Asa Hanamoto

Asa Hanamoto
US Army, Military Intelligence Service – Technician 3rd Grade
World War II (1944-1946)

Asa Hanamoto, a veteran of World War II, grew up as a farm boy in Auburn, California.  He parlayed the skills learned on the farm, and in service, into a successful career in landscape architecture.  Few are aware, however, that Hanamoto is a highly decorated veteran.  For his efforts during World War II in the Military Intelligence Service, as a Japanese American, Hanamoto was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on November 2, 2011.  The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the United States Congress and is, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.  

Asa Hanamoto was born on November 30, 1923 in Lincoln, California.  He grew up in Auburn, California where his family had a fruit farm.  His parents were Japanese immigrants, or Issei, and he was one of six Japanese American siblings, also known as Nisei .  The entire family worked the fruit farm which was very prosperous.  When Hanamoto’s parents immigrated to the United States, they were unaware of the strict immigration laws in this country.  His parents were unable to become U.S. citizens, or own property in their name.  Eventually, they became citizens in 1958, and were able to hold title to the fruit farm by putting it in the name of an American born cousin.  Despite these injustices and later discrimination to him and his family, Hanamoto is proud to be an American. 

Hanamoto graduated from Placer Union High School in Auburn, California  in 1941.  He was in his first semester of college when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  As a twenty year old, Hanamoto had little understanding of the “political and economic ramifications between Japan and the U.S.” and recalled being “really shocked” at the attack and wondered “why Japan would want to attack the United States.”  After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atmosphere of World War II hysteria, the Hanamoto family became uncertain about their residency in America, as Issei and Nisei.  On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of all American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan.  This order also authorized the immediate transport of these people to hastily established assembly centers and relocation camps in California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon. 

Hanamoto recalls that he and his family, as Issei and Nisei, were initially considered 4-F, or enemy aliens by the Army.  He and his family were sent in May 1942 to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Northern California.  Hanamoto claimed, “it was a concentration camp; a prison with barbed-wire fences, guards, soldiers with guns, and the whole works.”  All he could think upon arrival at Tule Lake was “how do I get out of here?”  According to Hanamoto, “there is nothing so depressing and degrading, as being treated as such, just because you happen to have a Japanese face.  That was really quite emotional and depressing to me.”  Hanamoto’s family was one of the few to be sent directly to a relocation camp, as opposed to a temporary assembly center.  Upon receipt of the relocation orders, Hanamoto’s parents “just accepted it as fact and they did not contest it, even though it was unconstitutional.”  In the Japanese culture, he explained, “people are very obedient of what the law or the government says.”  They told Hanamoto and his siblings that they were going to do this together, and stick together as a family. 

He described life at Tule Lake as a depressing stage in his life.  Hanamoto was a prisoner solely because of his Japanese ancestry.  He described the living conditions as very grim.  He and his family lived in Army barracks that housed four or five families, with each family living in a twenty by twenty foot space, separated by tar paper partitions.  Quarters were cramped, they slept on Army cots, made whatever furniture they had, and the sole source of heat was a pot belly stove in each quarter.  Families ate together in a common mess hall and most got along.  The big issue, Hanamoto recalls, was the lack of privacy in the bathrooms and showers.  Overall, Hanmoto felt he coped poorly at Tule Lake.  When the War Relocation Authority announced it was looking for volunteers to pick apples in Idaho, Hanamoto quickly volunteered.  Although the work was hard, life in Idaho was far superior to life in Tule Lake.  He noted that the locals in Idaho were far friendlier than the people in California.  Hanamoto moved from picking apples in Idaho to other “stoop labor.”  Soon word got out in the farm community about these special laborers, and Hanamoto and the other Japanese Americans were soon working in farms across Idaho up to Oregon.  Overall, his time as a “stoop laborer” was not that bad, he received standard agricultural wages, and he had fond memories of breakfasts served with ham, eggs bacon, and muffins.  Life was certainly better for Hanamoto than his family stuck at Tule Lake. 

In February 1943, Hanamoto had to return to Tule Lake when all farming work ceased. He claims that the conditions were worse than when he left, and quite political.  Upon his return, the Army began questioning the loyalty of the camp inhabitants.  People were asked if they would be willing to serve in the armed forces and defend the United States, and foreswear any allegiance to Japan and the Emperor. Those that answered “no no” were viewed as disloyal, segregated, and kept permanently at Tule Lake until after the war.  Those “no nos” remaining at Tule Lake were later viewed negatively by Americans and lived for some time under a cloud of disloyalty.  Hanamoto and his family swore allegiance to the United States and his family was relocated to Jerome, Arkansas, and he volunteered to work on another farm in Salt Lake City.  His family was later moved to Amache, Colorado and incarcerated until the end of the war.  Hanamoto noted that his family was lucky because a close, caucasian friend took care of their farm during the war and returned it upon his family’s release in 1945.  Many families, however, lost everything when they were evacuated and the Hanamoto family was fortunate to be able to resume their old life after the war. 

