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Nikkei Heritage

Aren't you Sonny?

As a Nisei, I am frequently mistaken for Chinese, Korean, Filipino or, sometimes East Indian. When they discover that I am of Japanese ancestry, they think of me as a Japanese national rather than an American. This is one incident that happened to me as a soldier in the U.S. Army stationed in Korea.

During the Korean conflict, I was assigned as a clerk to the Surgeon’s Office, X Corps Headquarters, near Inge. Although my assigned duties were that of general clerk, I performed a great variety of jobs, mainly because of the shortage of personnel. One of my duties was that of an interpreter. Since most of the Koreans where I was stationed knew the Japanese language, I acted as an interpreter for Colonel Byron Steger by communicating with the Koreans in Japanese. As there were only two Korean interpreters at headquarters, it was more convenient for the Colonel to have me around than to request a Korean interpreter.

One day Colonel Steger was called to go to 8th Army Headquarters in Seoul. He could not get a flight out, so he decided to drive and took me along. Shortly after we arrived in Seoul, the colonel was called back to X Corps Headquarters. However, rather than driving back, he was able to find a return flight. This meant that I had to drive back the vehicle, since we did not have rental car services in Korea. My plan was to stay overnight in Seoul and return the next morning. However, Major Carr from our office wanted me back as soon as possible and instructed me to drive back immediately. Since the Colonel had driven all the way to Seoul, I did not have any knowledge of the roads, as there were no road signs. I was very apprehensive driving in an unknown and isolated area, let alone driving by myself and at night.

I was very careful, making sure to stop at any U.S. Army camp to get directions. About three quarters of the way to my destination, I was stopped by the Military Police. They asked me questions about driving alone at night and with a jeep assigned to X Corps Headquarters. The MP’s immediate reaction was that they thought I was a “gook” who had stolen a jeep to sell at the black market or a spy who killed a soldier and had stolen the jeep. The MP’s did not believe me because of my physical appearance even though I spoke English.

The MP’s called their superior officer, who immediately came speeding down the road to investigate. I noticed his name tag on his field jacket and the silver bars on his shoulders. I rattled off, “Sir, aren’t you ‘Sonny’ Grandelis who played for the Michigan State ‘Spartans’ in their famous pony backfield for Coach ‘Duffy’ Daugherty?” With that response from me, Lt. Grandelis released me thinking, no “gook” knows that much about American football, let alone the name of the team and coach he played for. Lt. Grandelis cautioned me not to drive alone, especially at night, because of snipers and land mines. It was a harrowing experience, but thank goodness for my knowledge of college football – I would have been detained and held as a prisoner in my own army!

 

* This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage Vol. IX, Number 1(1997), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society.

 

© 1997 National Japanese American Historical Society

About this series

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Visit the National Japanese American Historical Society Web site >>