Remembrance Day Feature
On Tuesday November 11, the annual Remembrance Day Ceremony will be held at the Japanese Canadian Cenotaph in Stanley Park. The memorial begins at 10:40am. Following the service refreshments will be served at a reception at the Stanley Park Pavillion where artifacts will also be on display.
Hirokichi Isomura: from Veteran to Prisoner of War
Born April 1, 1882 in Aichi Ken, Japan, Hirokichi Isomura immigrated to BC in 1902 at the age of 20 and lived in BC for a total of 55 years. In the early years he worked as a labourer, going where he could find work, between Tacoma & Vancouver.
Likely Hirokichi was one of the Japanese Volunteer Soldiers who in 1916 trained in Vancouver, sponsored by Yasushi Yamazaki and the Canadian Japanese Association. The unit split up because Canada did not accept them as a battalion, consequently many of them made their way to Alberta to enlist on an individual basis. Hirokichi enlisted in Calgary on August 5, 1916 into the 175th Overseas Battalion which merged into the 50th Battalion in France. In mid September, the 175th left Halifax escorted by the English Navy, bypassing enemy submarines and arriving safely in England. They trained vigorously in England until Feb 1917 when they crossed over to the war front. The 50th Battalion was already on the front line and the headquarters was in Satoderae, a small village close to the front. They were expecting heavy fighting on Vimy Ridge, a slightly elevated hill. The enemy was on the peak of the hill and looking down at the Allied army when the 175th Battalian arrived.
Winning Vimy Ridge
The Canadian soldiers did two-week shifts on the front, with relief at the rear to eat hot food, drink coffee & beer, and read letters from home. Back on the front while on the line, they did not sleep for three days or nights nor was water very available. The Japanese Canadian casualties piled up but regardless, they advanced. Within two months the soldiers were facing the enemy within 50 meters and started a general offensive. On the right was the 77th Battalion and the left, the 46th Battalion. The enemy retreated and the Canadian soldiers advanced. If soldiers were lost, new recruits filled the spots, the number of Japanese Canadian soldiers was reduced to 20, but then 18 soldiers from the Alberta 192nd Corps came to relieve them. They fought and won the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 17, 1917. During the battle, Hirokichi had compassionately given a dying German soldier water from his own canteen. The Japanese soldiers have been credited with being the most fearless and brave soldiers, examples to their Canadian counterparts and proud of their contribution to the Canadian victory.
Wounded by Schrapnel
Eventually the Japanese Canadian soldiers were formed into a platoon of 40 in August of 1917. Sgt Kubota divided the Japanese Troop in two for rotation, one led by himself. On August 20th, the platoon took part in the battle of Arras, and two days later suffered over 100 casualties from shellfire. Hirokichi Isomura’s wounds were so severe he was sent to a hospital in England and eventually discharged back home to Vancouver. He had shrapnel removed from many parts of his body but the wounds wept to his dying day.
Eventually he became a shoemaker, living on 747 Powell Street in Vancouver, and married Mitsu Kato at Shaughnessy Veteran’s Hospital by Reverend Oana on Sept 8, 1926. He fished in the summer and was a shoemaker in the winter. Hirokichi had three children – Kunio, Ichiye (Ethel), and Fumiko (Jean). Hirokichi never missed a Remembrance Day ceremony and made sure his children came along. He even marched at Victory Square one year. Often the War Vets would meet and hang out in his shoe shop on Powell Street.
Becoming a Prisoner of War
During WWII, enraged by the government’s decision to intern all Japanese Canadians, Hirokichi protested that WWI vets should not be treated as enemy aliens and exiled. As a result, he was arrested and sent to a POW camp in Angler Ontario with his son Kunio who also protested the split up of families. The whole family was taken by the RCMP to the Immigration Building without a change of clothes, or any thing. The Mounties promised that the children would be back to their home, but it was the last they saw of their home and belongings. Mitsu & the children were sent to Greenwood and sadly, Mitsu passed away in Greenwood Hospital on Nov 14, 1945. Ethel and Jean were still in school, living communally with others in a hotel on the main street of Greenwood, and cooking for themselves. The BCSC moved them around in Greenwood until they could be reunited with Kunio & Hirokichi in a hostel. In March 1946, Angler Prisoner of War camp closed and 128 internees were sent to Moose Jaw where the families were reunited. But the Isomura girls lived in separate units from the men.