In 1944, while working in Salt Lake City, Hanamoto received a draft notice from the Army.  He was not allowed as a Japanese American to serve in the Navy, could not live as a normal American citizen, but was allowed to serve in the Army.  Hanamoto reported for induction at Fort Douglas, Utah and gladly put life in the internment camp behind him.  After induction, he was sent to Camp Blanding in Florida for basic training.  He was trained to be a replacement for the 442nd Regimental Infantry Combat Team, a volunteer unit comprised of Japanese American soldiers, in Europe that was sustaining great loss.  According to Hanamoto, this unit sustained a casualty rate of 67% and made a name for itself, as the most highly decorated U.S. Army unit in the history of the Army.  Although Hanamoto was initially trained to be a replacement for the 442nd, he was to be later assigned to the Military Intelligence Service.  He does not recall any reaction from his family regarding his being drafted.  He was the only member of his family drafted. 

While at Camp Blanding, it was very hot and humid.  He had to dig foxholes full of chiggers that bit you, learned how to fight, and shoot rifles, machine guns and small cannons. More than anything, Hanamoto learned how to survive under bad conditions.  He remembered his training as fairly thorough and coped by just accepting that it was training to prepare him for service in Europe.  Overall, the food was pretty basic at Camp Blanding and the living conditions were not the best.  Hanamoto and other Japanese Americans training at Camp Blanding were segregated.  They had separate training and living quarters.  Other races, however, were also segregated like the black Tuskegee Airmen.  At this time, the Army established units based upon race and had a general policy of racism.  Most of his superiors were caucasian and they treated Hanamoto as an equal.  He felt his training was all tough and it was difficult to hike long distances with a rifle and 40 pound pack.  The going was so tough that many soldiers just collapsed on the road.  

While in training at Camp Blanding, he was interviewed by the Military Intelligence Service.  Instead of joining the 442nd Infantry, Hanamoto was sent in 1945 to Fort Snelling, Minnesota to train as an interpreter at the Military Intelligence School because he spoke Japanese and had attended a Japanese school in his youth.  Hanamoto was at Fort Snelling for six months and attended advanced Japanese language classes, and focused on learning Japanese geography, culture, and customs.  He was taught by Japanese American teachers called, Kibeis, who had studied in Japan and really knew the language and culture.  He remembered attending class from 8 am until 5 pm, six days a week, and that there was always homework.  In general, Hanamoto felt he was treated as an equal by his superiors.  All of the soldiers at Fort Snelling were Japanese American.  His living conditions were typical of the Army, he slept on a comfortable cot, shared barracks with other soldiers, and the food was pretty basic.  Hanamoto felt his training was very good and the interpretation and translation skills taught were appropriate for his intelligence position.  He had a hard time describing his morale, and felt fortunate “to be alive and was just taking life as it came.” 

Hanamoto was still training at Fort Snelling when the wars in Europe and Japan ended.  He claimed to “feel a sense of relief, as did everyone,” that the wars ended because “war was not the answer to our problems.”  Although World War II had ended, Hanamoto still had duties as an Army interpreter.  He thought his new role would be as an interpreter and translator to help smooth the transition from war to peace.  After completion of his training at the Military Intelligence School, Hanamoto was sent in 1945 to Manila to help process Japanese soldiers in the Philippines for their return to Japan.  There was not much work to do at the time and his stay lasted about one to two months.  He was bivouacked at a race track outside of Manila, was concerned about going into central Manila alone due to anti-Japanese sentiments, and in general, served as a holding unit.  At the time, his rank was Technical Sergeant.  The food was normal GI fare, the lodging was in houses, and the weather was miserable due to the high humidity.  Hanamoto did not feel apprehensive about being a Japanese American soldier in the Philippines. He was proud to wear an American uniform and did not feel that he was treated differently because he was an American, not  Japanese.  

From Manila, Hanamoto was temporarily assigned to Tokyo, Japan to General MacArthur’s G2 section, the Intelligence section.  This assignment, like Manila, was merely a holding assignment until he received formal orders.  He was in Tokyo for about a month and lived in a converted hotel.  Beyond this, Hanamoto had no real recollection of his time and duties in Tokyo, or how the locals treated him and the other Japanese American soldiers.  Hanamoto was next assigned to Ota, Japan and attached to the 187th Infantry Regiment as their interpreter and translator.  At this time in Japan, the U.S. Army would assign one Military Intelligence Services translator to every unit to facilitate working with the local Japanese people.  He was attached to the 187th Regiment for six months in Ota.  His primary duty was to serve as the interpreter and translator for the entire Regiment.  He was also involved with court martials, and provided oral translations for the Commanding Officer of the Regiment and the Regimental surgeon.  Hanamoto did a lot of work for the Regimental surgeon and regularly interfaced with the local Japanese people that worked with the unit.  In addition, he supervised several Japanese interpreters hired to work with the 187th doing translations. 

