Joe Haratani: An American Story

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2014 21:02

Joe Haratani (front right) and Company H of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team at Camp Shelby, 1943

You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.’

— President Harry Truman, July 15, 1946, in an address to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Washington, D.C.

Joe Haratani was born in California, making him a U.S. citizen.

“I grew up in the Central Valley,” says the Sonora resident and second-generation Japanese American. “I spoke English; all my friends spoke English. I never doubted where my loyalty lay.”

But in April of 1943, Haratani and thousands more Americans of Japanese ancestry were put in internment camps by the government and given a loyalty questionnaire. His answers would either keep him behind barbed wire or send him to European battlefields to kill Germans and Italians.

“Only two questions counted,” says Haratani. “One asked if we swore allegiance to the United States and renounced allegiance to the emperor of Japan. The other asked if we were willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered.”

His answers to these questions changed Haratani’s life forever.

Joe (toddler at right) with his parents, brother James and sister Mary at Stanford Garden, circa 1925

Joe (toddler at right) with his parents, brother James and sister Mary    at Stanford Garden, circa 1925


Son of a preacher

Born in 1923, Joe was the third of seven siblings. His father, Iwakichi Haratani, was a Japanese merchant sailor who jumped ship in San Francisco about 1901. He picked up English and started listening to sidewalk preachers. With help from a sponsoring family, he attended seminary and became a Methodist minister.

He returned to Japan for an arranged marriage to Tei Saji, daughter of one of Japan’s last Samurai. They moved to Tacoma and his first congregation, then relocated several more times before settling in Livingston, California. Joe’s father preached in Japanese to congregations made up primarily of first-generation farmers, but the children spoke English. Money was scarce.

“When our shoes wore out,” Joe recalls, “we would cut a pattern from a cardboard box and tuck it inside. I was very careful not to step in puddles.”

In 1941, he graduated from Livingston High School and enrolled in Modesto Junior College.

“At age 18 you’re pretty positive about life,” he says. “My parents might have worried about the threat of war with Japan, but I don’t remember worrying too much about it.”


In December, Haratani was living with a Caucasian family in Modesto, doing garden and household chores in exchange for room and board. When news of the Pearl Harbor attack came, his host family sent Joe to the movies to discuss what they should do. When he returned, they told him he had to leave.

A friend let Haratani move in so he was able to continue his studies, but not for long.

“Handbills appeared on telephone poles,” he recalls. “They said Japanese Americans could travel no more than five miles from home. If I wanted to see my family in Livingston, I had to sneak back on side roads.”

On March 18, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9102, establishing the War Relocation Authority. Citing national security, it provided for the removal of “designated persons” – the Haratanis and 110,000 other Japanese Americans living along the West Coast.

While internment camps were being built across the west, Central Valley Japanese were held behind barbed wire in an “assembly center” at the Merced County Fairgrounds. The nine Haratani family members shared two 8-by-12-foot sections in the barrack. “We were lucky,” Joe says. “Some families had to stay in converted horse stalls.”

Before they were forced from their homes, they left all their belongings in the basement of the social hall at their Livingston church, planning to come back for them later.

“I remember nailing the door shut, thinking our things would be safe while we were gone.”

Granada Relocation Center in Colorado became known as Amache

Granada Relocation Center in Colorado became known as Amache

In September, the family was sent by train to Amache internment camp in southeastern Colorado, where more than 7,000 were imprisoned. “I don’t know if you’d call it a concentration camp,” Joe says today, “but there were armed guards in towers and barbed wire … It wasn’t what you’d call pleasant.”

When the war began, young Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) like Joe had been given a new draft status – 4C or “enemy alien.” So when President Roosevelt declared in February 1943 that “no loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship regardless of ancestry,” the reaction at Amache was intense and indignant.

Earlier, their heritage had made them pariahs. Now, if they passed the loyalty test, the U.S. government was going to let them fight and perhaps die for the country that had imprisoned them.

‘Yes, yes’

It didn’t go unnoticed in the camps that Americans of Italian or German descent had never been designated enemy aliens, and none of them were required to demonstrate loyalty.

A “yes, yes” response to the two most important sections of the loyalty questionnaire would put young men into a new Army combat unit – the 442nd – made up solely of Japanese Americans. A “no” response to one or both of those questions would keep a man behind barbed wire.

“We had many discussions at Amache,” Haratani recalls. “Some of the older people thought we should say ‘no, no’ to the two questions about loyalty.”

Joe's parents at Amache, circa 1942

Joe’s parents at Amache, circa 1942

Many of the internees asked if they might be forced to fight against relatives in Japan. Or, they wondered, if a Japanese soldier were killed in action, what might happen to his non-citizen parents back in the camps?

While more than half of those interned said “no” to one or both of the questions, Joe answered “yes, yes.” In April 1943, he swore allegiance to the only country he had known, and he pledged to put his life on the line in combat for that country.