In 1949, the family made it back to Vancouver and moved from apartment to apartment. Kunio lived on his own, Jean worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and Ethel worked as a seamstress for many years. In the last years of Hirokichi’s life, he had been living at 568 Powell Street until he was admitted to Shaughnessy Hospital and George Derby. He passed away at Shaughnessy Veteran’s Hospital on April 8, 1957. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Burnaby.
Lest we forget
It is for men like Hirokichi that we must remember the hardship and sacrifices they made for our country at a time when equal opportunity was not available to Japanese Canadians. Hirokichi had helped win Vimy Ridge for Canadians, was a naturalized citizen of Canada and still, he suffered indignities not usually afforded to Canadian War Veterans.
As a result of “They Went to War” campaign, the Japanese Canadian War Memorial Committee received a large donation from Ethel Isomura, Hirokichi’s last surviving daughter. The reason she donated a large amount was to assure that the Japanese Canadian War Memorial would stand for another 100 years, and she felt that it may be her last chance to support it. Her father was a World War I Veteran, and their story is unique.
The Japanese Canadian War Memorial committee is committed to telling more of these stories coming up to the 100th anniversary of the WW I Veterans enlistment in 2016. But we need your help. Please contact us if you know of World War I veterans and/or have photos, stories, artifacts to share.
Contact Linda Kawamoto Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Imataro Uegama: Proud to serve
Sam Imataro Uegama (Dec 18, 1888 – Oct 14, 1973) was born into an affluent family controlling various sectors of the fishing industry in Makurazaki, Kagoshima Japan. In keeping with Japanese tradition, the oldest son was to take over the business after his father died; Imataro was the youngest. Imataro was among the early numbers of young men who went overseas to seek a new future, landing in Vancouver in 1905. He found work in various parts of BC and Alberta, on farms, the railroad, in hotels, etc. He eventually applied for a homestead in Saskatchewan, and travelled to Regina where he worked as a porter. He listed this as his occupation in 1918 when he was drafted into the Canadian Army.
It appears most of Sam’s friendships and social environment were among people of European descent during his first decade in Canada. He became literate in English and loved to read Canadian newspapers for the rest of his life. He spoke English with hardly a trace of a Japanese accent (some said he had a faint trace of an English accent).
Sam’s military service story is interesting in that most people don’t know that Japanese Canadians were drafted in World War I. After being refused enlistment in 1914, Japanese Canadians organized their own battalion under Yasushi Yamazaki and the Canadian Japanese Association in 1916. They were refused and disbanded, but many of those volunteers signed up independently in Alberta where there was a dire need for reinforcements. With the immense loss of life, the Canadian Government debated the draft policy in the spring of 1917. About one third of Japanese Canadians were naturalized and assumed they would be subject to conscription like other Canadians. However, the government also realized that if they were conscripted they would also be granted the vote like all other Veterans of the War. While this was debated federally and provincially, about 21 Japanese Canadians were conscripted in 1917 before the government decided Japanese were exempt from conscription. There is a quote from Kaye Kishibe’s book, Battlefield at last: the Japanese Canadian volunteers of the First World War, 1914-1918 – “Thanks for your offer of sacrifice, but we would prefer you remain second class citizens for the sake of peace with BC politicians.”
While Sam was not among those seeking enlistment in 1914 and 1916, he was among those drafted (under the Military Service Act of 1917) on Jan 22, 1918 into the First Depot Battalion of the Saskatchewan Regiment in Regina Saskatchewan, where he was working as a porter. Authorized by General Order 101 of 1 October 1917 and by General Order 57 of 15 April 1918, the First Depot Battalion of the Saskatchewan regiment was to provide reinforcements for the 5th, 28th, and 46th Battalions and 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles through the 15th Canadian Reserve Battalion. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel McVean. Sam served in England, France and Germany with the 28th Battalion.
