Norio Uyematsu, 93, a Japanese American and Korean War veteran shown at his home in Anaheim on Feb. 1, 2024, served with the 521st Military Intelligence Service Platoon in the Korean War spent time. During World War II Uyematsu and his family were interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Park County, Wyo.

Norio Uyematsu, 93, a Japanese American and Korean War veteran shown at his home in Anaheim on Feb. 1, 2024, served with the 521st Military Intelligence Service Platoon in the Korean War spent time. During World War II Uyematsu and his family were interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Park County, Wyo. (Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register, SCNG/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans to “relocation centers” during World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Among them was the family of Anaheim resident Norio Uyematsu, then 11 years old. Uytematsu and his family were imprisoned along with thousands at the Heart Mountain confinement camp in Wyoming.

After the war ended in 1945 and thousands of Japanese American families were later released, Uyematsu went on to enlist in the U.S. Army at age 17. He served with the Military Intelligence Service during the Korean War before he was honorably discharged.

Now 93 years old, Uyematsu — who affectionately goes by “Nori” — wants to give back. The decorated veteran is traveling to Washington, D.C., to donate his carefully kept collection of post-war memorabilia to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History military collections.

Uyematsu will also be part of the Smithsonian’s “Day of Remembrance” ceremony on Monday, Feb. 19, which marks the 82nd anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, in collaboration with the Japanese American Citizens League.

Uyematsu, along with other veterans who have donated items, hopes to preserve the legacy of the Japanese Americans who served in the Korean War.

“I think it’s nice to give recognition to all those who served — especially the ones who weren’t able to come back,” Uyematsu said. “They’re the ones who I feel should get recognition. We came back alive, and I got more than enough.”

Among the donated items include Uyematsu’s Korean “Ambassador for Peace” proclamation and other honorable medals, newspaper clippings from different eras of Uyematsu’s life, a book detailing Japanese veterans in the Korean War, and a plaque commemorating his service as three-time commander of the Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670 in Orange County. Uyematsu’s own veterans’ jacket and garrison hat from wartime are among the donations to the collection.

Jennifer Jones, a museum curator with the Armed Forces History Division at the Smithsonian, said that Uyematsu’s gift shows “how veterans continue to serve within our society, and documents his commitment to veterans, the history of the Korean war, remembering fallen comrades, and those that have served their country.”

“Through donations such as this, we are able to tell a more inclusive and nuanced story of the American soldiers and their experiences, both during war and beyond,” Jones added.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has several collections of donated objects and archival materials related to Japanese American veterans from World War II, including uniforms and scrapbooks, and post-war materials, Jones said. The museum has “little from the Korean War period related to Japanese Americans,” and a small collection of Japanese American POW items.

“(Nori) always wanted to be in the background — an organizer of reunions, to bring people together,” said Patti Hirahara, a Smithsonian donor and close friend of Uyematsu’s, who helped make the effort possible. Her father and grandfather were also incarcerated at Heart Mountain. “He’s like a second father to me — I said to him that if he wants his story to be known, it’s time to step up and tell the story.”

Looking back

As a veteran, Uyematsu looks back on those memories of living in captivity — and later serving his country — with deep reverence. He was born in Cupertino, and his parents owned a 5-acre walnut farm in Campbell and had to sell the farm for a mere $500 when the family was forced to evacuate in 1942.

He remembers going to the Pomona Assembly Center — now the Pomona Fairplex — and then taking a train along with thousands of Japanese Americans to Heart Mountain.

“I remember the armed soldiers. I remember hearing from my uncle about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I didn’t know what that was,” Uyematsu recalled of those years. “For me, as an 11-year-old, I was surrounded by bunks with Japanese children who looked like me. I remember when we were in camp, we were put into one room. The barracks all varied in size … the rooms all had just one hanging light and a small stove. The bathrooms were all community-type; there was no privacy when you took a shower or used the bathroom.”

After thousands of Japanese American families were later released in 1945, the end of the war, Uyematsu and his family found themselves with no home left in California, and nowhere to go.

“We lost everything; we had no place to go. So our family settled in Brigham City.” The area in northern Utah became a hub for many Japanese families after the war, and LDS farmer Earl Gunther Anderson hired many Japanese as farm workers.

Uyematsu recalled living in a chicken coop converted into living quarters, and his father helping to manage the Anderson farm. He saw animosity and segregation toward Japanese Americans at the time, and remembers being one of a few Japanese Americans at his school — so for his family to be able to find work was “really amazing.”

After graduating high school in 1958, Uyematsu knew he wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army. He and many others were inspired by the all-Japanese Nisei units who served during World War II, including the highly decorated 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regional Combat Team.

“I just wanted to get away, after going through what we went through, and to serve,” he said. “It was because of them, (that) when the Korean War started (in 1950), we tried to follow in their footsteps.”

Uyematsu trained at Japan’s Misawa Air Base before he was sent to Korea to serve in the Army’s Military Intelligence Service to interrogate prisoners of war, though he didn’t speak Japanese. He recalled cramped living quarters with no heat, eating canned goods, seeing the wounded.

At 22 years old, Uyematsu was honorably discharged and went back to his family in Brigham City, before he eventually made his way west to California and settled in Orange County, an area that was attractive to Nisei farmers and businessmen moving from L.A. He pursued a career in electrical engineering, got married to Hanako Rose in 1957, and had three sons, eventually settling in Anaheim in the 1960s.

Wanting to stay involved and help connect veterans, Uyematsu joined the VFW, becoming a three-time commander of the Kazuo Masuda Memorial VFW Post 3670 in Garden Grove, and hosted many reunion events.

His post-war involvement and service never stopped. He, along with other veterans, paid tribute to those who fought and died in America’s “Forgotten War”. They were involved in a memorial committee for the Japanese American Korean War Memorial in L.A.’s Little Tokyo.

In July 2022, Uyematsu attended a Korean War Veterans Memorial “Wall of Remembrance” dedication ceremony in Washington, D.C., where he was the only Japanese American Korean War veteran in attendance, at age 91. He is also proud to have other family members, including a nephew, serving in the U.S. military.

More than 70 years later, Uyematsu was able to revisit the Misawa Air Base in 2023 with the help of the office of Rep. Lou Correa, D- Santa Ana. He recalled memories of the base being built up and seeing Lake Ogawara, the largest lake in Aomori Prefecture.

“It brought back memories,” he said. “It shocked me how much Japan had developed.”

Rep. Correa also honored Nori with a congressional record for his service on Veterans Day in 2022.

A lifetime of giving back

Mike Uyematsu, Nori’s oldest son, said that his father’s donation serves as a reminder for people to be “more appreciative of what our veterans have done” — especially those who have sacrificed.

“The thing that comes to mind is him being of Japanese American heritage and coming out of World War II, when Japanese were seen as the enemy. If you look back, there were so many who were very supportive of this country, so many Americans,” Mike Uyematsu said. “He’s never really said a whole lot about what he did in the Korean War. But now that he’s old enough and started to talk about what’s going on, and donating, that’s (his) legacy. I’m proud of what he’s gone through, and doing those things without complaining.”

For Nori Uyematsu, giving his items to the Smithsonian was always a part of his “life bucket list.”

“I just want to be able to recognize those who weren’t able to come back home,” he said. “Those who lost their lives, who weren’t able to come back home, get married or have grandkids.”

©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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