This is the sixth blog post in a series marking the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II, and will feature an “Aviator Flight Log Book,” which will be available during the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover in September 2020.
While I enjoy working remotely, I miss having the opportunity to interact with those visiting the Veterans History Project’s Information Center. Located on the ground floor of the Thomas Jefferson building at the Library of Congress, the Information Center is patronized by those touring the building, perhaps hoping to find the President’s book from the film National Treasure or simply looking to see what other artifacts they can discover. Others are guided to the Information Center with purpose. Regardless of how they got there, I am grateful that our staff is there to greet them, learn about the veteran(s) is in their lives, inform them about the Project and even share a story or two from the archives. I’ll be excited to resume these kinds of interactions once the campus reopens to the public.
The walls of the Information Center are filled with curated facsimiles from the more than 110,000 collections. This modest sample of photos, letters and even 2-D pieces of artwork convey the varied ways in which individuals choose to share their narrative for the Project. While all the stories are remarkable, I have found that I am consistently drawn to directing our visitor’s attention to the south wall to learn the story of a Japanese –American man who desperately tried to serve his country in a time when, based on his ethnicity, many people treated him like our enemy.
Kenje Ogata’s story starts with his parents making their way from Japan to the United States and pursuing their American dream of operating a cafeteria in Sterling, Indiana. Ogata grew up like most boys of the time, playing sports and participating in local Boy Scouts. Like his peers, he went to enlist after he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When I share this, most visitors nod along, acknowledging the “date that shall live in infamy” and how that attack drove Americans to serve both overseas and on the home front. Continuing with Ogata’s story, I share that while patriotism spread across the United States, so did the mounting prejudice towards Asian Pacific Americans. While Ogata was relatively lucky, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans on the Pacific Coast were not as fortunate. Executive Order 9066 forced Japanese Americans (like 6-year old Carolyn Tanaka and University of California, Berkeley student Warren Michio Tsuneishi) from their homes, jobs and school to be sent to internment camps. At this point in the story, it quickly becomes apparent that some of the visitors were unaware that this occurred and are shocked by the injustice, while others feel it was only necessary for these families to live behind the wire where they could be monitored.
Unaware of any hostilities, Ogata attempted to enlist at Camp Grant, only to get turned away due to institutional discrimination. Undeterred, Ogata took a train to the Army’s 6th Corps Area in Chicago, where a major publicly shamed him by blaming the whole war on him. The colonel that relieved the major apologized and told Ogata he could return home, as this behavior would surely continue. Knowing he was able-bodied and had completed the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), Ogata pressed on, wanting to serve as an aviator. Instead, he was assigned the medical corps. For two years, Ogata advocated for a transfer to the Army Air Corps, writing letter after letter to the transfer board, engaging community support from his hometown and even visiting the headquarters to request the transfer in person, only to be left with extra K.P. duty—an undesirable assignment to work in the kitchen.
Reading some of the 121 letters within his collection, one can’t help but be inspired by his tenacity and integrity.
I know you were hoping that I wouldn’t apply for a transfer but … my conscience would never rest so long as I live, if I didn’t assert myself and fight for what I believe to be right, wrote Ogata in a letter to his wife, Wilma, in February 1944.
Proving that persistence eventually pays off, Ogata received his transfer in April 1944 when General “Hap” Arnold made the decision to transfer him, making Ogata one of the handful of documented Nisei to serve in the Air Corps during World War II.
Despite having his pilot’s license, Ogata was assigned to the 451st Bomb Group as a B-24- Liberator ball turret gunner, flying 35 dangerous missions from Foggia, Italy to “Hitler’s gas station” on Ploesti, Russia, Poland and Africa.
He was shot down twice, bailing out once into enemy territory and having to walk for 20 hours before a Hungarian farmer helped him reunite with his crew and then guide them on a 30-day walk to Romania. Acknowledging that his wife had likely received the dreaded missing in action telegram, Ogata prioritized sending word to her that he was alright. If you were in his shoes, what would you write to your loved ones to let them know you are alive and well?
In Ogata’s case, he opened the V-Mail with:
Hi Darling, Remember me? A bad penny always returns you know.
I cannot help but smile when I share that part of the Ogata story with our visitors. Despite all the hurdles, Ogata chooses to share his fate with his wife through acknowledging that he is and always will be a troublemaker, but playfully lets his wife know he is well and will return again. By March of that same year, he was able to pay tribute to this saying by snapping a photo of a B-24 Liberator’ fuselage nose art noting “The Bad Penny.”
Upon returning to the states, Ogata used the GI Bill for his education and practiced dentistry for more than 40 years. He and his wife had a daughter whose christening gown was made from one of Ogata’s parachutes to pay tribute to the life they had because of the life it saved. Proving once again that a bad penny always returns, Kenje and Wilma took a trip to Magyarkeszi, Hungary in 1985 for an emotional reunion with the family of the farmer who had helped Kenje more than 40 years prior.
Regardless of who they are or where they came from, Kenje Ogata’s story of triumph over adversity resonates with almost anyone with whom I share it. Some visitors smile, thank me and continue exploring the other treasures within the Library. Others emotionally open up about their own experiences to someone who was a complete stranger not more than five minutes prior. Ogata’s story, like so many in the VHP collections, articulates the heart of VHP and how these stories live on with those who take the time to listen.