Defense & National Security

DC Japanese-American war memorial caretaker, visitors remember Inouye

DC Japanese-American war memorial caretaker, visitors remember Inouye
William J. Jeter

At Washington’s Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II, a volunteer caretaker told Human Events Dec. 27 he remembered visits to the site by the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who died Dec. 17.

“I was walking passed here and after a few steps, I looked in and there was Senator Inouye with a group of people talking about the memorial,” said William J. Jeter, who served in the Air Force from 1952 to 1956, and the day he saw the senator in the spring of 2012 decided to take care of the site.

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World War II-era photo of Inouye, then an Army captain (Courtesy)

Jeter, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., said the next time he saw the senator was on Veterans Day.

“I tried to get a read on him, to me he seemed a very deep and thoughtful man,” he said.

“The last time I saw him was maybe two or three weeks ago,” he said. “It was in the early afternoon; he crossed Louisiana and walked through the long part of the structure.”

At the time, Jeter said he was sweeping up the memorial as part of his regular routine. He arrives by six in the morning and sweeps the entire place clean by two o’clock in the afternoon. Now, he is on his sixth broom, donated to him like the previous five by people, who learned about his devotion to the memorial.

Inouye often would come by the memorial, but this was his last visit alone, he said.

“I was sweeping up the leaves, and he says: ‘You do this often?’ and I said I do as much as possible, and he said: ‘Come here, come here, you see those cigarette butts? Yeah? ‘I want to you to go get those,’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll clean those up for you.’”

Jeter said after he picked up the cigarette butts, the Inouye was very gracious to him. “He said: ‘I want to thank you very much, thank you very much,’ I told him it was a pleasure, an honor.”

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Jeter said he is on his sixth broom since he began as a volunteer caretaker at the memorial in the spring of 2011. He started shortly after he moved to Washington from Woodbridge, Va. (Human Events photo by Neil W. McCabe)

During the interview with Jeter, three visitors came to experience the Davis Buckley-designed granite monument, which begins at the corner of D Street and Louisiana Avenue, equidistant between the Capitol Dome and Union Station, with a walkway along a wall with the names of Japanese-Americans killed fighting for the United States in World War II, along with inspirational quotes.

Opposite the walkway is a tabletop reflecting pond with five large rocks representing the five generations of Japanese living in America as of Aug. 10, 1988, the day President Ronald W. Reagan signed the proclamation, approved by Congress, officially apologizing for the federal internment of the Japanese during the Second World War.

In the hysteria after the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, more than 100,000 Japanese, most American citizens, were rounded up and housed in camps.

At the end of the walkway is a circle with the names of the 10 internment camps and the battles fought by the Japanese, who volunteered to fight for America and were mostly assigned to the segregated 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Inouye was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Italy in 1945 fighting with the 442nd.

In the center of the circle is a bronze sculpture on a column depicting two cranes facing opposite directions, struggling as they are enmeshed in barbed wire, created by Japanese-American artist Nina Akuma.

“We came because we wanted to honor the people of our heritage,” said Tsurumi Hamasu, a public relations professional from Honolulu.

Hamasu said she and her partner Kirk Nakahira wanted to show his daughter Samantha the nation’s capital, and especially the memorial.

Nakahira said as he walked along Louisiana Avenue and approached the memorial, he knew he wanted to make a point of showing his daughter the names of the soldiers on the wall and point out to her the significance of the names of the internment camps where the Japanese were held during the war.

Tsurumi Hamasu points out the inscribed name of her uncle CCC to her partner Kirk Nakahira and his daughter Samantha. Hamasu said the couple made of showing his daughter the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II on his first trip to the capital. (Human Events photo by Neil W. McCabe)

Tsurumi Hamasu points out the inscribed name of her uncle Tadashi Otaguro to her partner Kirk Nakahira and his daughter Samantha. Hamasu said the couple made of showing his daughter the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II on his first trip to the capital. (Human Events photo by Neil W. McCabe)

Hamasu’s father, Mitsuo Ted Hamasu, was a member of the 100th Battalion and he received the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Japanese-American veterans by Speaker John A. Boehner at a ceremony held Veterans Day 2011 in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, she said. Her father was one of three 100th veterans, who made it to Washington from Hawaii.

