Members of Ted Fujioka’s family attended the Smithsonian Exhibition, including (Front row, from left) Kerry Cababa, Grace Kunitomi, Dale Kunitomi, Colleen Miyano, Margaret Fujioka, Michael Fujioka, Robert Fujioka and (back row, from left) Shirley Nakaki, David Fujioka and Darrell Kunitomi.
Pfc. Teruo ‘Ted’ Fujioka, killed in France during World War II, is among those remembered for their inspiring lives by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
By Charles James, Contributor
The late King of Belgium Baudouin I once observed that “youth is the first victim of war; the first fruit of peace. It takes 20 years or more of peace to make a man; it takes only 20 seconds of war to destroy him.”
Pfc. Teruo “Ted” Fujioka’s life was celebrated along with 11 other individual WWII Japanese American soldiers — one of whom is a woman — at the Smithsonian Museum of American History when it officially launched its Nisei Soldier Congressional Gold Medal Digital Exhibition on May 12.
The exhibit memorializes the life stories of 12 Nisei soldiers who served in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II, among them soldiers of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most-decorated unit in American military history.
A joint project of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the National Veterans Network, “The Nisei Soldier: Congressional Gold Medal” digital exhibition is an online educational exhibition. It features the stories of 2nd Lt. George A. Doi of the 100th Infantry Division; Pfc. Teruo “Ted” Fujioka, 442nd RCT; Technician 3rd Grade George Hara, Military Intelligence Service; Pvt. Stanley Hayami, 442nd RCT; Technician 3rd Grade Takejiro Higa, MIS; Capt. Daniel K. Inouye, 442nd RCT; 2nd Lt. Susumu “Sus” Ito, 442nd RCT; Staff Sgt. Kazuo Masuda, 442nd RCT; Pfc. Sadao Munemori, 100th Infantry Battalion; Cpl. Terry Toyome Nakanishi, MIS; Maj. Kan Tagami, MIS; and Capt. Sakae Takahashi, 100th Infantry Battalion.
Among the many family members of the soldiers gathered for the opening of the exhibit were 10 cousins, all nieces and nephews of Ted Fujioka —the sons and daughters of Fujioka’s 11 siblings — who traveled to Washington, D.C., to honor their uncle’s memory.
Death eventually takes everyone — youth being no exception. Yet, many young men and women become celebrated for how much living they packed into their short lives; serving as inspiration and an example of how to live in the hearts and minds of families through future generations. One such lucky young man that won his place forever in the hearts of his family was a young 19-year-old Private First Class, Teruo “Ted” Fujioka.
Cousins within the Fujioka family continue to honor and pass on the memory of his remarkable life to their own children. While none of them were even born during his short lifetime, all of them learned of his inspiring character and life through the loving memories of their parents, Fujioka’s siblings. Even though they never knew him, he is known to them affectionately as “Uncle Ted,” a man who has inspired others to seek out and serve their country.
Fujioka was 18 years old when he joined the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in 1943 while incarcerated along with his family at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming during World War II.
The family was incarcerated there as the result of the now-infamous Executive Order 9066 issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which led to the forced relocation and incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent into concentration camps; two-thirds of those sent to the American concentration camps were native-born American Citizens.
Pulled out of Hollywood High School and forced to relocate with his family to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Fujioka finished high school behind barbed wire. He has been described by family and friends as handsome, an exceptional athlete, a writer and a popular born leader. He was also student body president of his high school and a journalist and newspaper editor as well during his brief life.
Ted’s father was Shiro Fujioka, a celebrated journalist and historian. Shiro worked at various Japanese-language newspapers in the U.S. before and after WWII. Because of his profession, community involvement and Japanese ancestry, Shiro was one of the very first people of Japanese heritage to be picked up, detained and questioned by the FBI after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, Pvt. Fujioka was assigned to the 1st Anti-tank Company of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was sent to France to fight the Germans. He was only a little more than 19 years of age when he was killed on Nov. 6, 1944, by a German artillery shell while on a special mission in the town of Bruyeres, France, during which three other soldiers were wounded.