According to Hanamoto, the 187th Regiment was sent to occupy Ota and the surrounding area because the Nakajima Aircraft Corporation had their main aircraft factory there.  They occupied the Nakajima headquarters which was a good facility and he shared living quarters with the officers.  The living situation was fairly nice, he had locals to do all the cleaning and bed making, and the food was good.  Unlike other assignments, Hanamoto was not segregated.  He was treated equally by his fellow Americans.  In general, he worked regular hours from 8 am until 5 pm, six days a week.  He did not interface much with the regular unit GIs and was treated well by the officers because he was the primary source of communication with the Japanese.      

One of the duties of the U.S. occupation involved collecting all weapons and arms from the Japanese locals.  This included ceremonial Japanese sword and saber blades.  Hanamoto explained that in the Army warehouse in Ota, rows and rows of sword blades were stored.  He asked the Colonel what was to become of all of the blades and he was told they would be thrown in the river.  The Colonel agreed to let Hanamoto takes some of the blades as a souvenir.  He then went to the Chief of Police in Ota who referred him to a local sword smith.  The sword smith advised Hanamoto on how to determine the most valuable blades, and what to look for in general.  He ended up taking an armful of blades that turned out to be more than three to four hundred years old and very valuable.  The sword smith cleaned the blades up for Hanamoto and made a Shirasaya, a regular wood scabbard type mounting to store and carry the blades.  Hanamoto still has the blades today as a souvenir of his service in Japan. 

Overall, Hanamoto felt the biggest concern in Ota was how the locals would react to the U.S. occupation.  He felt the locals accepted the surrender by Japan and were fairly cordial.  This apprehension was ill founded and he quickly established a good relationship with the locals working in the office and was even invited to their homes.  He felt he was like a novelty to the locals as a Japanese American soldier, and there was much interest in why his parents came to America and his involvement with the Army.  At this time, he was still a Technical Sergeant.  He did not recall anything particularly difficult about this assignment other than lengthy, difficult public proclamation translations.  Hanamoto communicated a fair amount with the common people, and his training focused mostly on military type communications. 

Hanamoto felt his morale at this time was very good.  The Ota community was recovering well and the treatment by the U.S. in its occupation of Ota was viewed favorably by the locals.  He also felt his personal treatment by his fellow soldiers was on the positive side, although there were a few negative officers.  His most interesting recollection of his time in Ota involved doing translations for the Regimental surgeon.  The surgeon was charged with looking after the health of the American soldiers.  This not only meant the soldiers themselves, but any person the soldiers came in contact with, including office workers to brothel employees.  Hanamoto also drove for the surgeon and acted as translator interpreting conversations with local doctors, madams in the brothels, to local townspeople that worked in the office.  As a result, he met a cross section of the Ota community and had an opportunity to really experience its people and culture.  Hanamoto felt that the locals respected the U.S. presence and viewed the work of the Regimental surgeon favorably because he often helped locals, in addition to the American soldiers. 

Hanamoto returned to the United States in mid 1946 and was discharged from the military at Camp Blanding near Marysville, California, which was only thirty miles from his hometown of Auburn in Placer County.  His highest rank was Technician 3rd Grade.  He was not injured in his service and felt that he coped by believing that he had to just keep going forward in life and get through it.  Upon his return to Auburn, still wearing his American GI uniform, Hanamoto was greeted with signs in all of the storefronts that said, “No Japs.”  When he questioned a shop owner that he knew from childhood, he was told, “I had no choice.  Everybody was putting up the signs and I had to do it.”  According to Hanamoto, Placer County at this time was considered to be “redneck country.”  Seeing the signs just reinforced this belief for Hanamoto and made him feel bad.  However, he knew that decent caucasians still lived in this area and did not give up faith in his community.  Eventually, the “No Japs” signs disappeared.  Ironically, by the 1970s, “Placer County began electing Japanese American citizens into office”, claimed Hanamoto with pride.  He thought this was quite an achievement given the prior “No Japs era.” 

Hanamoto felt his discharge was a bright spot in his life.  He liked to be independent, did not like being confined, and did not like receiving orders.  He wanted to make his own decisions and that is how Hanamoto has lived the remainder of his life.  He was particularly proud of the efforts, bravery, and sacrifices of the 442nd Infantry in Europe, despite their ill treatment in the United States as Japanese Americans.  As a result of his service, Hanamoto received the usual medals and ribbons awarded for participating in World War II.  In addition, he was bestowed with a special award in November 2011 for his service in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II.  On November 2, 2011, Hanamoto and other Japanese Americans that served in Military Intelligence, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the 100th Infantry Battalion during World War II were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States.  Hanamoto commented that it was quite an occasion for him, as well as an emotional experience, because there were only 700 surviving soldiers.  Although the ceremony was a bright moment in his life, it was also sad for him and all other participants, because so many men had passed. 

