Pearl Harbor mystery solved 71 years after the bombing
By William Cole | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: December 25, 2012
A Dec. 7, 1941, mystery involving racial suspicions and the disappearance of a Japanese family living next to Pearl Harbor was solved for an eyewitness to the aerial raid on the 71st anniversary of the attack.
Jimmy Lee was an 11-year-old when planes swooped over his family's farm in what was then known as Kalauao on the shores of Pearl Harbor.
Less than a mile from Battleship Row, Lee had a frightening front-row seat to the devastation that was unleashed that Sunday morning.
His family headed into the hills, and when they returned after the attacks subsided, Lee went to check on his friend Toshi Yamamoto, whose family ran a big fishpond next door.
Toshi, his father and his three sisters were gone.
What Lee would find out 71 years later is that armed military police, likely suspicious of the Japanese family living so close to Pearl Harbor, gave them 20 minutes to gather up what they could and get out.
Lee remembered seeing smoke and fire and ships burning. Small boats were circling the harbor searching for and picking up survivors and the dead.
"I ran down to Toshi's house when we got home, yelling and screaming, ‘Toshi, where you stay?'" Lee, now 82, recalled.
From that point on, Lee never saw the family again.
For decades, Lee wondered what had happened to Toshi, who was about 16 at the time.
Lee said he searched records — without luck — to see if the family had been detained, relocated or held in an internment camp.
There were rumors the parents might have been spies, he recalled.
He said he wrote letters to newspapers seeking information.
"My hope was that an old man like me would come up and say to me, ‘I'm Toshi,' but it never happened," Lee said.
Until Dec. 7, 2012.
It wasn't Toshi who reached out to Lee, but his son, Irwin Yamamoto, now 50.
The Star-Advertiser had published a story Dec. 3 about Lee, who related Toshi's disappearance.
"Dec. 7, 1941, was a tragic day for America, but for myself it was not only witnessing the attack, the excitement and the danger ahead, (but) I lost my good friend. It was an awful day for me," Lee said.
Irwin Yamamoto got an email from a cousin telling him to check out the newspaper story.
"She said, ‘You've got to take a look at this because it mentioned by name Toshi,' and I said, ‘That's got to be my father,'" said Yamamoto, who lives in Wahiawa.
Toshi died in 1994. His three sisters still live in Hawaii.
Lee was on Rick Hamada's radio show on Dec. 7, the 71st anniversary of the attack, and Yamamoto tried to call in.
Later that day the show called Lee, who called Yamamoto.
On Thursday they met in the parking lot of the Best Buy in Aiea where Lee's family used to have a farm and chickens, pigs, cattle and ducks.
"Mr. Lee!" Yamamoto said as he shook Lee's hand.
"Finally. Finally," Lee said back.
About 10 family members on both sides met for the first time.
Yamamoto, who teaches television production and digital media at Leeward Community College, doesn't have all the details, but he remembers his father telling him how the family was confronted by armed military police.
They had been at a funeral memorial service at the time of the attack.
Both Yonezo and Mine Yamamoto, Toshi's parents, are believed by the family to have been born in Japan. Mine died about eight months before the war at 37 or 38, Yamamoto said.
The military police showed up a day or two after the bombs fell.
"I remember my dad specifically saying they were like, ‘Oh, suspicious that you guys were not home on the day of the attack,'" Yamamoto said.
They were given 20 minutes to grab some stuff and leave — permanently, he said.
"I think it was for security purposes. I mean, it was so close to the harbor," said Randy Yoshimura, 49, Toshi's youngest sister's son.
The family was not detained, and Yamamoto thinks that may have been because Toshi's uncle was a sergeant in the Army and may have intervened on their behalf.
"I don't think (my grandfather) was ever fully interrogated," Yamamoto said. "Even though the first couple years of the war, apparently, they would come and talk to him intermittently."
The Yamamotos had just signed a new long-term lease with the McCandless estate for the use of the fishpond, but they went and stayed with family elsewhere in Aiea.
"They kind of sunk everything into (the fishpond), and pretty much they lost everything," Yamamoto said. "(My father's) dad ended up kind of drinking himself to death. He lost his wife, he lost his business."
Toshiyuki Yamamoto went on to work on a sugar plantation, for the University of Hawaii experimental farm and Hawaiian Cement.
Unknown to Lee, his childhood friend at some point adopted the name Ben T. Yamamoto, which was another reason Lee never found him.
Lee and Toshi's family on Thursday took in the remnants of the fishpond where the Yamamotos netted mullet and bonefish that they sold.
"Toshi and I, young as we were, we used to go fool around over there and go catch the fish. And right out here we used to go and dig clams and catch crabs," Lee said, sweeping his arm over to an area where some dilapidated piers remain.
"I remember (my father) had a scar on his leg, and he told me he got it from the barracuda inside the fishpond," Yamamoto said.
Much of the fishpond was later filled in and occupied by the Primo beer company, said Howard Chong Jr., president of the Healani Land Co, which owns land in the area. Chong's office used to be the Primo beer garden.
A portion of an overhead conveyor that used to transport beer from the bottling plant is still in place, near Best Buy, Chong said.
Yamamoto now jokes about the once-rumored spy connection involving his grandparents.
"It's time I told you we're a family of spies," he said he told the family, as his daughters smirked and rolled their eyes.
"Dad, I know that you are lying," said 9-year-old Emi Yamamoto.
Yamamoto understands that times were different then.
"It was war," he said. "Yeah, they lost their livelihood. It kind of destroyed the family, so to speak."
But the country also paid reparations years later. He recalls that his father and the three sisters were each paid about $20,000 during the Clinton administration.
"How many countries do that?" Yamamoto asked.
Lee said he found closure after 71 years.
On Dec. 12 he visited his friend's grave, marked "Loving Husband, Dad and Grandpa, Toshiyuki Ben Yamamoto."
"It was Toshi, as I silently bowed and whispered, ‘Goodbye, Toshi' for the first and last time," Lee said.