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Korean War Vet Min Tonai’s Memorable Memoir

By November 6, 2020January 6th, 2021No Comments

The L.A. native uses the quarantine to record experiences for posterity.

By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor, Digital and Social Media

Excluding outright, xenophobic and blatant race prejudice, perhaps one of the reasons Americans of Japanese descent had their rights abrogated during World War II was the fundamental ignorance of an aspect of Japanese culture overlooked by mainstream society: loyalty, in this case to one’s nation, as dictated by the tenets of the so-called samurai code, aka bushidō.

That ignorance was infamously elucidated by the Western Defense Command’s Gen. John Dewitt and his quote, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.”

Equally infamous was the Los Angeles Times column of W. H. Anderson, likening an American of Japanese heritage to a venomous snake, as in a “viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched” and that a Japanese American with “accidental citizenship” could never be an American “in his thoughts, in his ideas and in his ideals.”

For Min Tonai, who was born in San Pedro, Calif., and spent his early years on Terminal Island, that sort of vile thinking is completely repudiated by a boyhood memory.

Tonai remembers how his mother, Toyone Tonai, sent him to Compton Gakuin on Saturdays because, from her perspective as a former schoolteacher herself, she felt it was better than the Japanese language school on Terminal Island.

Korean War veteran Min Tonai is working on a memoir for his grown children. (Photo: George Toshio Johnston)

One Saturday, in the months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Tonai remembers how Principal Endo read to the students a letter from the man who became Japan’s prime minister in October 1941 — and would, after Japan’s defeat in WWII, be executed after being tried for war crimes: Hideki Tojo.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Tonai recalled. “He said, ‘You Nisei are Americans. Be loyal to your country.’ I was shocked.” It was, Tonai, said, straight out of bushidō, the part about serving one’s lord, master or nation loyally.

That concept of Japanese American loyalty to country would prove itself over and over again, whether it was WWII and the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service and decades later in the Vietnam War or, in the case of Tonai, the United Nation’s “police action,” better known as the Korean War, which ran from 1950-53.

Years later, Tonai said he wondered whether he remembered Tojo’s admonition correctly or if, perhaps, the principal misspoke.

“He must have said, ‘Be loyal to Japan,’” Tonai recalled. But he had a childhood friend — Jiro Takahashi — who grew up to be a businessman in Little Tokyo. One day many years later while in Little Tokyo, Tonai dropped in to say hello to his pal. “I asked him about that,” and Takahashi corroborated his recollection.

Tonai’s anecdote not only illustrated something about the Japanese culture that was transmitted to him as a lad, it also provided some individual solace to Tojo’s heirs, too.

“Once I met his (Tojo’s) grandson at the consul general’s, and so I took the opportunity to talk about that, and he was surprised and really happy that I said that.

“Well, he went home to Japan and told his mother, the daughter of Tojo, and she was really thrilled that I remembered that, and that was what I said about her father,” Tonai recalled.

That and other stories will, hopefully, be included in the memoir Tonai, now a widower who turns 92 in February, has been writing during the forced isolation caused by the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic. It’s something he wants to pass on to his three adult children: Susan Reiko Tonai-Drews, John Ryo Tonai and Teresa Ayako Tonai.

Some of those recollections include how his father, Gengoro Tonai, met and later married Toyone Otsubo — 13 years his junior — in Japan and why they emigrated from Japan. (It involved an overbearing mother-in-law, naturally.)

An interesting sidenote was that because of Japan’s class system, his father felt he needed to marry a woman who also came from a samurai family. Perhaps unusually for a Japanese American, Tonai is of samurai lineage from both parents.

Gengoro Tonai would eventually develop a successful business running several produce stands across Los Angeles County. But it was halted with America’s entry into WWII.

Min Tonai recalled how on Dec. 7, his father refused to believe that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, insisting initially that it had to have been the Germans instead, which made no sense to his son.

