Sunday, December 06, 2020

Men in Hats, Part Four - Polar Opposites


James Iso who served in WWll, Korea and Viet Nam

One August a few years back I attended the annual pilgrimage at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp near Cody, Wyoming. I had visited Manzanar a decade before, but it was a chance encounter with the Topaz Camp in Delta, Utah that piqued my interest in the great American tragedy that began in 1942. There on a windblown patch of desert was the footprint of the Topaz camp. The broad nothing exemplified the intent of the U.S. government, which was to exile 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them citizens, to the most inhospitable and remote places they could find. Topaz and Heart Mountain were such places, dry and hot in summer and snowbound in winter and windblown all year long.

That it was a human tragedy is well established. The revelation to me was the resilience of the internees who faced their oppression with dignity and resolve, an attitude called “gaman” which is to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. The Northern California internees were gathered in horse barns at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California. Then they were disbursed to ten camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. Yes, Arkansas.

I was waffling about attending Heart Mountain’s August Pilgrimage. I wasn’t sure that it was appropriate for a non-Japanese to participate. But when I asked Brain Liesinger, the camp’s executive director at the time, he replied “It’s absolutely appropriate.” To visit the camp with a dwindling number of former internees felt like an act of civic duty.

The attendees, from former internees to their great grandchildren, were the most inspiring I’ve ever encountered. They were energetic, warm, and accomplished to a person. I was in awe of them. It was a great privilege to be in their presence,

James Iso and Wyoming Veterans Affair Commissioner Ron Akin

None was more impressive than James Iso of Rosewood, California. At the opening dinner I was seated with Ron Akin, the Veterans Affairs Commissioner of Wyoming, a liberal of all things in the Cowboy State, and two former internees, one of whom was Mr. Iso. During the opening presentation I overheard Akin tell someone that Iso had served in three wars. I took that to mean that James Iso had served in WWll, Korea and Viet Nam. It seemed implausible.

The next day during my visit to the interpretive center I introduced myself. I said, “Last night I overheard that you served in WWll, Korea and Viet Nam. Is that even possible?”

He replied, “Yes, not always in the military but always in uniform.” Channel your inner Graham Greene with that morsel.

Iso continued, “You know we shortened the war by two years. Everybody talks about the 442nd Regimental Combat team but some of us served in other ways. We translated Japanese communications, broke their codes, and leaked misinformation. In one case we won a major battle when the Japanese commander acted on our false information. I told Mr. Iso that it was one hell of a story and dangled the idea of writing it. He intimated that he’d prefer a younger Japanese American to write his story and it’s hard to argue the point.

As our conversation wound down, I asked him how old he was. He said, “Guess.” I didn’t want to, but the math added up to old. He declared with more than a little pride, “I’m ninety.” I was nonplussed. James Iso was bright eyed and beyond intelligent. He looked me dead in the eye as we spoke. He moved effortlessly and wore a suit like a man half his age. I was in my mid-seventies and he was my peer.

John Bustos and the honor guard

Then I had a peripheral encounter was with retired First Sargent John Bustos. He would be commanding the local honor guard when it saluted the 800 Japanese American internees from Heart Mountain who a fought in World War Two. The day before the festivities I was scouting the camp when a burly gentleman asked why I was photographing the camp. I told him I was attending the pilgrimage and that I had deep interest in the camps and wanted to capture the spirit of the occasion. 

First Sargent John Bustos

Bustos, the son of an immigrant Mexican mother, told me he had served 27 years in the Army and had earned his stripes in the Viet Nam War.  He was an imposing guy. At 70 he packed 200 pounds of muscle on his 5’-7” frame and looked like he could still lead a platoon into battle. He was a big talker and a bad listener.  While his smile was bright, his eyes were cold. And he had politics to the right of Attila the Hun. He told me there was one live round in the volleys to be fired during the ceremony. That round, he told me, was reserved for President Obama. He told me twice to be sure I heard him. It was that funny, I guess.


John Ellsworth said...

What a great story! Thanks for that. My God, you lead such an interesting life with your willingness to jump right into things. You alwaYS did have that propensity and, when we were young, I benefited from it. Because of you I got to do things and see things that I still think about warmly today. You're a pretty neat fellow, fellow. Nice story!

Blacks Crossing said...

Thanks, John Ellsworth, for taking the words right out of my mouth. All true, Esteban! And I thank you, Steve, for writing about the Japanese internment camps the day before Pearl Harbor Day. As is invariably the case, the fog of war blurs not only the present, but sometimes the future. It is a fine thing indeed that you and many highlight this horrible part of American history by documenting your trip as Part 4 of Men in Hats. I tend to forget that there was an internment camp in Santa Fe, in the Casa Solana neighborhood, and your piece reminded me of that. Another piece of stellar writing and a great capture of the extremely conservative First Sergeant John Bustsos. Including this in Shadow and Light may well bring the interment camps to the fore for many who are too young or have not studied the time. Nice job!

Steve Immel said...

Thanks amigo. My pledge is continue to dive into the deep end as long as my body permits. From my perspective I've been pretty timid. 2020 has been a test; a torn rotator cuff, a broken hip, a melanoma and now acute sciatica. Not to mention our national nightmare. I hope to be a semblance of my former self so that I can meet more heroes like James Iso.

Here's to seeing you somewhere in the bright new year.

Steve Immel said...

Daryl, Men in Hats, now four posts long, will be woven into my January-February article for Shadow and Light. There are still a couple of more posts in the series so I won't be able to use it all. But Part Four will make the cut I'm sure. I only wish I had a better portrait of Mr. Iso. He deserved better. I reached out to him after our meeting in 2014 and included a copy of my post about him. I did not hear back. He would now be 96. In 2018 a WWll historian friend in San Francisco looked him up and he was still with us.