Times Past

George Nakamura: from World War II internment camp to a Congressional Gold Medal

George Nakamura in Shaanxi province in central China, 1944.
George Nakamura in Shaanxi province in central China, 1944. Courtesy of the Nakamura family

In April 1942, George Nakamura and his family waited in the parking lot of the old Arroyo Grande High School at the base of Crown Hill. They were about to board an assigned school bus that would take them to a temporary relocation center in Tulare.

Only four months had passed since the bombing at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. For the Japanese-born immigrants to the Arroyo Grande Valley, the Issei, and their American-born children, the Nisei, it had been a nearly unbearable time filled with many racially charged incidents as well as some amazing stories of human kindness. The Arroyo Grande Women’s Club brought box lunches for their departing neighbors, some of whom had lived there for decades.

The circumstances at the Tulare Relocation Center were not good.

Housing was in the County Fairgrounds stables. Still, relocated families were pleased when Arroyo Grande Union High School Principal Clarence Burrell personally delivered diplomas to members of the Class of 1942.

Conditions at the permanent relocation center at Gila River, Arizona, were incredibly bad. Haruo Hayashi remembers the first month when the temperature remained at 109 degrees or more for 20 days.

Kaz Ikeda recalls the dust storms that brought breathing problems, valley fever and death for the very young and the old.

Jim Gregory’s new book, “World War II: Arroyo Grande,” observes that given the harsh conditions at Gila, George Nakamura knew that “he had to get out. He joined the Army.”

Nakamura’s Army aptitude tests “immediately impressed the brass.”

He was brilliant and he was fluent in Japanese, so he entered the Army’s Military Intelligence Service.

After training at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling in Minnesota, Nakamura was assigned, as its youngest member, to what the Army called “The Dixie Mission,” a group of Nisei MIS officers who, in 1944, were sent into the mountains of Shaanxi Province in central China.

Their mission was to assist Chinese guerrillas in intelligence gathering as they fought the Imperial Japanese Army. Nakamura and his fellow officers would act as translators in the interrogation of captured Japanese soldiers. He went alone on one mission, winning the Bronze Star for the rescue of a downed American pilot.

Nakamura’s Chinese hosts in their remote camp grew to like this Arroyo Grande soldier. On his 21st birthday, they threw him a party. There were toasts and dancing. A woman named Jiang took a turn dancing with Nakamura. Jiang Qing had been an actress before the war.

At war’s end, George Nakamura got his master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University and went on to manage Tokyo operations for an American electronics firm.

His partner in dancing the foxtrot, Jiang Qing, would later be reviled as “The White-Boned Demon,” the often cruel revolutionary who married China’s Communist party leader, Mao Zedong. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1981, she was placed on trial for her life, a trial where she was repeatedly mocked and insulted.

Her death sentence was commuted to a life sentence. She committed suicide in prison in 1991.

George Nakamura died in Houston in 2014. President Barrack Obama had previously signed a bill awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to all of the Military Intelligence Service, almost all of whom, like George Nakamura, were Nisei.

In April 2014, Gary Nakamura brought his father’s ashes to the Arroyo Grande Cemetery. It was a full circle from George’s forced removal during the wartime hysteria in 1942 to a dance with one of the future “Gang of Four” in Central China and back to the small town that he loved.

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Dates to save:

Jim Gregory, author of “World War II: Arroyo Grande,” will give a short talk and sign books at the South County Historical Society’s IOOF Historic Hall, 128 Bridge Street, Arroyo Grande on Saturday, Feb. 27 from 2 to 4 p.m. He also will give a talk at 11 a.m. March 19 at the San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, 1940 Santa Barbara Ave, San Luis Obispo.

You are invited to 2016 Chinese New Year Celebration on Saturday, Feb. 20 at 5:15 p.m. in the SLO Veterans’ Hall. The event features the Cal Poly Lion Dance Team and is hosted by Central Coast Chinese Association. Join us for family-style Chinese food, performance, silent auctions, raffle prizes, and more fun activities. Register online at: http://tinyurl.com/CCCA-registration

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.