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Memorial Day ceremony remembers Japanese-American veterans who 'had to prove' loyalty

100-year-old Army veteran Nori Masuda, left, catches up on old times with Army-Navy veteran Clarence Suzuki, 92, right, before the Memorial Day service at the Nisei War Memorial at Roeding Park Monday morning.

JOHN WALKER/THE FRESNO BEE (TNS)

By ASHLEIGH PANOO | The Fresno Bee (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 30, 2017

An intimate crowd gathered at the Nisei War Memorial in Roeding Park in Fresno, Calif. on Monday, honoring the 29 names inscribed on the wall who fell in combat, and remembering the difficulties Japanese-Americans faced during World War II when their loyalties to the U.S. were questioned.

Ruth Woneda, who has been attending the ceremony for at least 10 years, said it’s important to support Japanese-American veterans because they have not always felt welcomed. She said Japanese-Americans who joined the military during World War II not only fought for their country, but for their identities as patriots.

“They didn’t have a choice,” Woneda said. “They had to prove they were Americans.”

Before, during and after the intimate ceremony, many in the crowd shook hands or hugged, already familiar with each other. Many have been attending for years to support family and friends who are part of the ceremony.

In years past, Woneda used to have more company when she attended.

“My granddaughters used to come in Girl Scouts,” she said, “Now they are all grown. They don’t come anymore, but I do.”

Woneda was chosen to place a wreath this year, representing her church, she said.

The wreath-placing ceremony is part of a tradition that has taken place for 66 years, according to Army veteran Ken Takeuchi with Hanford Nisei Liberty VFW Post 5869.

Takeuchi said the memorial is important because it signifies the honoring of a segment of Americans who may not have felt they were recognized for their sacrifices. “Japanese-Americans were also in internment camps at the time,” he said of World War II.

Among the 29 names on the memorial, 24 are from World War II, two from the Korean War and three from the Vietnam War. Two were Medal of Honor recipients.

“Each year we’re very fortunate to get to honor and reflect on those that have departed,” Takeuchi said.

After his name was called, Clarence Suzuki, 92, walked solemnly up the steps to the memorial. Suzuki was in the military during World War II. The Army commander was a Japanese-language interpreter who worked in Tokyo interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. He was also in the Navy for a time, he said. He placed a wreath below the memorial, pausing to salute before resuming his place with the other Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8499 veterans.

During the 30-minute ceremony, a Christian prayer was recited by the Rev. Akiko Miyaki-Stoner and the Rev. Matthew Hamasaki addressed the group from the Fresno Buddhist Temple.

Also among the 50 or so people at the park was Kathy Wix, whose husband has led the junior Navy ROTC unit from Hanford West High School for 15 years. The unit put on a 21-gun salute and played “Taps” during the ceremony.

John Wix is the senior naval instructor at the school and a retired Navy officer. This will be Wix’s last year teaching the ROTC students, according to Kathy Wix. “He’s retiring,” she said.

John Wix also placed a wreath for his last time as instructor.

A train that was scheduled to come through Golden State Boulevard, directly behind the memorial, stopped two miles north of the park, Takeuchi said. It would resume after all the wreaths were placed, in honor of the fallen.

Not enough could be said about the 29 people who lost their lives and the families who had to carry on without their loved ones, Takeuchi said.

“Their unselfish act of courage, written in history, will forever remain a legacy,” he said. “Our freedom carried a profound cost.”

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©2017 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)
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