started running up the path.

Coming home

Seconds passed.

Minutes passed.

Time enough for the sun to rise.

Mas woke up, disoriented, exhausted.

He tried to move his limbs. They responded slowly.

He touched his throat. The deep gash was clotted over.

Somehow, he stood up. He started taking steps back to camp, dizzy from the pain in his back and legs.

The explosions were over. Other Americans kept pushing toward the enemy line.

Mas saw dead men along the trail. Young, with black hair and dark chestnut eyes, covered in blood, like him.

An advancing soldier caught his eye. It was Hiro.

The brothers slowed down as they approached each other. Hiro looked at Mas, then pointed at the blood.

Are you all right?

I’m fine, Mas said.

They kept walking. Hiro watched Mas stagger, and Mas hoped he wasn’t limping.

They each had other duties: Hiro’s job was to advance, and Mas had to get to the medics.

Mas reached the tent where doctors and nurses kept busy trying to save the wounded. A young soldier from the 100th Infantry was brought in, shot in the gut. Mas watched the man struggle for breath, then stop moving.

The doctors turned to Mas and started patching him up.

He spent a month recovering at a hospital.

His injuries weren’t serious enough to send him home. But he didn’t have another chance to fight. Germany surrendered a few days before Mas was returned to his unit.

The twins continued to serve in the occupation force in Italy.

It was there where Mas heard about two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He didn’t know that his parents’ hometown, Fukuyama, was destroyed by conventional bombs about a week before Japan surrendered. The house in which his mother grew up was gone.

Before the war ended, Japanese Americans were allowed to leave the relocation centers.

The twins reunited with their proud parents in the summer of 1946. Mas arrived first; Hiro came home a month later.

Their mother welcomed them, and let them rest. Her smile told them everything.

In the castle on their island, the devils shook their horns and swung iron bars to show off their might.

Momotaro faced them inside the castle. He was strong alone, but he was stronger with his friends.

He wielded his sword at the devils, cutting them down.

The dog bit them.

Some oni fell into the sea and drowned.

The monkey scratched them.

Some oni were beaten to death.

The pheasant pecked their faces.

Other oni surrendered.

The last oni threw down his iron bar, kneeled down at Momotaro’s feet and broke the horns off his head. He swore he wouldn’t hurt innocent people anymore, if Momotaro let him live.

The war was over.

Momotaro and his friends rowed back across the water, then parted ways. Momotaro walked back to his foothills.

Old Grandpa and Old Grandma welcomed him with big smiles.

And they lived forever after in a place of happiness and peace.

Boys behind the statue

Chilly rain blows over the statue and the old man, into his freckled, wrinkled face, into the salt and pepper hair he combs back.

It’s evening on Jan. 12, 2006. Mas Odoi is 84.

He visits Mukilteo now and then, to remember those days, when he and Hiro were boys.

After the war, Mas married, raised two sons, repaired TVs and held down a series of jobs in Illinois and California.

His parents, Teichi and Chikaye, now long gone, became U.S. citizens. After Chikaye arrived in Mukilteo as Teichi’s bride, she would never visit her family in Japan again.

The twins’ parents never talked much about the war. They became grandparents and enjoyed their grandchildren.

Hiro went back to college. He taught psychology at a university in Kansas, where he and his wife raised two boys and three girls. He died in 1993.

When Mas retired, he returned to the Pacific Northwest with Frances, his bride of 51 years. Mas always missed the woods and the brisk, clean air.

He would love to move back to Mukilteo. He can’t afford the rent. Instead, the couple lives in Renton, where things are more affordable.

Sometimes he walks through Japanese Gulch. Nobody lives there anymore.

Even as other people dump trash there, deer still leave hoof-prints through maples, firs and alders.

A railway still runs through the ravine, now delivering airplane parts shipped from Japan to Boeing’s assembly line.

Mas knows that one day he will die.

He also believes his memories of this place will live on, as will the community his parents helped build.

There will be evidence.

Mas looks through his rain- spattered bifocals at that proof, a small memorial in Centennial Park.

An origami crane, in bronze, perches on a granite base. Since World War II, origami cranes have come to symbolize peace. A message is inscribed on a plaque below.

In 2000, Mas and others from the Mukilteo Historical Society dedicated the sculpture to always remember the lives and friendships that existed in Japanese Gulch before World War II.

Stories can be written in newspapers or magazines, Mas says, but people will forget.

So these Japanese characters are intended to stay here a long time – long after the man standing here is gone.

Kofuku. Heiwa.

Happiness. Peace.

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