Upon reflection on his service, Hanamoto commented that the most difficult part was the treatment of Japanese Americans by society and the “retarding factor” of being Japanese in America at that time.  He did not join the reserves upon his discharge and wanted to “completely cut off the Army.”  He also noted that just joining the Army was difficult for him.  The idea of going into the Army didn’t appeal to him, he didn’t have a choice, but Hanamoto knew it was his duty.  He felt that “service in the Army was part of our responsibility as citizens of the U.S. and he didn’t have any qualms about [joining].”  Hanamoto does not remember any particularly scary moments during his service other than one transport trip through a storm off the coast of Okinawa.  He also did not feel that his service really changed him.  In general, Hanamoto likes to look at life in a positive manner.  He believes that his service “certainly reinforced that feeling of looking positive because I think the only way you can really survive Army life is to be positive.” 

After Hanamoto’s discharge from the Army, he returned to school at Sierra Community College in Rocklin, California and received his AA degree in 1946.  Thereafter, he went to UC Berkeley and graduated in the top of his class with a degree in landscape architecture in 1950.  He used the GI Bill to pay for his education.  While at UC Berkeley, Hanamoto met his mentor, landscape architecture professor, Robert Royston.  Royston was also a principal in the firm of Eckbo, Royston and Williams, one of the leading landscape architecture firms in the country.  Hanamoto gladly joined the firm in the 1950s and became a junior partner in 1956.  In 1958, this firm split and Hanamoto joined Royston, now his good friend, as well as mentor, and formed Royston, Hanamoto and Mayes in San Francisco.  Hanamoto would go on to have a prosperous career in landscape architecture, was a visiting lecturer at numerous Universities, and proudly participated in several University Master Plans, natural resource studies in Oregon, and landscape provinces in California.  

Hanamoto felt that his service during World War II helped him mature and enabled him to “focus in on what he was doing at University.”  He recalled numerous veterans in his classes at UC Berkeley, the competition was high, and many of the graduates became leaders in their own professions upon graduation.  As a result, he felt his service provided him with good training to succeed in college and his later career.  Hanamoto retired in 1997 and currently resides in Mill Valley, California.  He is active in his local community, has served as a board member on the Japanese American Historical Society, and received the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the College of Environmental Design, University of California at Berkeley, for exceptional professional achievement in Landscape Architecture. 

According to Hanamoto, he would like others to learn from his service and discrimination as a Japanese American.  He believes that all of the Armed Forces should be integrated without separate units, as when he served.  He thinks the “United States is a country made up of immigrants and all of us are foreigners here…. The only way to get stronger is to re-integrate all of the various people that compose the United States in an integrated force.”  He further stated, “the only way to make an effective integrated force is to put everything altogether, so that we get rid of all these prejudices and discrimination that we’ve been exposed to over the past years.”  Hanamoto believes this concept is critical to our nation if we are going to survive and move forward.  

He would also like Americans to remember that we, “as a nation, we’re sort of the leaders in ending the war.  And, it’s very important that people remember that we have a lot of responsibility, not only to the American people, but to the world and how we conduct ourselves in this world.”  To go forward, Hanamoto noted, “we have to look in a positive and peaceful way to lead the world, not by more war preparation, but more toward going in a peaceful direction, so that we can really, truly lead the world in a positive manner.”  Hanamoto does not believe that the “military is the answer to solving any of the problems” in this world.  In closing, he thinks, “young people should strive toward resolving differences in a peaceful manner.  Up to now, a lot of differences have ended up in war which is very unfortunate.  And war is not a solution.  War is a stopgap measure and it doesn’t do, especially the loser any good, and even the victor has some stain that is hard to remove and I think a good example is, you know, the atomic bomb.  It ended the war, but still humanity looks at what it did and you say ‘can people do this to people?’  And that really disturbs me.”  Hanamoto believes we have to tell young people that “peace throughout the world is a goal that they should be seeking, so that we don’t have war as an option.” 

Today, Asa Hanamoto enjoys his retirement in Mill Valley, California near the gates of the Golden Gate Bridge, which welcomed him home from Japan and uplifted his spirits nearly 66 years ago.  He is not active in any veteran organizations although he did participate in local Reunions of the Military Intelligence Services.  Hanamoto, a California farm boy, proudly served his country despite discrimination and segregation.  He had a duty to his country and was honor bound to serve.  Hanamoto has a passion for peace and personal independence and has committed his life to these pursuits.  His continued commitment to community, family and country is a testament to his American spirit. 

Interview by Nicholas Elsbree on July 12, 2012.

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