Never mind that Ted Fujioka was only 19 years old; he was a man fighting for his country even as his own family was incarcerated in a concentration camp at Heart Mountain for no reason other than their ancestry. Why did he choose to become a soldier? His closest high school friend, Pfc. Albert Saijo, explained Ted’s decision in the Heart Mountain Sentinel on Nov. 25, 1945, in which it was announced that Ted had been killed while on a special mission. “Ted’s whole life was a ‘special mission’ . . . to make others’ life better, to make people happier,” Saijo said. According to Saijo, “Ted was one soldier who knew what he was fighting for . . . he told me about his family and how close they all felt towards each other. He talked about his girl and his hopes and his belief in God.” Saijo went on to say that “though his face was as the enemy’s, Ted’s heart and soul and brain were American.”
Ted explained to his friend, Saijo, why he was joining the army:
“I’m joining the army so that my family will have security. So there will be no stigma against my children. So that I can prove things I believe in . . . democracy, equality, and tolerance and most of all, peace.”
Reflect on his words for a moment. This was an 18-year-old saying these things to his best friend. Think of the maturity, intelligence, sensitivity and love — yes, the love for his country and for his family — that are shown in his comments. Small wonder that Ted Fujioka is held in such high regard some 72 years after his death by his family, including his nieces and nephews.
The Fujioka cousins who attended the exhibition had the following thoughts to share about their “Uncle Ted”:
Margaret Fujioka, the current mayor of Piedmont, Calif., spoke of her father, Yoshiro “Babe” Fujioka (one of Ted’s younger brothers), telling her about Ted’s dream “to become a lawyer and run for public office someday.” She said it is what inspired her to become a lawyer and serve in public office. Her older brother, Robert, offered that his father “always became emotional when talking about Ted, and I could feel Dad’s deep love and loss for his brother . . .”
The other cousins weighed in as well.
“We pay homage to our Uncle Ted, the uncle we never met,” says David Fujioka, the eldest son of Dick Fujioka, the elder brother of Ted. “He paid the ultimate sacrifice so that his family and the generations that would follow could enjoy the ‘freedoms’ that he wholeheartedly believed in.”
Dale Kunitomi, eldest son of Masa Kunitomi, elder sister of Ted, added that “the close relationship among the Fujioka siblings was often mentioned in Ted’s letters. We cousins have rallied to celebrate his life and those of the aunts and uncles (our parents) and our grandparents. He would be so happy to know how close our family has remained in the 72 years since his passing.”
“It’s hard to imagine being 18,” wrote Darrell Kunitomi, “being in a prison camp and then deciding to fight for the country who hated you and had placed you and your family behind barbed wire. In 1944 . . . our Uncle Ted believed in the goodness of the American promise . . . his Army service as an opportunity to show our government that his family belonged in this country, that America was ‘our’ country, too, and that he was willing to sacrifice his life to prove it.”
“As compelling as Ted’s story is,” said Colleen Miyano, the second daughter of Masa Kunitomi, the elder sister of Ted, “there were many families who had their own ‘Teds’ — heroes, favorite sons with bright futures, who never returned home after WWII. What brings this story home for me is his relationship to my mother, his older sister, and his inspirational letters to his family, his gal and his high school teacher. I feel I am closer to him now that I’ve visited his grave in France and since the story of the Nisei soldiers is being remembered and honored.”
Lastly, Don Kunitomi, the youngest son of Masa Kunitomi, wrote that “Ted’s desire to do the greater good for the culture so the image of the Japanese Americans was changed by the actions of the 442nd.”
“Uncle Ted” and the stories of the other 11 Japanese American soldiers honored on May 12 in Washington, D.C., at the Nisei Soldier Congressional Gold Medal Digital Exhibition seem to give credence to an explanation given more than 80 years ago by English writer and journalist G. K. Chesteron as “to why a soldier fights”:
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
A statement true for all the soldiers honored.
To explore the stories of the Nisei Soldier Congressional Gold Medal online exhibit, visit cgm.smithsonianapa.org.