His story is a uniquely American story.
The old soldier’s Arroyo Grande grave is unmarked, with no one leaving flowers or a flag on Veterans or Memorial Day, and his life is misremembered.
Historical records don’t even agree on the spelling of his first name. Various accounts and records show Hieto, Hilda, Hiedo, Hideo or Hidao Murata. Hideo was how it appeared on his draft card, and Hiedo was used in a Telegram-Tribune story based on a Monterey County document.
This election year has featured debates on immigration, veterans and the meaning of service to country. As Veterans Day and Election Day approach, it is appropriate to remember the immigrant who served with honor when his adopted homeland called.
The same nation would later drive him to take his life.
Hidao Murata was born in the port city of Kagoshima, Japan, according to an online archive of World War I draft cards. Some genealogical records show a man named Hidao Murata working on ships from Japan in the early 20th century.
His draft card records Hidao Murata working as a 28-year-old farm laborer in Hayward on June 5, 1917. He was single and may not have been able to write in English; the card was signed with a mark rather than with a signature. Murata was of medium height and build, with dark brown eyes and a full head of black hair.
A request to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis has been forwarded to the National Archives. At present, his record in World War I is unclear.
He was honored by Monterey County for his service and spent the last two decades of his life in Pismo Beach, although census records have proven elusive. He does not appear to have had a family.
Anti-Asian sentiments were a persistent American political scapegoat beginning in the late 1800s. In the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, regulations were drafted to evacuate all persons of Japanese descent to internment camps, largely located in isolated and bleak deserts.
Panic led to unconstitutional restrictions, even for the U.S.-born citizens who made up two-thirds of the 112,000 relocated. Many lost homes and businesses.
At least one took his life.
The editor of The Telegram-Tribune at the time supported the internment action, as did Gov. Earl Warren, who would later regret his support and become known as a champion of civil rights.
Several historians who have researched the internment camps have come across fragments of Murata’s story, often with alternate spellings and incorrect causes of death. One website calls his story “perhaps apocryphal.”
An index card in the Arroyo Grande District Cemetery office records his name as Hieto Murata, age 52, date of death Feb. 26, 1942, and buried in plot A-93. His final resting place is unmarked. Cemetery manager Michael Marsalek said that wasn’t unusual for cremated indigent burials.
Murata killed himself using strychnine, a poison used on rodents that is among the most dramatic and painful deaths. As his muscles convulsed, nerves chemically destroyed, Murata held in his pocket a document that brought him great pride, an honorary citizenship granted by Monterey County. He likely had never been able to read the words on the paper.
A few days after he died, the most complete story of his life was published on page 8 of the March 2, 1942, Telegram-Tribune.
Thanks to Jack San Filippo, a membership coordinator at Point San Luis Lighthouse, who brought the article to my attention.
Pismo Japanese, War Veteran Kills Himself
Hiedo Murata, 52, alien Japanese, for 20 years a resident of Pismo Beach, hated to leave his “hometown” when evacuation orders came from the government last month.
Murata didn’t understand registration or evacuation orders clearly, so just before the deadline date he asked Sherif[f’s] Deputy Frank McCaslin if there were any way he could remain in Pismo Beach.
Sheriff McCaslin, who knows the man well, had to inform him that no exceptions were being allowed, despite the fact that Murata had an honorary citizenship certificate from Monterey County. It was given to him when he returned from the First World War and it read in part like this:
“Monterey County presents greetings to Hiedo Murata:
“And in testimony of her heartfelt gratitude and appreciation presents this testimonial of her honor and respect for your loyal and splendid service to home and county in the Great World War of 1914-1919.
“Our flag was assailed and you gallantly took up its defense. You and the other sons of America pledged your all for its protection on land, on sea, in air and down under the sea. The flag, which is without dishonor and has never known defeat, was challenged and defied by its enemies, and with all those fighting freemen of our country you have returned it home again, undefiled and proudly victorious.”
The document was signed by R.A. Sterling, C.F. Lacey, J.A. Bardin and E.W. Daugherty, members of the county Board of Supervisors.
Thursday evening, Murata registered for a room at the Olson hotel in Pismo Beach and paid for it in advance. On Friday, when attendants sought to make up the beds at the hotel they found Murata dead from strychnine.
In his pocket, Murata still held his certificate with its official seal.
David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, email@example.com, @DavidMiddlecamp
Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.