Sunday, March 31, 2024

James Iso and the Book of Names

The extraordinary James Iso at Heart Mountain in 2014

Thursday Peggy shared a podcast about a book compiled by students at the University of Southern California to recognize the 125,284 Japanese American citizens imprisoned without due process at so-called internment camps during the Second World War. The oldest, Yaeichi Ota, was 90 when he was shipped to the camp in Arkansas and the youngest, Paul Masachi Masumoto, was born in the Crystal City, Texas camp in 1947 more than a year after the war ended. According to Professor Duncan Ryukan Williams of the University of Southern California whose team compiled the names, “We were going to give people their dignity, their personhood, and their individuality back by making sure we named them correctly in the book and made sure we didn’t leave anybody out, and also that we spelled their names correctly.” The project took three years.

The book is currently on exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. It’s in an alcove off the museum’s main lobby where it’s displayed on a pedestal, beautifully bound, and lit like a sacred object. On a thousand pages are 125,284 names to finally be remembered.

A docent flips to the page for Karin Nakahira-Young’s mother Toyoko Toyo Hirai. Nakahira-Young declares “I don’t want to cry on the book.”  She takes a small ink stamp and presses a blue dot next to her mother’s name. The exhibit’s goal is to have every name individually recognized this way. Other than by stamping the book, visitors aren’t supposed to touch it. An old man bent over to kiss the name of his wife who had recently died. Many pages are stained by tears. When I listened to the podcast and got to the part about tear stained pages I thought about James Iso. My eyes welled up and I sobbed. I collected myself and began crying again,

James Iso and Heart Mountain Director Brain Liesinger

James Iso arrived at the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Powell, Wyoming in 1942. He was 18. Iso and I met at the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage in 2014. I sat across the dinner table from Mr. Iso and overheard him tell the Wyoming Veterans Affairs Commissioner that he had served in three wars. When I encountered him in the museum the next day I introduced myself and said, “Last night I overheard you say that you served in three wars. How is that even possible?”

“It’s true. I served  in World War Two, Korea and Viet Nam but not always in uniform. I started out in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team along with my brother, John. Iso is quoted as saying that he joined the military to “prove beyond a shadow of doubt, my patriotism.”

”But because I spoke Japanese, I became an intelligence operative assigned to General McArthur. We shortened the war by two years by planting disinformation that led the Japanese forces on failed missions throughout the Pacific. The 442nd gets all the recognition because it was the most decorated unit in the war, but we made a major difference behind the scenes, too.”

James Iso and his brother were awarded Congressional Gold Medals in recognition of their patriotism and service to their country. Ronald Reagan appointed him a Foreign Service Officer, a consular officer, and a secretary in the Diplomatic Service of the United States.

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

After a day's delay along with a re-read of this week's wonderful blog and story, it is time to comment. James Iso's story is amazing, and the fact that you met him at the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage in 2014 is even better. At to that the podcast that Peggy brought to your attention about the book compiled by students at the University of Southern California, the story is absolutely compelling. So many mistakes have been made throughout human history and American history, and the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor is one of those monumental and heart wrenching mistakes. The fact that James Iso served America during three wars definitely proved his patriotism, but my bet is that the prejudice came home with him. I am thrilled that Ronald Reagan gave both him and his brother Congressional gold medals. It is not nearly enough. The book that sits to be revered and acknowledged on exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles says much. Thank you, Steve, for telling us the story so that we can remember to avoid doing anything like this again.