His answers would rip the 19-year-old away from everything he had ever known and send him thousands of miles from his family to European battlefields where he would lose three of his best friends.

Camp Shelby and the 442nd

Within weeks, Haratani was sworn into the Army and ordered to report to Camp Shelby in Mississippi.

Japanese American volunteers from Hawaii had been formed into the 100th Infantry Battalion a year earlier and were fighting in Italy. That group would eventually become one of three battalions comprising the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Haratani met many other American-born Japanese eager to serve and prove their fidelity, including new friends Johnny Yamamoto and George Saito, both from Los Angeles, and Frank Shigamura from Seattle. The four became mortar men, learning to fire 81mm rounds in H Company of the 2nd Battalion.

“Every guy in each mortar squad did a different job to make it all work,” he says. “I carried the mortar rounds in a harness over my shoulders. Each round weighed seven or eight pounds, and I carried three or four in front and three or four in back.”

During that year of training, Haratani injured his back and had surgery in New Orleans. He returned to his squad, never guessing that the injury would plague him for the rest of his life.

Army Private Haratani, 1943

Army Private Haratani, 1943

Italy, battlefields and loss

On May 1, 1944, Haratani and the 442nd shipped out of Virginia and arrived in Naples a month later. “The Germans had been pushed north of Rome by then,” Haratani explains, “so we were trucked up near Grosseto. Our job was to drive the enemy back to Florence and across the Arno River.”

The 442nd entered combat on June 26.

“The first day, I was carrying equipment along a country road,” Haratani recalls. “In a ditch next to the road I saw the headless body of an American soldier. That was my introduction to death on the battlefield.”

For the next two weeks, the Germans threw everything they had at the 442nd to slow the Americans’ push north.

“The rifle companies had it the worst,” Haratani says. “They would be out in front while our mortar squads would set up some distance behind them and fire rounds over their heads at the Germans. Those guys ahead of us took so many casualties.”

During the first week in July the unit attempted to take Hill 140 outside Castellina, less than 30 miles from Florence. Progress was slow, and often ground was gained a yard at a time. Before dawn on July 7, the 3rd Battalion was scheduled to jump off ahead of the 2nd.

“For some reason they didn’t take off,” Haratani recalls, “and the whole 442nd was stuck behind them in a fairly open area during daylight with nowhere to go. We just holed up in slit trenches while the Germans lobbed an 88mm cannon shell at us every 10 or 15 minutes.

“It was a warm summer day and my best friend, Johnny Yamamoto, was in a trench next to mine. I noticed a well some distance behind our squad down in a little valley. I decided to collect canteens from Johnny and the other guys in my squad and fill them.”

Returning with a half-dozen full canteens, Haratani was stopped by others in his squad: Johnny had taken a direct hit.

“They wouldn’t let me look at him,” Joe recalls. “I just went numb … If I hadn’t been filling the canteens, the same shell would have also killed me.”

The Army in fact believed the dead soldier was Joe and notified his family. Joe, never a letter writer while overseas, made no contact with his family. The Army did later correct the mistake by informing his parents that Joe was indeed still alive.

Within an hour of Yamamoto’s death, Haratani heard another incoming shell. “I hunched over in my slit trench, and when the shell exploded, dirt clods flew up and pelted my helmet and chest.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but shrapnel from that round had also hit him. “Several weeks later I was showering and felt something hard under the skin on my chest. I rubbed it and a piece of shrapnel the size of my little finger tip worked its way out.”

Another friend gone

Haratani and the 442nd continued to drive the Germans north. They reached the Arno River on July 25, but not before Joe lost a second good friend.

“We were asked to clear a German squad that had infiltrated behind our front line,” Haratani says. “I didn’t see it happen. Someone told me later. Frank Shigamura was just too aggressive that day. Instead of staying low, he stood up … they shot him in the head.”

The 442nd suffered 1,272 casualties during the Rome-Arno campaign. More than a fourth of its soldiers were killed or wounded in the bid to liberate 11 towns and villages across a 40-mile stretch of countryside.

Haratani and his unit spent that August and September patrolling Florence and the Arno River. As October and much colder weather approached, the 442nd left Naples for Marseilles on the southern coast of France. The men were trucked north to Epinal on the edge of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. There they joined the 36th Division and began the assault on Bruyeres.

Joe (at right) with friend in France, 1945

Joe (at right) with friend in France, 1945

Liberating Bruyeres

The Germans were determined to defend the key road and rail center of Bruyeres, less than 75 miles from their border. The town lay in a valley shaded by four strategic hills that rose nearly 1,000 feet above the valley floor.

The battle began on Oct. 15. Haratani’s 2nd Battalion was ordered to take Hill B, while the 100th was assigned Hill A.

The Germans defended the area with minefields, machine gun nests, and heavy artillery. By the end of the first day, the two battalions had advanced just 500 yards.