“At 8:30 that evening, the doorbell rings, and there’s two guys in black suits. They said they wanted to talk with Gengoro — my father,” Tonai said. “I said, ‘Just a moment please.’

“I knock on his bedroom door, and I said, ‘There’s two hakujin that want to talk to you.’

“My father comes out of his room wearing his three-piece suit, put on his overcoat, put on his hat and went out the door with them.

“They told me, ‘We just want to talk with him at the Los Angeles County Jail for one hour. But we never saw him until 1944.”

From when he was picked up to when he finally was able to rejoin his family, Gengoro Tonai would be shuttled to Terminal Island Penitentiary, Ft. Missoula, Mont., Livingston, La., and finally, Santa Fe, N.M.

“All federal prisons,” Tonai noted.

Tonai also remembered how he saw his future wife, Mary Endo, for the first time in 1949 at the first Nisei Week. It would take another year until he saw her again and begin to court her. She wasn’t too receptive, but Tonai managed to learn that she lived in the Silver Lake area. He used a phone book to find all the people in that area named Endo and struck paydirt with the first number.

Mary eventually warmed up to him, but another detour happened: the Korean War. Any thoughts of marriage would have to wait.

“I told her, ‘I may end up at war. I don’t know what the future will hold for me,’” Tonai recalled. “She said, ‘I’ll wait.’” It would take several years.

After getting drafted into the Army and going through the required basic training, Tonai was shipped to Japan: Camp Zama, then Camp McNair and finally Camp Haugen in Aomori Prefecture.

For Tonai, getting stationed in Japan was fortuitous, as he was able to connect with many of his relatives, who were happy to see him, but also grateful for the gifts he’d bring them from the different Army posts.

Then came the news: Tonai and his fellow soldiers were finally going to be sent to Korea, during the winter, no less. To make matters worse, the Army didn’t send them there with the necessary gear for the bitter cold of Korea. When they finally were given parkas and insulated books, Tonai realized it was all castoffs — but it was so cold, nobody cared.

Looking back, though, Tonai realizes how lucky he was to survive the conflict relatively unscathed, serving as a medic — and that happened because he fortuitously reconnected in Korea with a doctor named Orson B. Spencer from Utah, who he had met during basic training at Camp Cooke (now Vandenberg Air Force Base) in California, when a decision was made to give medic training to the draftees, who had been assigned to the California National Guard.

“Normally to be a medic, you’d go to medical training school in Fort Sam Houston, and then you’d get assigned to your company, wherever you were going to go,” Tonai explained. “They said, ‘We’re going to try something new. We’re going to train you in Camp Cooke.’”

It was actually a cost-saving measure, Tonai said. But, as it turned out, the National Guard members who taught Tonai and his cohort weren’t really well-trained themselves, just reading from the manuals.

“They would be mispronouncing the medical terms, and we’d be shouting at them how to pronounce it. Pretty bad,” he said.

Still, Tonai knew he had to do well.

“If I don’t pay attention or know what’s going on, then when I get to Korea and somebody dies because I don’t know what to do because I didn’t listen, then that will be on my conscience for the rest of my life, whereas the idiot that didn’t know what he was doing, who was training us — it wouldn’t be on his conscience.

“I thought I was back in school,” he continued. “I took copious notes and studied, studied, studied. At the end of the training, we took a test and the sergeant who was in charge took me aside and congratulated me. I was No. 1 in the company.”

Tonai was ordered to report to the dispensary the next morning. He would soon thereafter receive “training” in a two-man procedure, consultation, where someone comes in complaining of something and would get a recommendation for treatment, whether it was something as simple as prescribing aspirin or getting treatment for a sprained ankle.

After a couple days, his partner basically abandoned him, saying, “OK Tonai, you take over.”

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t know any of that stuff,” Tonai remembered. “I’m not even trained! I’m in trouble.”

Fortunately, Tonai was friendly with a National Guard sergeant who was a pharmacist and a UCLA grad.