“He was with all his buddies,” she said.

“He made the trip when he was 93,” she said. “He is still active and part of his chapter of the rural veterans club.”

On that 2011 trip, Hamasu came with her father to visit the memorial and touch the name of her uncle, Tadashi Otaguro, who was killed-in-action, she said. “We came to see his name and honor him.”

The Hawaiian-native said she has no memories of her uncle. “He died before I was born, but I’ve seen drawings that he did and words from my mom and my aunts about him.”

A joint military honor guard folds a U.S. flag over Sen. Daniel K. Inouye's casket at the steps of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific during a Dec. 23, 2012, memorial service in Sen. Inouye’s honor. Inouye was a U.S. Army World War II combat veteran with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who earned the nation’s highest award for military valor, the Medal of Honor. Inouye became Hawaii's first congressman following statehood in 1959; he won election to the Senate in 1962. He was the first Japanese-American elected to both the House and Senate and was serving his ninth term in the Senate when he died from respiratory complications at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Dec. 17, 2012. (Department of Defense photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

A joint military honor guard folds a U.S. flag over Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s casket at the steps of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific during a Dec. 23 memorial service in his honor. Inouye was an Army World War II combat veteran with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. (DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)

Although her father and mother had met Inouye at events in Hawaii, they did not know each other personally, she said. Both her parents attended the Dec.23 funeral in Hawaii.

“He was very special to us,” she said.

“I think he became a senator before we were born, so he was our senator for all of our lives,” she said.

As is the custom, Inouye, as the senior senator from the party in the majority, was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and thus was third in line for the presidency when he died. The position came with Secret Security escorts that embarrassed him back home, she said. “He would make jokes about that—whenever he goes to Zippy’s, a local chain in Hawaii, to have all this security.”

Inouye was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located inside the interior slopes of Honolulu’s Puowaina crater, known to the locals as “The Punchbowl.” The dormant volcano was the site for royal burials and sacrifices during Hawaii’s earlier history.

“His first wife was buried at Punchbowl already, so he was buried there with her,” she said. Inouye’s first wife, Maggie Shinobu Awamura died in 2006. He was survived by his second wife Irene Hirano.

As they left, Samantha said she was overwhelmed by what it must have been like to fight for a country that questioned your loyalty.

Jeter said he has nice conversations with the visitors to the memorial, including tour groups that come through.

The relationship, however, is not very good between Jeter and the skateboarders, he said.

The former resident of Woodbridge, Va., said the granite walls and benches are marred and scratched from the skateboarders, who dart down the walkway and onto the circle. “I try to tell them, this is a war memorial.”

The prevailing wind at the memorial comes through the opening of the circle at the crane side and swirls around that circle keeping that area clear of debris, he said. The wind tends to leave the litter and leaves along the tall wall of the walkway. “If I wait long enough, it’ll settle down and that’s when I sweep.”

During the warmer months, Jeter said he sleeps along the high wall of the circle in the shadow of the cranes cast from the streetlights. “That way, no one can see me.”

In the Oct. 29 tempest of Hurricane Sandy, Jeter was riding out the storm in a shed he fashioned out of a cardboard box, he said. Beaten by the rain and the wind, the cardboard began to give way and he sought shelter inside nearby Union Station. Adding to his troubles, during the quarter-mile walk, the wire he wrapped around his shoes to hold his soles on came undone and he arrived at the station in stocking feet.

The caretaker said he did not stay there long. “They said: ‘Hey, this is an emergency, you can’t stay here.’”

Before Jeter went out again, he said someone gave him a pair of dry socks and he was able to reassemble his shoes for the walk back to the memorial. “When I got back, the shed was gone, everything was gone and my quilt, too.”

Now that the weather has turned colder, he sleeps about a 30-minute walk away that he takes in stride with his new heavy-duty waterproof boots.

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