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Marines Pin Bars on Man They Dismissed : Civil rights: After a 5-year legal battle over racial discrimination, Bruce Yamashita is commissioned a captain in the Corps reserve.

March 19, 1994|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Bruce I. Yamashita finally was commissioned as a captain in the Marine Corps reserve Friday, five years after he was dismissed from the corps' officers candidate school in what has become a major civil rights case for Asian-Americans.

Yamashita, 38, a third-generation American whose grandparents came to Hawaii a century ago, was subjected to racial taunts and epithets throughout a 10-week course in 1989, then kicked out two days before graduation on grounds that he had exhibited "leadership failure."

Now an attorney in Washington, Yamashita waged a five-year legal battle against the Marine Corps that ultimately resulted in a high-level apology, an overhaul in Marine Corps officer-training procedures and the offer of a commission, albeit in the reserves.

On Friday, a green uniformed Yamashita--sporting a Marine Corps-style crew cut and straining to hold back his emotions--took his oath as an officer and beamed as his captain's bars were pinned on by retired Marine Maj. Ernest Kimoto, his co-counsel in the case.

"For five years now, I have thought about this moment," Yamashita told a crowd of relatives and well-wishers in the flag-bedecked House Armed Services Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill. "It means much more to me now than ever I could have imagined five years ago."

The commissioning, which lasted only a few minutes, had all the trappings of a celebration, as lawmakers and civil rights advocates--many of them from Hawaii and wearing ceremonial leis made of maile vine to mark the occasion--praised Yamashita for taking his stand.

"His commissioning today is a tribute to his dedication, a tribute to his courage," said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), a prominent Japanese-American lawmaker and one of several members of Congress who supported Yamashita when he was waging his fight.

Conspicuously absent were representatives of the Marine Corps. Aside from Yamashita and Marine Capt. Peter Keating, the Washington-area recruiting officer who administered the oath, the only green-uniformed attendee was a spokesman from the public affairs office.

Sponsors of the commissioning ceremony said that Yamashita had invited Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., commandant of the Marine Corps, but that Mundy ultimately declined, citing conflicts in scheduling.

For his part, Yamashita was a model of restraint, reiterating that he had fought his battle for "the principle" and urging Navy and Marine Corps officials to do more to make sure that the abuses he suffered would not happen again.

Technically, Yamashita has the right to apply for a transfer to active-duty status but he made clear Friday that he probably would remain in civilian life.

"I just want to savor today," he told reporters before the ceremony.

One poignant moment came after several spokesmen of Japanese-American organizations pronounced Yamashita's last name the traditional Japanese way-- ya-mash-ta-- even though his own family prefers the more-Americanized pronunciation, ya-ma-SHI-ta.

The disparity finally was resolved--with grace--by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). "You've heard it mentioned as ya-mash-ta, " Akaka said, chuckling over the growing dispute. "Well, in Hawaii, we say ya-ma-SHI-ta. "

Yamashita's ordeal in OCS now is history. On the first day of class, one staff sergeant told him: "We don't want your kind around here--go back to your country!" Another suggested that he join the Japanese army. And he was routinely called Toyota and Honda.

Backed by the Japanese-American Citizens' League, Yamashita gathered evidence showing that between 1982 and 1990, the officers' course had shown "a pattern of discrimination" against minorities, who were being dismissed at a far-higher rate than white officer candidates.

After two separate investigations--and rejections by high-level Navy review boards--Yamashita eventually was offered a commission as a second lieutenant. He turned it down on grounds that it did not reflect the time he had lost while appealing the case.

Earlier this year, Navy Secretary John H. Dalton and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Frederick F. Y. Pang ordered another review, and the Marines finally offered Yamashita a commission as a captain in the reserves.

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