Nisei Christmas

“…Men speak of them well or ill; they themselves are silent.”

– Stephen Vincent Benet, Ode to Walt Whitman

One Christmas near Granada, Colorado in 1942 two soldiers sat in a dark cafe watching the snow come down. Snow was not a familiar thing to these two who would be shipping out for Sicily in a few days. There was no visible sun in the sky and the windows of the cafe looked as if they hadn’t been washed since the First World War concluded almost 25 years ago. One of the soldiers, Private Thomas Okamoto, would go on to be one of the most decorated fighting men in the European Theater. The other, also decorated, would serve for two years in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and see action at Salerno Bay, at Naples, at Cassino, and at Anzio. His name was Kiyoshi Nakamura. He was killed by a German sniper near Saverne, France in November of 1944. 

It was in late December of 1943, just north of Naples, that Nakamura met my uncle Clifford, and shared the following story.

We were staring out the window onto the soggy Colorado street. Private Okamoto was talking about his uncle’s strawberry garden back in California. We were not afraid to go to war but we were afraid of what may happen to our families behind barbed wire at Granada. A tall, thin rancher stumbled into the cafe, ordered coffee and sent a bone-chilling stare in our direction. It wasn’t a hostile look, more one of astonishment, of lassitude. He turned tiredly away from us and asked the walls and ceilings if we were spies.

Then, without warning, he approached our table. We thought he must be drunk.

“Looks like snow,” he said. “How long you been in?”

Private Okamoto answered him, followed by a crisp sir. He sat down.

“I’ve heard a lot of you pups were joining up,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to stare but you two are the first I’ve seen in uniform. Where they sending you?”

“Afica or maybe Europe,” I answered, “for the time being. We’re nor supposed to talk about it.”

“Loose lips sink ships,” said Okamoto.

“You won’t see much snow in those parts unless you make it up to the Dolomites. Where are you boys from?”

“Santa Ana, California, sir. We are only here for two days to visit our families in the camps. They were moved here in October,” I answered. “We brought them Christmas presents.”

“My name is Walters, Frank Walters. I remember spending a cold, wet Christmas at Cambrai, in France in 1917. I was at Belleau Wood as well, and with the Brits at Chateau-Thierry after the Germans broke through in 1918. I survived. At least I think I survived. A lot of them didn’t.”

“My uncle Joe was killed in the Argonne Forest,” I said. “His father and mother had only moved to the California in 1880 and they were proud of their native American son. They were presented his Silver Star.”

“And now our government is involved with another war with Germany…and this time with those bastards, the Japanese,” said Walters, catching himself. He looked at the floor.“You got a lot of family interned here at Granada?” he asked.

“Most of them,” I frowned. “The others, a cousin and Private Okamoto’s brother are in the army. We are Japanese-Americans, you know.”

“I know,” breathed Walters. “Good farmers. Good family people. I don’t think they deserve what they’re getting. Scaliwags up to no good. War profiteers of another stench, but the country’s in a panic.”

“After Pearl Harbor it’s not hard to believe,” said Okamoto.

Walters returned to his previous state, not saying anything for a few minutes, just staring out the window and then to the door as if expecting a visitor.

“How old are you boys?” he asked, returning to the present.

“I’m 19 and Kiyoshi is 20,” said Okamoto.

“The same age as my Tommy,” said Walters, after a moment. “He was lost when the West Virginia went down at Pearl Harbor last December,  he said as if still not comprehending the trauma. “It was a beautiful morning in Honolulu they tell me.”

We sat there in shock. After two days visiting Granada and 12 weeks in Georgia training to kill Germans, and perhaps even Japanese, we thought we’d reached a certain sense of numbness. Now we were sitting here with a World War I vet who had lost a son to the Imperial Navy, to young men our age, who looked like us.

My name is Tommy,” offered Okamoto, stumbling over his words in some attempt to ease the pain that all were feeling by now.

“You’re all just children,” said Walters, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. “We were children too and it’s another Christmas. Babies with guns and tanks and planes. Germans and Japanese and English and French. Dead because of incompetemnt, greedy and power hungry leaders, or are we just blood-seeking animals standing erect? It’s insane,” he shook his head methodically from side to side. “They put your families in camps and yet you volunteer.”

“No matter how bad things seem we must retain honor,” said Okamoto.

“Honor,” answered Walters, gathering his emotions. “You boys had better drop back a few notches on the honor and hold onto a little common sense when you get over there,” he said. The Germans are entrenched all the way up the peninsula. It’ll be no picnic.”

“It’s a noble war,” said Okamoto.

Walters smiled a distant almost shell-shocked smile and changed the subject to the wine he had drunk, the friends he had made and the women he had met in France during his war. He somehow remembered these things and pushed the other horrors to the side. We both hoped this would be the case with us, if we survived.

He then took us totally off guard and asked us to write him a letter saying that it would get to him in Lamar without an address.

“Just send it to Frank Walters,” he said.

We told him we’d send him a postcard from Rome or maybe Berlin and asked him to watch out for our families if he could.

“I’ll do that,” he said, getting up and disappearing into the snowstorm.

– Kevin Haley


Filed Under: Lifestyles at Risk


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