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Japanese American WWII vet reflects on service, luck, loyalty as he turns 100 in Seattle

100th birthday (MatissDzelve/Pixabay)

Edy Hideyoshi Horikawa cheated death so many times during World War II that the U.S. government assumed he had been killed in action.

The young soldier from Seattle was severely wounded during a bombing in Bologna, Italy. German troops nearly destroyed the hospital in France where he was being treated. And once a bomb went off on the side of a hill, the impact burying Horikawa in dirt.

Others saved him each time. After the Italy shelling, he wound up in a hospital with no one he recognized; he was there for a month. As German troops shot at the hospital in France, a soldier ran outside, commandeered a passing cargo truck, backed it up to the building for Horikawa and others to jump in, then high-tailed it halfway to Switzerland. After the hillside bombing, troops dug him out of the dirt.

“When I hear that, I think someone wanted him to live long, someone wanted to protect him through,” said his wife, Norigiku Horikawa. “I said to him, ‘Thanks to the mighty God and the people around you, people always helped you.'”

In early August, his family and friends helped again — this time to throw him a 100th birthday party, roughly 75 years after the end of the war that should have killed him.

Reaching 100 is a celebrated rarity. Having a living decorated World War II veteran reach that mark — one who served while his family and other members of his Japanese American community lived in incarceration camps — becomes more of a rarity each day.

Of the 16 million U.S. World War II service members worldwide, roughly 300,000 are alive today. By October 2021, that number is projected to decrease to 226,756, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, though this does not account for deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I admire that he is still alive,” Norigiku Horikawa said outside their Beacon Hill home as cars drove by honking at her husband. He was sitting in a wheelchair on the sidewalk, wearing a fold cap and shirt sent by the Go For Broke Education Center, an organization dedicated to teaching the public about Japanese American veterans of World War II.

Edy Horikawa was born in 1920 in Seattle, in the back of the Horikawa Hardware store on Maynard Avenue South. His family lived on Beacon Hill. He attended Franklin High until his junior year, when his father died; then he moved to Highline High School.

He had never heard of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor until Dec. 7, 1941, when he learned from the radio about the attack there. Soon after, anyone of Japanese descent was restricted in when and where they could go. While en route to a night class, he was stopped by a police officer who asked where he was going, looked at his ID and told him he wasn’t supposed to be wandering around after curfew.

He joined a group of volunteers on their way to Pinedale, an incarceration camp near Fresno, California, that the government had framed as a relocation center for Japanese Americans. Edy Horikawa and the other volunteers set up the detention center before others arrived.

“I thought it was a great adventure,” he said in a wide-ranging interview about his life in 2001 conducted by the Go For Broke Education Center. “I was just a worker at a grocery store, not a glamorous job at all. I had nothing to lose, everything to gain. America was my country, my father always put that in my head. You obey your president.”

Edy Horikawa witnessed the Japanese Americans’ mistreatment. Everyone had to dump out their suitcases on sand, then walk 1 1/2  miles to the barracks. Some families had cotton mattresses, others got straw. He was then forced to move to Tule Lake, another incarceration camp in California. Norigiku Horikawa said her husband told her that he didn’t have any relatives with him, so he had to live in the barracks with another family.

Incarcerated Japanese American adults were asked to answer questions that became known colloquially as the “loyalty questionnaire.” At Tule Lake he was asked if he would swear allegiance to the U.S. and if he would join the military. Edy Horikawa said yes to both. He was sent to Army bases around the U.S., then got the call that he would be sent to Europe.

Before he left, he was able to visit his family members who had been forced to move to Minidoka, an incarceration camp in Idaho. His uncle — who helped raise him and his siblings after the death of their father, then their mother — caught a salmon for dinner and told him to be loyal to the U.S., be a good soldier and come back alive. That last part was hard to do, he joked in the 2001 interview.

He served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up almost entirely of soldiers who were Japanese American. While on guard duty he was hit by a piece of shrapnel, causing just a scratch but one deep enough that it bled — “you have to bleed to get a Purple Heart.” During his second injury from the Italy bombing, he lost his dog tag and had amnesia for a month. His family got word that he had been killed in action, which everyone believed until he walked into their house in Seattle after the war ended.

For his service he received two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Congressional Gold Medal. A lot of the Japanese American men on the battlefield didn’t receive the recognition they deserved, Edy Horikawa said, like the soldier who commandeered the truck.

“He saved 35 people, but he never got written up for rescuing us because he was just another truck driver,” he said in the 2001 interview. “But if it wasn’t for his quick thinking and doing that, I may not be here today. I owe him a lot.”

Edy Horikawa came back to Seattle and earned an art degree from the University of Washington, then taught at high schools and community colleges. He met Norigiku in a graduate-level painting class when she accidentally spilled paint on him. She was a Japanese exchange student, with her own wartime memories of having to help out at a factory producing military uniforms and looking for edible plants because there wasn’t much food. They married in 1959.

The couple moved to Japan, then back to Seattle, where he worked in the art department at Boeing. His artwork has been shown in the Henry Art Gallery and Seattle Art Museum.

Edy Horikawa doesn’t talk much about the war or the incarceration camps, especially as he’s aged and had memory lapses. But occasionally he’ll bring up stories, like the time he crashed an Army Jeep, said friend Sean Eaton, who helped organize the birthday party and arranged for current Army officials to send a happy birthday video.

Edy Horikawa enjoys reading Harry Potter books and watching the squirrels in their yard eat and drink water. Sometimes his wife gets mad about the birds eating their pears, apples and berries, but he says no, the birds have to live, just like we have to live.

“Maybe that makes him live longer,” she said. “That’s our simple life. We have a happy life.”

Meanwhile, firetrucks drove by for his birthday, as friends handed cookies that read “100” on them to each firefighter. From his wheelchair on the grass, Edy Horikawa saluted each one.


(c) 2020 The Seattle Times
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