Stories From My Grandpa
By Kristen Nemoto Jay
I don’t remember my grandfather. Not personally, anyway. The only memories I have of him consist of a bleak image of a large J.F.K. velvet painting that he loved, which greeted (or scared) folks who’d walk through the front door of my grandmother’s house. That house was burglarized more times than I can remember growing up but not a single one thought to steal Jr. from the wall. I’d like to think it’s because they knew Grandpa would hunt them down, which—from what I also heard growing up—wouldn’t have been too far off from the truth.
No, sadly, I didn’t know him. There were stories about his time spent fighting in WWII and the Purple Heart he received from serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. But what especially stuck were tales of his parenting style, and the consensus was: strict. His kids—my mother, her three sisters and two brothers—would reference the Von Trapp family a lot; well before they were singing in the mountains with Maria. But because my grandparents had divorced before I was born, and he remarried to have another life in Arizona soon after, I never got the chance to get to know what he was really like.
It wasn’t until he was on his deathbed in 1999, during my freshman year in high school, when I finally found the courage to write him a letter. I don’t remember what I’d written, but according to my mother, when she flew up to see him and say her goodbyes, Grandpa couldn’t stop crying. “He was very touched,” my mom said to me, and I felt bad that my last and only contact with him made him grieve even more.
After his death, years passed on as if — for me anyway — he didn’t exist. I moved on to college in California, then on to grad school soon after in Chicago. And in the beginning of 2013, I’d landed my dream job as a writer in Honolulu. Coincidentally that same year I pitched and wrote a story about an upcoming trip that my family and I were about to embark on: Honolulu to Bruyères 2013 Tour Sister Cities. A trip that would retrace all the steps that Grandpa, and thousands of other Nisei soldiers, took when they were just young adults themselves.
To be quite honest, when I originally signed up to go, I was more excited for the trip to Europe than to learn about a grandfather I hardly knew. Of course I had some interest to try and comprehend what he and so many young men had to go through during a time of great turmoil, but truthfully, I was in it for the rumored endless supply of wine and buttery Croissants.
But after digging deeper into Grandpa’s particular role in Hawai‘i’s connection to the city of Bruyères, I was intrigued to find that he created the initial bond between the two unlikely friendships. I found out that years after the war, he returned to the city and became friends with resident Gerard Deschaseaux. That handshake would then be the first step in creating a close friendship that would last well into my generation.
Then, by day two of the tour in Europe—when I met up with 50-plus Hawai‘i people who were a part of the tour—I realized this trip was already meaning more than I could possibly imagine. For in the short span of nine days, I had gained memories and lessons that would last a lifetime. These experiences included a tour of the grounds of the Dachau Concentration Camp where our Nisei grandfathers once fought off Nazis soldiers; a meet and greet with families whose fathers and grandfathers helped save those who couldn’t pronounce their own last names and vice versa. I met an elder man in Bruyères who broke down into tears after learning that I was a descendant of a Nisei soldier. I made friends with every French person on the tour bus without knowing a smidgen of their language. I watched our American flag rise proudly within the forest of Biffontaine, where nearby in the Vosges Mountains, 800 Nisei soldiers once fought and died (Editor’s note: this figure is for all 100th/442nd soldiers killed during the war) to save the Lost Battalion of 275 trapped soldiers. I paid my respects to the soldiers who didn’t make it home from the war at the Epinal American Cemetery. And I cried as French children sang, with perfect pronunciation, Hawai‘i’s state song of “Hawai‘i Pono‘i.”
After the trip, I’ve been blessed to see a whole new meaning and profound appreciation for my life. My grandfather and his Nisei brothers are the reasons why I’m able to have the life that I live today. The very reason why I was able to go to school and have opportunities to succeed. It’s as if they knew, when they were all fighting in the cold mountains of France, so far from home, that their service would mean so much more than themselves one day. That their sacrifice for freedom and proven loyalty will carry on and be remembered by their children’s children’s children.
Although it’s a bit late in my life, I’m happy to have learned more about my grandpa. And even though I may not have known him personally, I feel as if he has always been with me. His legacy lives on: I just have to pay a bit more attention. During our trip to Bruyères, I did see him. I saw his bravery in the cold cells of the Dachau Concentration Camp. I felt his compassion for the elder man who cried tears of joy for saving his family from Nazi persecution. I saw his love for his family and country in the American flag that rose high within the forest of Biffontaine. I saw his deep sorrow and pain within the thousands of unmarked graves of his brothers who didn’t make it home. I felt his pride when I heard those children sing our state anthem. I even felt his sense of humor in The Sound of Music tour while we were in Austria (my family insisted we attend); and his love for life within our French hosts whom did indeed pour us all endless glasses of French wine throughout our entire nine-day tour. Although my grandfather and I haven’t been formally introduced, I know he has been and always will be with me.
And with that, I want to say this to him:
Thank you, Grandpa. And until we meet again, I’ll always remember you.
(Granddaughter of Sgt. Wilbert “Sandy” Holck)