Frank Moritsugu: from Port Alice to Calcutta
Frank Moritsugu is an oldtimer in the grandest sense of the word. Born in Port Alice, British Columbia, he was still in his teens when he was hired by Tom Shoyama as writer for The New Canadian immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As former editor-in-chief of the Kitsilano High School Life, Frank had met Shoyama at a gathering in the Japanese language school and had occasionally contributed Kitsilano-area sports reports to The New Canadian.
Recalls Frank in a 2008 interview, “I learned how to type my stories in the Hotel World office and did many things including getting coffee for my elders. I wrote a column filled with hep talk as it was called then (became ‘hip’ later). And the regulars among The New Canadian crowd called me the young staff jitterbug. This means I was present at a downtown information source during that crisis period when the government was deciding what to do with us; cars, trucks & radios were confiscated; dusk-to-dawn curfew was enforced, and eventually ‘evacuation’ was announced.”
In 1942 Frank was sent to the Yard Creek highway work camp where he stayed until August 1943 when he rejoined The New Canadian staff in Kaslo, where it had been relocated, replacing Roy Ito as the assistant English editor.
In 1944, after seven months in Kaslo, Frank joined his family, which had relocated to Ontario, and worked for a year as a farmhand before volunteering for the Canadian Army. Frank served in Southeast Asia as a Japanese-language interpreter/translator, attaining the rank of sergeant in the Canadian Army Intelligence Corps attached to the British counter-intelligence forces.
On returning to Canada he applied to the Ontario College of Art in Toronto but through various circumstances ended up in the literary world again, doing a third and final stint at The New Canadian (temporarily located in Winnipeg under editor Kasey Oyama) and having a piece published in Saturday Night.
Recalls Frank, “although I loved the work I never dreamed back then while working on The New Canadian of becoming such a professional. Growing up in BC in the 1920s and 1930s like my nisei contemporaries I knew that nobody who looked like me and had a name like mine could become a journalist on a non-JC publication.”
Following the advice of Saturday Night editor B.K. Sandwell, Frank entered a liberal arts program at the University of Toronto, where he was elected editor-in-chief of The Varsity in his third year. Winning the best editorial award in the annual Canadian University Press competition set him on his career in journalism and over the course of a long career he worked for Maclean’s, Canadian Homes & Gardens, Toronto Star, and the Montreal Star. In his retirement, he has been publisher of Nikkei Voice, for which he currently writes a regular column.
The Bulletin spoke to Frank Moritsugu by email about his experience in the Canadian Army at the end of World War Two.
Interview: Frank Moritsugu
Growing up in Vancouver before the war you experienced your share of racism; your family was stripped of your property and possessions and sent packing; yet you willingly joined the Canadian army as the war was winding down. Was there a sense on your part that you were trying to “prove” your loyalty to Canada, or was there a different motivation?
When the ban against us joining the army (or the Canadian air force or navy} was finally lifted in early 1945, my immediate reaction was “I’m going to volunteer; it’s about time!” And why? To do what my hakujin schoolmates had done by joining the RCAF when we graduated from Kitsilano High in 1940. After all, the Second World War had begun against Germany and Italy in September 1939 just as we started Grade 12. And we had known then that, like not having the vote, we couldn’t do the same.
Then our unique mistreatment, which began after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack and the subsequent war by the Allied countries against Japan, truly brought home the racism against us by our fellow Canadians.
So years later with the Second World War still on, when the chance came to prove that we and others like us were 100 percent Canadians too, some of us just had to volunteer for the Canadian Army.
Your father lost everything he had worked for when the Government evoked the war measures act. What did he think of your decision to enlist? Did it cause any dissension in the family?
When the ban against us joining up was lifted, our family of two parents and eight children was together again at our first Eastern Canada home at St. Thomas, Ontario, having left the BC road camps and the Tashme family camp. I told my parents and immediate brothers of my intention to enlist. My father responded, “How can you go fight for a country which treats us like this?” And my mother asked, “What will our friends say?”
I replied, “I know Canada is treating us badly, but think of this: We have moved to Ontario and most people treat us better but some are still suspicious, thinking if we were kicked out of BC, we must have done something against Canada.
“And if I become a Canadian soldier when I finally get the chance, that should help us in this new life of ours—not just me, but all of us starting new lives out here.”
As they thought about it, my brothers Ken and Harvey, who were old enough to become soldiers, said one of them should go instead, not niisan (big brother). But I insisted that I had thought about it most and had learned more about the prevailing politics because I’d worked on The New Canadian on Powell Street after the war against Japan started and the other JC papers were banned by the Mounties, and in 1943-44 at Kaslo after 16 months at the Yard Creek road camp.
