Vet center official: Respect should be shown every day
Lt. Saburo Maehara was 29 years old and a long way from home when he scribbled a letter to his daughter, Susan Miki, during a break in fighting on a World War II battlefield in Italy.
“It has been so long since daddy last wrote to Miki,” he told his 2 1/2-year-old daughter. “Dear Miki must be very angry at daddy. Excuse me, sweetheart. Daddy has been very busy . . . “
The letter, dated Jan. 17, 1945, is among the most poignant items included in an exhibit of wartime memorabilia in the Education Center at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. The Education Center was blessed and officially opened its doors Saturday, 28 years after the project was launched.
Inside the Education Center, display items including photos, uniforms, medals and books brought tears to the eyes of several of the visitors who viewed them, respectfully, like cherished family heirlooms.
As one might expect in writing to a child, Maehara, a member of the 100th Battalion, Charlie Company, didn’t mention the war, its fierce fighting or the many other hardships that he and his Japanese-American comrades must have endured. Instead, he created, for her, a sense of normalcy.
“I wish you were here, Miki, then daddy will take you for long walks through the parks and streets,” he wrote. “It is very beautiful. The trees are still green, although it’s very cold. The little girls all walk with big coats and mufflers, and when the wind blows they put their tiny hands into their pockets.”
In the letter, there’s a roughly drawn picture of a girl in a coat and one of a building with bushes nearby. Then, he told his daughter how he looked forward to a future with her – one that would never come.
“Yes sweetheart, daddy will be back soon to take Miki on trolley rides, bus rides, walks and even teach Miki to drive daddy’s car,” he wrote. “Be a good girl. Dear Miki, you’re a big girl now, so don’t make mommy angry. Mommy wrote and said that Miki is always a very, very good sweetheart. Hooray! Take good care of mommy for daddy and don’t forget to give her a big kiss before you go to sleep. Good-bye. Daddy.”
Among the dozens of people who came to see the Education Center on its first day was Dorothy Nakata, 84, of Kula. For her, the exhibit of Maehara’s letter was personal. She knew the lieutenant killed while fighting in the hills near Pisa, Italy. Born in Puunene on April 15, 1915, Maehara died on his 30th birthday.
“It was very sad for me. I knew him so well,” Nakata recalled. “He came from a very big family, a very humble family. He was my first teacher when I went to Baldwin High School. And he lived only two doors away from me, so I got to know him well. His wife was from New York.”
Then, after the war broke out, “he was sent to Europe,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say to his wife (after her husband died) but maybe she should go back to New York because she had no family here.”
She said the family did move back to New York, and Nakata was unable to reconnect with them.
During opening ceremonies for the Education Center, Nisei Veterans Memorial Center President Hiroshi Arisumi said no one needs to wait for Memorial Day to honor the nation’s fallen heroes. That respect should be shown every day, he said.
“They gave us their lives,” Arisumi said. “These guys wanted to come home. They wanted to get married, too, and they wanted to raise a family. They wanted to own a home. But they just gave us their all.”
He urged visitors to view a plaque near the Education Center’s entrance that has the names of nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, who sacrificed their lives during the war.
If visitors see familiar names and feel a connection, then “please say a little prayer for them,” he said.
Regarded as one of the prime driving forces behind the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, Leonard Oka, president of Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans, shared some of the project’s history.
He recalled how it began 28 years ago with his group writing a letter to Alexander & Baldwin Inc., seeking a donation of land to develop the multipurpose veterans center. A&B agreed to donate 2 acres, and later another 4 acres were added, Oka said. He thanked the late former Mayor Hannibal Tavares for helping to get the project started.
He also credited the inspiration of his father, Clarence “Hekka” Oka, a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who died in February 1991.
“He wasn’t here most of the time during this project, but he was always with me,” he said, at one point showing a photo of his father that he carried with him during a three-week tour of European battlefields.
“We’ve had our ups and downs and bumps and bruises, but through the 28 years all of you have stuck beside us,” Oka told invited guests. “Each and every one of you has been invited here today because you played a very important part in helping us through this journey.”
Capital campaign Chairman Brian Moto, son of the late Kaoru Moto, a Medal of Honor recipient, thanked all those who contributed more than $1 million toward the cost of the facility. The names of donors have been enshrined in a roll of honor, he said, and will be “forever remembered” at the center.
Moto told the audience of approximately 50 people, including Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui and Mayor Alan Arakawa, that the Education Center will be a place to honor Maui’s wartime heroes, and “you will be filled with pride and joy as I am today.”
The 2,100-square-foot center, the third and final phase of the memorial center that includes a preschool and an adult day care center, houses the Nisei Veterans Archives, an extensive collection of books, oral histories and one-of-a-kind family albums, photographs and personal letters from World War II.
“The young nisei who fought heroically in Europe and the Pacific – and became the most highly decorated soldiers in U.S. Army history – played a pivotal role in our country’s march toward civil rights,” the center’s website says.
The Education Center includes a workroom with counter space for researchers to view documents and artifacts. “Through oral histories, photographs, diaries and letters from the battlefront, the nisei soldiers will share their love of country, fear of battle and inkling that theirs were important first steps toward what today we call ‘civil rights,’ ” according to center officials.
The workroom doubles as a classroom to host high school and college seminar classes where students will learn about the values of citizenship, honor and integrity, “as told through the humble words of nisei veterans who left Maui’s plantation camps and made an indelible mark in history.”
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.