Inside HONOLULU: Remembering the Nisei Veteran in My Family
Sometimes you need a little (or big) push to remember what’s important.
His name was Bumpa—a soft-spoken, gentle and patient man who filled my childhood with fun, laughter and love. My earliest memories of him are of his distinct laugh—it wasn’t loud, but it was contagious. His entire face would light up, the wrinkles on his forehead becoming more pronounced as a big smile swept across his cheeks.
He was the one and only grandpa I’d ever known. I couldn’t pronounce his name until I was 3, so before he was Grandpa, he was Bumpa and Gunpa (I had issues with the grr sound). Although he was always smiling (and making light of my grandma’s yelling), I know he had a difficult childhood. The oldest of six kids, he lost his dad and dropped out of high school to provide for his family. This was one of the reasons he enlisted in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II.
Grandpa never talked about the war. But when a high school project prompted me to start digging into our family history, I started asking him questions. I’m so thankful for that school project. At least I knew more about his service before he died in 2012.
That’s why when my editor, Christi Young, asked if I’d like to write a story on the revered Japanese American soldiers who fought in WWII, I was 100% in. Instead of focusing on their distinguished service, we wanted to get to know them as people and find out what life after war was like. I hoped to find just five veterans willing to talk to me. But we met with 17 of them and captured their portraits and stories.
Over four months, I spent 40 hours interviewing these veterans, most in their 90s, and their families and trying to put them at ease at photo shoots. Their tales of resilience, family and love were so inspiring and touching. It showed me that there is life and happiness after tragedy and war. We laughed. We joked. I cried.
I also caught glimpses of the loving families they built. I spotted kids laughing and talking story with their grandparents. I saw photos of their many family trips, birthday parties and celebrations. During an interview at a retirement home, my eyes welled up as I watched a young man eating lunch with his grandpa in the cafeteria. I’ve never been so envious of complete strangers in my entire life. I kept thinking, “They’re so lucky.”
But then I realized that I, too, am lucky. Talking to them helped me connect with my grandpa in ways I never thought possible. It also comforted me in a way that I haven’t felt since he died. I saw pieces of him in every single veteran—in their voices, their laughter, their stories and even how they dressed. The 22 years of memories I had with my grandpa came flooding back. I realized that I needed to focus on that instead of feeling sad that he’s not here. Whether they know it or not, they gave me such an amazing gift. I cannot thank them enough for that.
This is a behind-the-scenes story from the cover feature, “Soldiering On.” Read more about the life stories of 17 nisei veterans living in Hawai‘i in the December 2019 issue of HONOLULU, available on newsstands now or for purchase at shop.honolulumagazine.com. Subscribe to the print and digital editions now.