HONOLULU (KHON2) — At first glance, the Matsuri is a celebration. But behind every drumbeat and every chant is a palpable awareness of pain. Nearly everyone in the town square has lost someone to war. This is Nagaoka.
At exactly 10:30 p.m., the revelers fall silent for the moment, 75 years ago, when 125 American B-29s dropped 163,000 incendiary bombs, destroying 80 percent of the city and killing nearly 1,500 people.
“For one hour and forty minutes the bombs fell. The city was on fire. Many threw themselves into the kaki river to save themselves,”said Hitoshi Waka of the Nagaoka War Museum.
Including Nagaoka bombing survivor, Tomie Kaneko.
“From the river I watched my town burn. Afterwards, my mother and I went to the temple, because that’s where we were told to go to reunite with families. We found the bodies of my father and big sister.Tomie Kaneko, Nagaoka bombing survivor
“Before the war, I went to sleep every evening holding a doll with blond hair and blue eyes and my favorite book was Tom Sawyer. But now, I hated America,” she added.
In 1945, the allied occupation had G.I.’s cruising the streets of Nagaoka.
“They gave me gum and chocolate. I began to hate a little less,” Kaneko shared.
The epiphany came when she saw film of the Pearl Harbor attack and the list of names of the dead, so much like the ones in her hometown.
For five decades now, Kaneko has dedicated her life to teaching young people about the futility of war. These students are from Hawaii.
“When I saw the pictures I asked how many died? That’s somebody’s brother, mom, son, daughter,” she said. “I want them to know there was loss on both sides. The real enemy is war.”
The Nagaoka Matsuri culminates with three chrysanthemum bursts, followed by a two-hour fireworks display to honor the spirits of those lost in all wars.
Pasadena is rolling out the roses for this tribute by the Chinese-American heritage foundation recognizing WWII veterans, with the awarding of the congressional gold medal.
The first went to former U.S. President George Washington. Later recipients included Ulysses S. Grant, Wilbur Wright and Neil Armstrong.
As those of the Greatest Generation aged, Congress took note and awarded the medal to overlooked ethnic groups who served despite discrimination and hardship.
The Tuskegee Airmen, Native American code talkers, the Nisei of the 100th Battalion, 442nd and Filipino Veterans were among those awarded. So far, 163 individuals and groups have received the honor. And soon, one more will be added to the prestigious list.
“Chinese who were here in the U.S. were asked to serve and fight against the Japanese and they were given a path to citizenship if they served.”
Among the honorees, a U.S. army nurse who walked 700 miles across China for the Red Cross.
At the age of 20, Elsie Chin’s nursing studies in Hong Kong were interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Hong kong fell,” Chin said. “I decided to go inland to Guiyang because that’s where the Red Cross headquarters was stationed.”
China’s coastal cities were already occupied by the Japanese. Elsie and three other nurses made the dangerous trek through China and India, tending to the wounded and training soldiers in emergency field care.
“About that time, the U.S. army also came through, desperately needing English-speaking nurses,” she explained.
“I was the only Chinese-American nurse stationed there back then. Sometimes a smallpox case that nobody wanted to handle happened. I would be the target for cases like that,” she said.
And sometimes, being American-born just wasn’t enough.
“I look Chinese, I am Chinese,” Chin said. “There was an officer who came in, said ‘you don’t belong here.’ I went to the commanding officer of the nurse corps. He said ‘what do you expect me to do?’ I said ‘you should do what is right.'”
The offending officer was transferred.
Back then, a military life for a woman was considered improper by many traditional families. For an Asian woman, it was downright scandalous. Yet nearly 300 Asian-American women defied cultural expectations and enlisted.
“In the military, when I compare to my peers who stayed in the relocation center, I thought it was a wonderful choice. I wish more people would realize that military was not what people thought in those days,” Chin shared. “I’m proud of my military service. The military gave me the G.I. bill, so after leaving I could go off to finish college.”
With a Bachelors from the University of North Carolina, Elsie Chin married, had 4 children and continued her service at the naval medical center in Washington DC. And now, Elsie Chin Yuen Seetoo has served as a first responder for six decades and is set to receive the congressional gold medal.
Among the female honorees, she is highest ranked and the oldest: 101-years-old.
“They found unique ways of serving. Admin positions, nurses. It’s a source of pride and final recognition for contributing significantly to the war effort on behalf of the United States.”