So finally, the family accepted my decision, and unlike those other nisei volunteers whose families refused to accept their enlistments, I was among those fortunate to get full support from my family.
By the way, on my last night of my embarkation leave at St. Thomas, Mom and I stayed up late talking in the farmhouse. And finally, she said (in nihongo, of course), “Please remember that if you get captured by the Japanese over there, they will look at you and think like people in BC do: That you are not Canadian but Japanese, and so you are a traitor. If that happens, please kill yourself.”
To that most yamato damashii suggestion, all I could say was “Okay, Mama.”
What was the prevailing attitude of the community in general, given their treatment?
The attitudes among Japanese Canadians about nisei joining the Canadian Army was naturally mixed. Many of those still back in BC refusing to leave their detention camps could not accept their sons joining up—especially out in the East. I learned years later that one of my nisei friends who I grew up with and went overseas with had had a difficult time with his parents back then. In the National Archives in Ottawa, while researching other aspects of our history, I came across a file of wartime letters that had been put aside by the official “censors of enemy languages” for special attention.
The letter in question was in nihongo from a mother back in BC, who asked her son in Ontario to tell her that surely his news that he had become a Canadian soldier was a joke. If not, she wrote, your father says you are no longer a member of our family.
So far as I know, after his overseas service there was a reconciliation. On the other hand, I’ve also heard about another veteran whose issei father refused to talk to him for 10 years after his return.
Can you talk about your experiences overseas? You were stationed in India – what were you doing there?
I was one of the 23 nisei in the second group rushed to Southeast Asia with minimal training. Meanwhile the majority of nisei volunteers did their basic training and then graduated from language training at the S-20 Canadian Army School in West Vancouver to qualify for action.
As it happened, most of us earlier arrivals were not exposed to combat danger because the ban in Canada against us enlisting was lifted so late. So by the time we reached India and were about to be given our specific orders, the war against Japan unexpectedly ended following the historic and terrible Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts in August 1945.
So new orders followed, and those able to do the interpreting-translating were assigned to work with British units accepting formal surrender from Japanese forces at such places as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (Malaya), Saigon, Hong Kong, etc. And those rituals were followed by dealing with the enemy troops and even the Japanese civilians in those Southeast Asian countries.
I learned much later that initially I had been assigned to be with the Saigon unit, but plans had been changed which is why my Southeast Asia time became limited to India.
My new role came about because more than half of our Canadian nisei group were not fluent enough in nihongo, and we had been sent to India before being tested.
Then when the war ended, the British Army’s Japanese-language school at Simla in Northern India was immediately closed. Yet several of our Second Group guys needed to get language training elsewhere to become useful to the British in postwar activities. So a nihongo-training school was improvised in a Gurkha camp in tea-plantation land north of Calcutta.
Lieutenant Lloyd Harvey, a graduate of the S-20 Canadian Army language school in BC, was in charge and I was appointed the other teacher. The lieutenant took on the beginners (two of the lads didn’t know how to count or say yes and no in nihongo). While I, a mere private, was assigned the advanced class of fellow nisei privates I’d come with from Canada. They needed further polishing of their nihongo skills to be useful.
After about a month of this teaching, furiously making up next day’s lessons by a coal-oil lamp inside a tent under the heavy rains of the annual monsoon, I was ordered to report to Calcutta.
There I was somewhat casually promoted to sergeant—being the secretive army intelligence, proper military protocol was ignored on occasion. And I was assigned to become the interpreter-translator for a British intelligence unit in Bombay. “Intelligence” meant what is commonly known as “secret service” and included espionage (or spying).
I went across India on my first-ever airplane flight (a not very smooth Dakota) to join the unit. Its mission was to fly to defeated Japan to discover what the Japanese military intelligence had learned about the British Intelligence operations in Southeast Asia.
The team would probably be the first non-American military unit to enter occupied Japan. And the Bombay stay was to wait for political arrangements to be made by Britain with the US occupiers for our coming.
So in September 1945, I joined the unit which was made up of British Army personnel, They included two Royal Signal Corps sergeants—Johnny Sharp from London and Ted Cornick from Basingstoke. As wireless operators they had separately parachuted into jungle in Malaya on hush-hush night missions to get information about the Japanese forces from local Chinese-speaking resisters.
And as we killed time waiting in Bombay, I was ordered to hold daily sessions of teaching conversational nihongo to them and to Corporal Al Rose who was a drive-mechanic and young Private Taffy, who was Welsh and whose name I forget, and the two Lieutenant-Colonels who were in charge.