While Sam did not talk a lot about the war, his children recall a story that Sam told them about being hit by shrapnel in Northern France (at this time the Germans were in retreat). He thought he had been injured, as he could feel his body getting wet. A fellow soldier reassured him that the shrapnel must have hit his canteen as the liquid on his body was water. Sam kept that piece of shrapnel and passed it onto his children, along with his dog tag and medals.
The other war memento that Sam passed on was a small statue of the Virgin Mary set in a round clay frame that he found in France.
Sam also kept a letter dated April 30, 1919 addressed to all ranks of the 2nd Canadian Division from their Commander, who wrote, “With a heart full of pride and gratitude, as well as with the most real sorrow, I say “Goodbye” to you and wish you all the happiness and prosperity in your future homes”
Imataro’s marriage to Kinoko Kuroki was a proxy marriage in 1926. He did not meet her until he made a return visit to Japan shortly thereafter. Kinoko joined him in Vancouver in 1928. Kinoko was born in Kagoshima City, Kagoshima Ken in 1901. Their first daughter Martha (Masako) was born at the end of 1928. A year later they moved to Calgary where Sam worked with CP hotels in Calgary & Banff. In 1930, second daughter Irene was born in Calgary. They later moved to Vancouver and in 1932 started up a dry-cleaning and dressmaking business, Happy Cleaners, at 2784 West 4th Avenue in the Kitsilano district. Sons Walter (1938) and Victor (1941) were born in Vancouver.
Under the War Measures Act, the family was forced to close down the business and surrender their assets. Sam was sent to Greenwood in August 1942 while Kinoko and the children were placed in Hastings Park. In September, they joined Sam in Greenwood to spend their years of internment there.
In Greenwood, the Uegamas (with four children aged one to 13) were initially housed in a small house with another interned couple and their three adult children. It appears Sam was very upset with his family’s internment given his service record in WWI and this housing situation added to his irritation. They were soon moved into a small one-bedroom house as sole occupants. Sam was also given a position as a night watchman at the local hospital during his internment. He was particularly upset when his confiscated assets were sold and he lodged a written protest stating he never authorized the sale and refusing the payment offered.
Schooling in Greenwood for the three older children was provided by the Catholic Church’s Sisters of the Atonement.
After the war, they moved to Summerland as Kinoko had a cousin in Summerland. Family members worked as labourers in the orchards and the family maintained a kitchen garden for vegetables until they amassed enough savings to buy a very small orchard on Jones Flat Road on which a home was erected with help from friends in the Japanese Canadian community of Summerland. During harvest seasons, Sam and Kino became a familiar sight tending their fruit stand on Highway 97 alongside their orchard.
While Greenwood had been a reasonably accommodating community to the infusion of internees, thanks to Mayor McArthur’s leadership, Summerland during early post-war years was not entirely so. Anti-Japanese sentiments apparently had been openly expressed there during the conflict.
Sam was proud of his military service. He was active in the local chapter of the Canadian Legion and always attended the Remembrance Day ceremonies proudly wearing his two medals and legion pin. Sam passed away in in 1973 and is buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby. Kinoko passed away in November of 1992 in Vancouver. Irene (Shiho), Walter and Victor now live in Greater Vancouver, sadly Martha passed away in 1975.
As children of a WW1 veteran who took pride in his service, the cenotaph is important to the family. According to Victor, “When I picture our father, I think of him putting on his legion hat, medals and badge and attending the Remembrance day ceremony, he was very proud of his service. We think it was perhaps the highlight of his life; however, he rarely talked about his time during the war. Like a lot of veterans, he would only tell little snippets of stories. Although he did talk about it more as he got older”
The family believes it is important that the cenotaph be maintained, as many people are unaware of the service of Japanese Canadians in WW1 and then again in WW2 while most people thought of them as the enemy.
This cenotaph is of national as well a local significance, But to the Uegamas, it has special significance as their father’s name is on the plaque and they know how much he would treasure that.