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A Family Interrupted

No one among his wife's Japanese American relatives talked about their time in the camps. His family's own travails, on the other hand, were an open book. But silence has its ultimate reward.

November 27, 2005|Matt Bai | Matt Bai is a Washington-based writer for the New York Times Magazine. This essay was adapted from the anthology "I Married My Mother-In-Law," edited by Ilena Silverman, to be published in January. Copyright 2005 by Matt Bai. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books.

To Ellen's surprise, her father didn't seem at all reluctant to discuss the war years. He rubbed his short-cropped hair and scoured his mind for dates and places and people. The problem was that all those years of silence, which had so deterred his daughters from probing about his life, seemed to have corroded the mechanism of his memory, the way an old unopened safe becomes rusty and mistimed. He remembered getting his draft notice and training at a base in Minnesota so cold that his hair froze. He could recall the names of friends who were blown up on the hills of France and Italy. Isolated facts, unmoored to place and time, resurfaced, but their connections to one another were tenuous.

Until that time, I'd never really considered the relationship between narrative and memory. Mine was a home consumed by storytelling. We all knew, for instance, about how my father had moved out of his Yale dormitory and commuted from home so that he could take care of his stricken mother; how he had been unable to work for a lot of venerable law firms because he was Jewish; how my mother's father had lost two fingers in a slicing machine in the family bakery before, eventually, suffering a fatal heart attack over the ovens--a fate, my mother never failed to mention, that the philandering dilettante deserved. These tragic little narratives, endlessly rehearsed and sharpened, preserved our collective past, even as they almost certainly distorted it.

But what happens when a family's stories aren't assiduously maintained and preserved? The avoidance in George and Nancy's home--and in the homes of so many of the other Japanese American veterans I was meeting--had taken its toll on the past. George could still conjure up places and faces and moments in time, but he could no longer easily slide them into their proper order or perspective. He was in France and Italy. He was in a military hospital. He was training for war while his family endured the camps. In his memory, he was in all of these places at once. He reminded me of Billy Pilgrim, the broken soldier in Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five"; George too had come "unstuck in time." Too long neglected, the narrative thread of his life had unraveled.

And so we began, all of us, to weave it back together. Ellen leapt in with prescient questions. Even Nancy found herself trying to restore her husband's memories to their proper shape. "Weren't you at that base in the desert first?" she would ask, prodding him along. Nancy was nine years younger than George and hadn't met him until a ski trip long after the war. It occurred to me that she might not have heard the entirety of his story, either.

George recalled that he had settled into life as a mule skinner on the family farm when he was drafted on Oct. 19, 1941, less than two months before Pearl Harbor. (He had been born "Yuichiro," but adopted the name "George" when he was very little as a means of blending in, just as Nancy and all of Ellen's other relatives had chosen American names in the years before the war.)

The Japanese American soldiers were like human Kevlar for the Army; it was assumed that they had yet to prove their loyalty, and thus they were deployed for some of the grisliest fighting of the war. The 442nd would emerge as one of the most decorated units of its size in the history of the country's military, testifying to both the ferocity of its fighters and the breathtaking scale of its casualties. George helped liberate the town of Bruyeres, France, then did his part to rescue the famed Lost Battalion--a Texas-based unit that had been encircled by Nazi troops in France. As German fire ravaged the Japanese American soldiers, George heard the general in charge issue an order to the battalion colonel for the men to charge straight at the German machine-gun batteries. "That's when I thought, 'Maybe he thinks we're expendable,' " George remembered with a chuckle.

By the time the Lost Battalion was freed, Company K, which had started out with some 200 men, had been reduced to only 12, with no surviving officers. Amazingly, George's luck held out for several more months, until a mortar barrage shattered his eardrums and peppered his flesh with shrapnel.

I asked George about his family in the camps. He shrugged. He admitted that he had harbored hopes that if he fought bravely enough they would be released. When at last the Army sent him home, the home he left was a distant memory. The mules and melons now belonged to someone else, either by sale or by seizure, and his relatives had relocated to Cleveland, where they worked in factories and car dealerships, trying to start again.

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