Nine Bullets in the Back

September 13, 2014 by Admin

By Toru Saito

It’s late. It’s past midnight. Out of the pitch black, a heavy, star-laden sky presses down on a lonely highway deep in southwest New Mexico. There is a dim yellow blush from the cheddar- colored moon floating low in the western skies. Here, 147 middle- aged men in everyday clothes plod–four abreast–down old Highway 40. The air is thin. You can see your breath when you exhale. The men are all on the small side. They’re people of Japanese ancestry. The fumes of smoke, steam, and oil still cling to their slept-in clothing, though it’s almost an hour since they stumbled down from those deserted railroad tracks that escorted them aboard that all-night train from Bismarck, North Dakota. Those ear-splitting sounds from that rickety old steam engine continue to ring in their ears. The little men are flanked by a platoon of giant beefy hakujin US Army soldiers, heavily armed with deadly double-barreled 12 gauge shotguns at the ready.

The landscape here is flat for as far as you can see. This is desert country. This is Lordsburg, New Mexico.  It’s hushed. The only sounds breaking the silence are the muffled rhythms of the prisoners’ shoes on the smooth blacktop and the sporadic wails of a pack of restless coyotes lurking in the darkness. The bone-chilling cold of the pavement pierces up through the soles of their shoes . . . It’s as painful as walking barefoot on ice. Goosebumps pop up and cover their exposed necks and arms. Their feet ache and swell with every step, a form of invisible torture by the callous guards, who do not employ the trucks that sit idle. Yet not one of the prisoners complains of this almost five-mile march.  Through no fault of their own, it’s “war time,” July 27, 1942 . . .

Trailing behind the others, two of the oldest prisoners, almost 60, struggle to keep up. Forced to rest after a few steps by their injuries, they progress at a crawl. Without consideration for their crippled condition, the authorities deny them an ambulance—let alone any form of transportation—to the distant concentration camp that awaits them. Instead, they are ordered to make their way on foot by the heartless officer in charge. A single guard is assigned them, as they obviously pose no threat of escape.

Toshiro Kobata, a farm hand from Brawley, California, endured a disabling, on the job back injury due to the malfunction of a heavy piece of farming machinery almost 30 years ago. He has a pronounced limp and is unable to stand erect. Hirota Isomura, a fisherman, suffered a permanent spinal injury aboard a commercial fishing vessel on the high seas off TerminalIsland. Both men refused governmental welfare, determined to make it on their own. In spite of their unsightly deformities, their peers hold them in high esteem for their integrity and upstanding principles.

As the prisoners up front approach the prison gate, it’s about 3:30 am. Suddenly, without warning, BOOM-BOOM!  A quarter mile behind the long column, two shotgun blasts shatter the stillness in the night.  The prisoners jerk their heads in the direction of the gunshots, but they can’t see the two crippled prisoners who lie face down side by side in the tall grass by the edge of the pavement. Each man with NINE BULLETS in his back at, “point blank range.”  The guard later claimed, “They were running away.”

The  next day, the other prisoners erupt in protest, causing a near riot!  Each man with NINE BULLETS in his back was too hard to stomach for them. After an intensive army investigation, the guard is charged with two counts of, “felonious manslaughter and the unlawful killing of a human being.”  Yet, in less than five hours in military court, he is found “not guilty” on all charges.  In the nights that followed, his fellow soldiers all fought to buy him drinks at the local watering hole.  “Let’s melt down the shell casing and make it into a medal for you,” they said to him.

Shamefully, Kobata and Isomura both died as single men, each with NINE BULLETS in the back–never realizing the fulfillment of their dreams, the joys of marriage and fatherhood, and continuation of the legacy of their superior traits . . .  Courting a woman was difficult enough, but unthinkable with a disfigured physique and their “unemployable” stigma; the only work they were considered for was the “shit work”—subsistence level employment as houseboys in which they carried out menial tasks, such as scrubbing toilets.  The scarcity of Japanese women, the result of racist immigration laws against Asian people, limited the number of women available for courting, and just heaped measures of sadness onto their existing despair.

Although strangers throughout their lives, Kobata and Isomura somehow, through a twist of fate, are linked in death and no longer sleep alone . . . instead, they rest side by side deep in the good earth, at peace in the afterworld, yet far from their beloved home land, Nihon. Victims of bigotry, they have committed no crimes. Until their last breaths, they remained loyal and respectful and devoted to a government that—without due cause—had turned their backs on their people and imprisoned them like common criminals. They died together at the hands of those who hated and disavowed them, even in death, their religious rites of ten thousand years.

Be that as it may, in their honor, 63 long years overdue, two former concentration camp prisoners themselves—Paul Takagi and Toru Saito—the first from Manzanar, the second from Topaz, arrive in Lordsburg,  from Berkeley, California, on October 17, 2005.  Just learning of the two men’s fates, they track down the unmarked gravesite, and, in the spur of the moment, gather branches from fallen trees, break them over their knees, and form homemade crosses in their honor, planting them side by side to designate their final resting places.  They light sticks of incense, performing the religious ritual and giving them the real funeral they’d been denied for over six decades, completing the circle, filling the void, demonstrating the respect and valuing of their lives they deserved that had been neglected through indifference by the man in the White House so long ago.  Like magic, the sweet fragrance of incense engulfs the air and filters deep down between the cracks of the dry desert’s crust, driven by a “living force.” Gradually, the spirits of Toshiro Kobata and Hirota Isomura, now whole and perfect, without NINE BULLETS in their backs, quiver and swirl upwards like steam from hot Japanese tea in winter. They linger above…pause…then drift with the East Wind, gracefully fade out of view to Nihon in the haze…forever grateful to be acknowledged and remembered… their spirits set free, returning home where they belong.

Good photo

Toru Saito was born December 11, 1937, in San Francisco’s Japantown. At age four, he and his family were imprisoned at the Tanforan Racetrack and then at the Topaz concentration camp, in Utah. Toru was eight when the War Relocation Authority released his family and moved them to the Hunters Point shipyard neighborhood in San Francisco. Less than a year later, they were transferred to a federal housing project across the bay in Richmond, California, where they lived from 1945 to 1955, at which point the family moved to Berkeley, where Toru still resides with his wife, Bessie Masuda, a former camp singer. After twenty years as a clinician at the Berkeley Mental Health Clinic, Toru retired and now spends time on his two passions: gardening and music. From Seattle to Las Vegas to Hawaii, he still performs professionally as a singer/bandleader of the Shanghai Bar Band. He sings Broadway standards from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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