“So, I went to him and said, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t know what’s going on.’ He said, ‘Go buy a ‘Merck Manual’ — most things will be in there.’”

As soon as he could, Tonai went on leave to Santa Maria, found a bookstore and bought a copy.

“I put the ‘Merck Manual’ in a different room, so every time something came up that I didn’t know, I would say, ‘Just a moment please,’ walked to the room and looked it up in the ‘Merck Manual,’” Tonai laughed.

Soon, a real doctor —Dr. Spencer, who had been drafted, arrived — and the two had a good relationship, with the doctor teaching Tonai what he needed to know. Spencer eventually arranged for Tonai, who’d get reassigned to manual labor duties so a National Guardsman could take his spot, to be formally assigned to the dispensary.

Fast-forwarding to when Tonai arrived in Korea, he caught a lucky break, reconnecting with Dr. Spencer.

“When I got to the line … he pulled me out and said, ‘I want you to be in charge of the ward tent.’”

Tonai said the ward tent was like a mini hospital for “anyone who got sick or wounded but could recover in seven to 10 days” — and it was well behind the front lines of combat. After six months in country, his time in Korea was done.

After his service was completed, Tonai returned stateside, rekindled his romance with Mary and got married, enrolled at UCLA and majored in accounting.

But once he completed his degree and began interviewing for jobs with national accounting firms like Arthur Andersen and Peat Marwick. But he found out they only wanted to speak with graduates whose grades were B+ or higher in their major.

“I had one B+ in all my accounting courses,” Tonai said, so that was not a problem. “I was more than qualified. But the companies would say, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ That was a kiss off. I knew that.”

But, one company Tonai interviewed with was straightforward with him. Even though this company liked his grades, extracurricular activities and personality, the rep told him, “We can’t hire Orientals.”

“Then what shall I do?” Tonai asked him. “‘Well, just keep on interviewing,’ the rep answered. I said, ‘All the major companies are just like you. They don’t want to hire Orientals. What shall I do?’”

“He put his head down. He said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know.’ He really was embarrassed to tell me this.”

Through his UCLA professor, he wound up getting a bookkeeping job, which he didn’t much like but did for about a year before he quit. But Tonai was able to land a job as a cost accountant at a subsidiary of an aerospace firm.

Even though the pay wasn’t what he would have liked, it gave him an opportunity be able to say he had a background in cost accounting as well as general accounting.

“It was not hard. It was easy,” Tonai said. But it was a foot in the door and his postwar career in accounting, which would lead to titles like chief financial officer and vp of finance. Things were finally starting to look up, career-wise, for him.

Over time, in addition to his career, Tonai would be named Grand Marshal of the 59th Anniversary Nisei Week Japanese Festival in 19999 and would receive the Nikkei Pioneer Award at the 68th Anniversary Nisei Week Japanese Festival in 2008; a Lifetime Achievement Award from UCLA Asian American Studies in 1998; and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s Chairman’s Award in 2005. He also became involved with various community organizations: Japanese American National Museum (board member), Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (president), Japanese American Korean War Veterans (president and treasurer), the UCLA Foundation, UCLA’s Business Economic Council, the Amache Historical Society, Terminal Islanders — but not the JACL.

“I found out when my father got jailed, one of his employees, who was an active JACL member, had turned him in to the FBI,” Tonai said. “I could never join it (JACL) because I felt that would be disloyal to my father.” Nevertheless, he did say he is a nonmember subscriber to the Pacific Citizen.

At 91, Tonai can count his blessings: decent health, a still-sharp mind, having raised three children to adulthood. But he is also the last of his siblings, including a younger brother who predeceased him.

Once the pandemic clears up, the Japanese American Korean War Veterans will have a final dinner for its few remaining members and disband, then donate its remaining funds to the JACCC’s Japanese American National War Memorial Court to go toward maintaining it.

Like all things, Minoru Tonai knows his time will pass. But that memoir he is working on will remain as a testament to a life of service, honor and integrity that is as American as anyone could hope to be.