Two more days of battle followed. At midday on Oct. 18, the 100th secured Hill A, and the 2nd Battalion took Hill B three hours later. While the battle for the other hills raged, American troops marched toward Bruyeres to liberate its citizens.

“There was a crossroad going into Bruyeres,” Haratani says. “The Germans still had guns focused on that junction and seemed to fire on it every five minutes or so. My friend George Saito happened to be there at the wrong time. We were all moving into the town. He was at the junction when an 88mm shell hit and killed him.”

He adds quietly, “I marched right by him, saw his whole face gone.”

During the last week of October, members of the 442nd would rescue the “Lost Battalion,” more than 200 members of the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division, which had been surrounded behind enemy lines.

Haratani, again suffering from his earlier back injury, was hospitalized and did not participate in the famous rescue, which came at a high cost: more than 800 killed or wounded in the rescue of 230 Caucasian soldiers.

Life after war

Haratani recovered and then was reassigned to a gas-generating company made up of Caucasian soldiers. He spent the rest of the war in northern France and Germany, filling oxygen cylinders for use by everyone from welders to medics.

When the war in Europe ended, Haratani stayed with his unit until late fall, 1945. A ship to New York, a flight to Camp Beale, a bus ride to Livingston, and a one-mile walk brought Haratani to the parsonage where his parents were again living after release from Amache.

“When I knocked on the door, my parents thought I was a robber,” Haratani says with a smile. “I hadn’t called ahead. They didn’t even know I was in the U.S. They weren’t even certain I was still alive until they saw me.

“Of course none of our things were still in the basement of the social hall when my parents returned,” he adds. “But they had a place to live, and my father had a job.”


Amy and Joe at Stanford Senior Ball, 1950

Haratani returned to MJC in 1946. Before completing his associate degree, he met and fell in love with Ada Yamasaki, a pretty woman two years his junior. They discovered that both had been in the Merced assembly center and Amache at the same times, yet their paths had never crossed.

Joe and Ada, now called Amy, were married in 1948 just before Joe entered Stanford University on the GI Bill. There he earned a degree in civil engineering and later, a master’s degree in sanitary engineering from U.C. Berkeley. Haratani then went to work for the California Division of Water Resources.

Three children – Guy, Richard and Saji – were born in the years that followed, years in which Haratani once more was recruited to serve the government as part of the U. S. Agency for International Development. His career took the young, growing family to Bolivia, Nicaragua and Vietnam, where he helped build water systems and health centers.

For another 10 years, Haratani worked in Washington for the USAID and then as director of the Peace Corps in Ecuador. He and Amy also served two years as Peace Corps volunteers in the Galapagos Islands.

Looking for a permanent place they could call home, the Haratanis in the early ’70s bought a house in Columbia. For several more years, Joe worked for the government, consulting on water projects in countries ranging from New Guinea to the Ivory Coast.

Joe Haratani at his Sonora home

Joe Haratani at his Sonora home

Loyalty and more

Haratani served more than two years in the 442nd, earning among other medals a Bronze Star, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Congressional Gold Medal. After the war, he worked in government service for another 43 years.

Joe Haratani has been a loyal American for 90 years and counting. When asked if he resented the call to serve his country after being labeled an enemy alien, Haratani is unequivocal.

“I never focused on how I was classified. That never even entered my mind,” he says. “I never focused on being resentful. You just can’t do that.”

 Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2014 21:02
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  1. chris March 5, 18:17

    Excellent story Men like Joe never cease to amaze me. I spent many years of my youth speaking to these old veterans no matter which side they fought for. I think they are all heroes in my eyes because no matter which side you are on you are told by your government you are doing it for your country, family, and freedom. If you don’t believe me open your eyes and look around you doesn’t take a genius to see this fact. Anyways saddens me that they (Greatest Generation) are disappearing quickly into the sands of time I feel as a young man I was lucky to have spent my time getting to know a lot of them invaluable to say the least

  2. Jan July 31, 17:14

    I knew the Haratani Family in the Galapagos where my small family and theirs overlapped for a couple of years. We spent hours at their home there and loved their friendship, their humor, intelligence, and openness. Years have passed and through all this time, they have popped up here and there in my recollections of good times spent with exceptional people. Thanks for the memories!

  3. Karl Manzer October 18, 23:25

    Joe was my mentor when he was USAID Mid east Tech rep.I was a PC Vol in El Kef Tunisia running CARE/USAID water develepment Projects 77/79. I had no technical knowledge of pumps when I got there. Joe would drop in every month or two and we would drive up to the Cliffs behind El Kef, drink a bottle of wine while watching the farms below and watch the sunset. when iit was still we could hear the families talking ( I spoke local arabic) The next time he visited He would come with a box of books, relevant to what I needed to know, he allowed me to become a functional engineer as far as the Tunisian Ministry of Public Health were concerned.

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