Military memories

Military memories

For two local veterans, military service was a high point of their lives

By Carl Kozlowski 11/05/2013

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There have been tens of millions of American men and women who have served in defense of our country over its 237-year existence, each with a unique story to tell from their experiences. . 

Monday is Veteran’s Day, the national holiday in which we formally pay tribute to our service members, both past and present. But on Saturday, the Villa Gardens retirement community will be hosting an event that should be both enjoyable and stirring. 

“Honoring Our Heroes: Compelling Photographs of the Villa Gardens Residents Who Have Served Our Country” presents photos of the three-dozen residents at the facility, posing with their official military photos from their days in the service. 

The striking images by photographer Thomas Sanders — whose 2010 book “The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II” earned national acclaim — poignantly captures the raw heroism of wartime and the people who served, and will be featured among two hours of live music, wine and hors d’oeuvres from 1 to 3 p.m. 

Two residents who are featured in the exhibit, Harry Tsushima and William Birney, took time recently to tell their own respective stories in anticipation of the event. Tsushima, 92, served in the US military in World War II as an interrogator of Japanese prisoners after being forced to live in an internment camp in Arizona. Birney was a deejay on Armed Forces Radio before becoming a Los Angeles Superior Court judge for 23 years. 

Both men were fortunate to avoid the hail of gunfire and horrors of battle in their service, yet their colorful tales offer insights to the honorable service of those who helped our forces in other ways. 

“We had some prisoners who were good, and some who were bad, but we always learned something valuable from anyone we interrogated,” recalls Tsushima, who spent a year working inside the prison in Sugamo, a city near Tokyo where many Japanese POWs were detained. “There were 10 of us who had Japanese backgrounds and conducted the questioning, but we had two Caucasian officers who amazed me by learning the language inside and out.”

Tsushima was born and raised in Southern California, but he was held along with his family inside an Arizona internment camp for people of Japanese descent during World War II. When he was drafted at age 25, just one month after marrying May, his wife of 67 years, he found himself in the Military Intelligence School in Minneapolis, Minn., where he was trained to be an interrogator. 

While he was proud of his service, he headed home to his bride when the year-long term was up. Looking back, he was impressed and even somewhat concerned at the level of defense that was provided for the POWs at their war crimes trials in Yokohama. 

“They’d have Caucasian officers representing the Japanese prisoners, and I was worried they would go scot free because of how well they were handling them,” he recalls. “The Japanese citizens were thankful we were there, because the emperor had such a hold on them that they almost had to ask him if they could go to the bathroom. People wrote us thank you notes all the time, and little kids said they wanted to come to the states, study hard and come back to Japan to be like MacArthur.” 

Because of the top-secret nature of the MIS members’ work, Tsushima and his fellow soldiers in the Japanese-American 100th Infantry Division and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were not given special compensation for their service until the 1960s. And it wasn’t until February 2012 that Tsushima received the honor of a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition and a Congressional Gold Medal from Rep. Adam Schiff, who launched a widespread effort to find and honor the area’s MIS veterans. 

“I only wish I could have served longer and interrogated more prisoners for my country,” says Tsushima, who had a lengthy civilian career as a photographer. “But one thing I learned was that, whether they were good or bad, every prisoner was a human who just wanted to get home safe to their family, and every one of them kept a picture of their loved ones, even though the Japanese were trained not to think about them.” 

While Tsushima served the US during World War II, Birney found himself in admittedly more “laid-back” environs when he was assigned to serve in the Marshall Islands during a peacetime period from 1954 to 1956. Now 82 and a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Birney recalls there were risks involved with serving on the islands, which were the site of numerous hydrogen bomb tests throughout the 1950s.
 
But Birney’s time there was enjoyable nonetheless, because he auditioned for and was assigned a position as a deejay for Armed Forces Radio — a position he likes to remember as being similar to the one held by Adrian Cronauer, the military deejay whom Robin Williams portrayed in the classic movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” 

“Within a couple weeks of arriving on the island, one of my buddies told me they were auditioning and I asked the captain I worked with if I could be excused for an hour without telling him where I was going,” says Birney. “Because I already graduated college and didn’t have any particular accent, I had the advantage in language and personal evaluation over guys who had drawls or accents in their speech.”

Birney recalls one stretch of time in which he was one of two men splitting 20 hours a day of broadcasting, for weeks on end, “and we got punchy from the effort.” They could play audio recordings from stateside radio shows such as “Gunsmoke,” while also reading news broadcasts that were Teletyped to the station and playing music they thought the servicemen would like.  

“We would try to be funny on air from time to time, and we would have men write in about songs they shared or liked with their sweethearts,” says Birney. “But if we didn’t have a response, we would fabricate it. We’d say ‘This goes out to Private Jones,’ and fabricate a wish from her with a song she wished we’d play.”

There was a routine to things, but Birney had few complaints. The on-duty uniform consisted of short khaki shorts and short-sleeved khaki shirts, while off-duty, they could wear khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts. 

“It was always happy hour at one tavern or another, and cigarettes were 15 cents a pack,” he says with a smile. “The weather was marvelous, and there was a boat no one seemed to really claim, plus snorkeling equipment, and we’d take a case of beer and hit the lagoon. You could eat the fish and fruit one might find, but we were very well supplied. I had my fill of all kinds of music. It was less than strenuous, I would say.”

With memories like those, it’s no wonder that Birney wishes everyone would spend some time in the service. 

Villa Gardens retirement community presents “Honoring Our Heroes” from 1 to 3 pm Saturday. Admission is free. The facility is located at 842 E. Villa St., Pasadena. Call (626) 463-5329 or visit villagardens.org.

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