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Combat in WWII Was Catalyst for Asian Invasion of U.S. Mainstream

June 14, 1987|DAVID HOLLEY | Times Staff Writer

When Young O. Kim, a Los Angeles-born Korean-American, arrived at Camp Shelby, Miss., in 1942 as a newly graduated second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he had no idea what his duties were to be.

Kim soon learned that he had been assigned to the new 100th Infantry Battalion, made up of Japanese-American Nisei soldiers. But the camp commander told him that he would be transferred immediately.

"The men here are all Japanese," the commander said, as Kim remembers the conversation, "and Koreans and Japanese don't get along."

"I said, 'Generally that's true,' " Kim recalled. " 'But we're not Japanese and Korean. We're all Americans. And we're all fighting for the same thing.' "

Kim stayed.

It was a decision that thrust Kim onto a path that has made him, more than four decades later, a sort of elder statesman of both the Japanese-American and the Korean-American communities in Los Angeles.

The soft-spoken 68-year-old rose to the rank of colonel during his 30-year Army career, seeing combat and winning medals in Europe and Korea. Kim, who remains trim and appears in great shape, despite continued pain from his war wounds, was a prominent spokesman for Korean-Americans last summer when community leaders sought unsuccessfully to unite Koreatown into a single Los Angeles City Council district.

He heads a United Way committee that recently helped establish a health center in Koreatown. He is vice president of the Japanese American National Museum being planned for Little Tokyo. And he helped lead the successful effort to rename a Little Tokyo street after the late Challenger astronaut Ellison E. Onizuka.

All these efforts reflect Kim's desire to see Asian-Americans achieve full participation in the mainstream of U.S. society. And he sees great progress, compared to his childhood memories of blatant discrimination against Asian-Americans and sharp divisions among different Asian ethnic groups.

"When I was growing up, my parents were prejudiced against the Chinese and the Filipinos," Kim said. "Against the Japanese it was more, because Japan had occupied Korea. It was hatred."

Kim grew up in the area of Figueroa and Temple streets, where his parents ran a grocery store.

"In the old days, that was a very peaceful area," he recalled. "The old street car used to go up Temple Street. . . . This was the old, old-style grocery store where everything was sold in bulk. Nothing was packaged. You had little drawers with glass windows, so customers could look in. Everything had to be put in little bags and weighed."

As a boy, Kim learned to stack cans and sweep the sidewalk. When he was a bit older, he began waiting on customers. His parents also sent him to an afternoon Korean school, although he was not very interested in learning the language.

Kim said his parents were married--but did not begin to live together--when they were children. This happened under an agreement made by their families when his mother was still a toddler and his father had not yet been born, he said.

Labored on Farms

Kim's father, who was from a prosperous land-owning family, came to this country a few years before World War I, working as a farm laborer in Hawaii and Washington state before arriving in Los Angeles. His mother, from a middle-class farming family, was educated at an American missionary school and came to this country intending to study at the University of Chicago.

But when his father learned she had landed in Seattle "he insisted that his wife join him," Kim said. "She had no choice, because the moment the missionaries received that message, they would have nothing further to do with my mother."

In the early years of their married life, both of Kim's parents worked as migrant farm laborers, his father later working as a houseboy in Hollywood and as a hotel bellboy. "Of course, they had a miserable first couple of years," Kim said.

Similar hardships endured by Asian immigrants in Hawaii, who provided much of the labor on the islands but held very little economic or political power, were a frequent topic of conversation among Kim and the Japanese-American officers from Hawaii at Camp Shelby.

Topic for Discussion

During the summer of 1943 "we had lengthy bull sessions," Kim recalled. "We'd start discussing the plight of the Nisei in Hawaii. It was during this period we started discussing the possibility of completely revamping Hawaii."

The young officers, Kim said, dreamed of breaking the monopoly power held by the five biggest corporations on the islands, and of invigorating the Democratic Party to challenge the political grip of the Republicans on the islands.

"What we were talking about was how Asians were second-class citizens," he said. "You could do the same work as others and get less pay. . . . What we were all hoping for is that we would do well in combat. We realized we had to do well in combat. Only by doing well in combat would we be in a position to try to effect some of these changes.

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