Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bob Mizukami: "We Had to Prove Ourselves"

Bob Mizukami: “We Had to Prove Ourselves”
By Hans Zeiger
(A version of this article appeared in the Puyallup Herald on April 8, 2009)

Bob Mizukami once visited Puyallup High School to talk about how his life changed in May 1942, two years after his graduation from Fife High School and several months after the beginning of World War II. He told about the evacuation orders, about leaving behind his home and his family’s greenhouse business, about entering the Puyallup fairgrounds, about the barracks and the barbed wire and the year that there was no Fair, and the prejudice. “Most students from Puyallup High School didn’t know anything about those things,” he said. “They were surprised to hear that such a thing would be happening in our country, in our own backyard.”

“It was kind of a shock to us,” said Mizukami, “because we didn’t know that we would have to leave. We were born and raised in America. We were American citizens. We could understand our parents being interned, but evacuation should never have happened to anybody of American citizenship.”

The Mizukami family and hundreds of other evacuees of Japanese descent from Seattle and the Puyallup Valley reported to Puyallup City Hall between May 14 and 16. Families could bring only what they could carry as they entered the fairgrounds that week. Camp administrators issued mattress covers to be filled with straw and assigned families to small rooms in makeshift barracks. Over the next few months, the internees ate together in a mess hall, organized dances and activities, and learned to get along in the close quarters of “Camp Harmony.”

In September, the internees were relocated by train to the desert of Idaho. They called the new camp “Minidoka.” There, 211 young men enlisted in the military, including 36 from Pierce County.

All three Mizukami brothers—Bob, William, and Frank—enlisted and served in the 442nd Infantry, an all-Japanese-American regiment. All three had good reason to stay at Minidoka with their parents and two sisters, and all three volunteered. “Others may have said that they don’t know whether they could go into the service with their parents in the concentration camp,” said Bob. “We went in with a different purpose. We had to prove ourselves.”

William, a quiet Fife High basketball player, was younger than Bob by one year and one day. When Bob left the internment camp for training at Fort Douglas, Utah, he instructed William to care for the family in his absence. “Well, he had other ideas about that,” Bob recalled. It wasn’t long before William abandoned his familial duties and met up with Bob in the infantry school at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

The two brothers were assigned to the same company in the 522nd Field Artillery. They went ashore at Anzio in June 1944 and fought through German-occupied territory below the Arno River. The fighting was intense. One night, about three weeks into the Italian campaign, the boys from Fife found a moment to chat. “Some of those shells are getting awfully close,” said William “Well,” said Bob, “what do you want me to tell them when I get home?” No reply. They only laughed.

The next day, July 11, 1944, William paid the ultimate price for the country that had interned him in the Puyallup fairgrounds. “He was killed from a mortar shell. We were in the same company, but I didn’t know about it until several hours later that evening. There was no break. They were stacking them up like cordwood. I really didn’t spend that much time thinking about it. You see all that death all the time. It was another casualty and that’s about it.”

The 442nd advanced through Italy into France, liberating Bruyeres in October and rescuing the Texas 36th Infantry Division, the “Lost Battalion,” at the price of over 200 Japanese-American lives. While Bob moved from a jeep to help clear a tree that had fallen across a road in the Vosges Mountains, a German mortar blasted the side of the road and sent shrapnel into Bob’s face. He was quickly bandaged and returned to his company.

The survivors spent the hard winter of 1944-1945 defending Nice, then moved south back into Italy to conquer the Germans’ Gothic Line. Bob and the 442nd had far more than their fair share of combat. “A lot of time we were considered cannon fodder, getting tough assignments,” said Bob.

Finally—even after the loss of one brother and the wounding of the other—Frank joined the Third Battalion of the 442nd late in 1944. He was aboard a ship bound for Italy when the war in Europe came to a victorious end.

Though many Puyallup Valley Japanese-Americans moved elsewhere after the war, Bob and Frank Mizukami returned to their furusato—their home—to give even more to the community that they and William left in 1942. Bob and Frank resumed their father’s greenhouse business. After helping to incorporate the City of Fife in February 1957, Bob sat on the city council, serving as mayor from 1980 to 1987.

“I was proud to become mayor of my native area that I was evacuated from, booted out, so to speak,” he said.

Hans Zeiger is documenting the experience of local veterans and Japanese-Americans during World War II. Contact him at 253-905-8160 or