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Collection Snapshot: John Katsu and the End of WWII

Contemporary head and shoulders image of man looking off.

John Junji Katsu during his oral history interview (still from video interview). John Junji Katsu Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/89308.

As I mentioned in my last post, on September 8th, the Veterans History Project (VHP) will release a new Experiencing War web feature to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In the meantime, I’d like to shine a light on another one of the collections that will be included in the web feature.

Unlike Merle Korte, the veteran I profiled last week, Technician Third Grade John Junji Katsu was not a combat veteran at the end of the war, but even so, his life had still been turned upside down during the previous four years. The son of Japanese immigrants who had arrived in San Francisco in 1906, Katsu was 14 years old at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thanks to his youth, and perhaps also to his indefatigable spirit, he viewed his family’s ensuing relocation, first to Tanforan Racetrack and then to Utah, as an adventure. In his oral history interview, he speaks eloquently about the hardships and challenges that his family faced while interned: being shepherded by armed guards to the Topaz Lake Relocation Center, like prisoners; the grim facilities; the impact of communal living on privacy and family bonds. At the same time, he emphasizes the self-sufficiency and tenacity of the camp residents: they created a true community within these austere and repressive circumstances.

Black and white image of people with many materials.  A truck is parked close by as people walk.

Photograph of Tanforan (Calif.) Assembly Center: a group of Japanese American evacuees arrive from San Francisco and sort their luggage, May 11, 1942. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a01456.

Katsu’s time at Topaz lasted only a year, after which he was released to attend high school in St. Louis, where his sister and brother-in-law were living and working. With tears in his eyes, he describes how the local high school students there embraced him with open arms, despite his background. Finishing his high school studies in Washington, DC, he was drafted in 1945 and shipped to Germany to serve in the occupation forces. Judging by his oral history, he approached his duties with his characteristic grace and integrity. Part of his time with the military government office was spent on outreach to the local community; at one point, he instructed children who had been involved in Nazi youth groups in the principles of democracy.

Katsu’s experience provides a different lens through which to view World War II, and what came after the Allied victory, specifically in terms of the US occupation of Germany. During his time in the Army, he served the nation that had trampled upon his rights as a citizen and incarcerated him and his family in the name of winning the war, and he did so without losing faith in his country. He ended up working closely with the citizens of the conquered country, many of whom were forced to rebuild their lives after the war, much like his own family. Like all of the collections that are part of Veterans History Project, Katsu’s interview illustrates the inherent nuances of America’s involvement in military conflicts, complicating traditional narratives but ultimately enriching the larger story.

For more collections relating to the end of World War II, see our web feature, which will launch on the VHP website on September 8th. For more collections relating to Japanese-American veterans, see this list of interviews conducted by the Japanese-American Veterans Association.


  1. Marjorie johnson
    February 23, 2020 at 2:17 pm

    This is my uncle John Katsu. To say that I love this man would be an understatement. Everyone should embrace life,beauty and learning in his manner. He lives with grace and wonderment.

  2. Margaret Riddle
    June 16, 2020 at 9:31 am

    This is also my Uncle John. He passed away June 15. He was the most supportive and encouraging and wise person I ever knew. He had a lot of nieces and nephews and he helped shape each of us to be a better person.

  3. Douglas Akagi
    June 16, 2020 at 4:19 pm

    I am the oldest of John Katsu’s paternal nieces and nephews. My sister Carolynn and I were actually born during our parent’s incarceration at the Topaz, Utah “relocation camp.” As my 17 cousins would unanimously agree John Katsu fulfilled an important roll in all of our upbringings. He treated all of us equally with love and kindness and a wonderful sense of humor. The way he lived his life set a positive example for us.

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