As it turned out, we NCOs got to know each other well. Ted and John used to chuckle at what they called my “Yank accent,” while my retort was “Listen to you guys, your accents are much crazier.”
Because the agreement for us to fly to Japan and poke about was long in coming, we got to know Bombay well as we stayed in the ritzy neighbourhood named Malabar Hill. Our home was a mansion lent to the British forces by Mohammed Ali Jinna, the Muslim leader in India back then.
Then at the end of November after nearly three months of killing time, the news came from London. Our operation was cancelled. The US Occupation forces in Japan didn’t want us coming to do our intelligence digging. Talk about inter-Allied co-operation.
So we were dispersed. As we left Bombay in early December on a train heading across country to Madras, one of the days was my 23rd birthday. Ted and John decided to celebrate and brought out a bottle of whiskey, so for an hour or so we didn’t pay attention to the Southern India scenery we were rattling through.
We ended up in Ceylon at a Special Force 136 camp. After a few weeks we were separated and by Christmas time I was back in India at Madras. Then I was off to Calcutta.
There I met two nisei friends, George Suzuki and Fred Nogami, who had been ordered to go to Singapore. They asked me why not join them? But after the frustrating wait in Bombay, etc., I said no thanks. I’ve had enough.
Some time later, the news came around that George and Fred had been on a flying boat heading for Hong Kong from Singapore which plunged into the sea, killing most of the soldiers on board. Happily Fred and George had survived, though suffering some injuries.
And the irony is that if I had gone to Singapore with them, I might have been in that plane crash, too. And despite growing up in Kitsilano near the beach, I couldn’t swim.
The rest of my time in India was spent in different Force 136 camps in northern India, with eight other nisei sergeants who had served in various places during and after the war. Finally, we got on the Australian troopship Moreton Bay at Bombay heading for Southhampton, and then across the Atlantic on the Ile de France to Halifax. And soon after the honourable discharge in June 1946 I became a civilian again.
As for those nisei sent in the first draft to Southeast Asia, some were assigned to wartime tasks by the Propaganda Warfare section. One was Fred Kagawa (from London, ON) who translated the British-side radio news into Japanese and read them into a mike from Rangoon, Burma, to influence the Japanese troops hidden in the area. The other was Albert Takimoto (from Toronto) who did the same from Ceylon where the headquarters of Special Force 136 was.
We learned later that if the war had lasted longer, there could have been dangerous missions that Canadian nisei soldiers might have been sent on. One was to be the Japanese linguist with a British unit advancing into the jungle as close as possible to a surrounded group of Japanese troops. The unit had a sound truck with a speaker on top and a microphone inside. And the nihongo speaker stood inside at the mic to tell the enemy to surrender and that they would be treated properly under Geneva Convention regulations. The truck was guarded by a group of Gurkha soldiers and the trick was to get the surrender message across before the Japanese judged by the sound the right distance to aim their mortars. Later reports said the deaths and injuries suffered by such units had been very high.
Did your experience in the army have any lasting impact on you?
Because I was in my early 20s then, and had worked with Tommy Shoyama on The New Canadian twice after the war against Japan began, I was fortunate enough to have a firmer idea than many other “evacuees” about what to do and when. So my army experience turned out to be a continuum of my maturing, now that I look back.
The big payoff, which I hadn’t at all thought of when deciding to enlist, was the veteran’s benefits afterward. As they did for most other nisei veterans, the benefits allowed me to go to university. In my case, it was to prepare me for a mainstream journalism career, something that I had never imagined was possible when growing up in Vancouver.
I understand you are planning on attending this year’s Remembrance Day Ceremony in Stanley Park – have you attended before?
No, this will be my very first time. I have wanted to be at Stanley Park on a Remembrance Day but had been tied up recently with the other surviving nisei and sansei veterans at the annual observances in Toronto. I am very much looking forward to seeing the restored cenotaph which I remember visiting not only during my BC years but also on most trips I’ve since made to Vancouver.
You chose to stay in the east even after the restrictions were lifted – did you ever have the urge to return to the coast, or did you feel you had burned your bridges, or maybe had them burned for you?
I am comfortable whenever I come to Vancouver, but it’s like how I also feel about Japan. In both cases, I enjoy visiting but don’t want to live there.
I haven’t analyzed thoroughly why, but to me there are too many reminders of the unhappy parts of my Vancouver existence. And it’s my memories of the racism that we suffered up to and including the mass expulsion which turns me off.
In addition, it has been elsewhere in Canada beyond British Columbia—physically lovely as it can be—where those of my generation, and our issei parents have found and profited from much more open lives.