“This used to be marsh and reeds,” said Dr. James Yamazaki, 93, as we pass by Maltman Avenue on Wilshire Boulevard approaching Koreatown. “Now look at all these big buildings!”
I was chauffering Yamazaki and his wife of 65 years, Aki, to the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles. Documentarian Steve Schecter was also in our carpool. Schecter [was] filming a documentary about Yamazaki’s remarkable life and march towards peace.
We were headed for “A Conversation with Dr. James Yamazaki” sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA) and coordinated by its Associate Director, Denise Duffield, who is also EnviroReporter.com’s editor and designer.
See a gallery of photographs of the event here.
In 1985, PSR shared the Nobel Peace Prize with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, “for spreading authoritative information and by creating an awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic warfare.”
PSR-LA awarded Dr. Yamazaki its 2008 Socially Responsible Medicine Award for his life’s work which “helped chart the dangers of nuclear radiation and presents powerful observations of both the medical and social effects of the bomb,” as the back cover of his book reads – “Children of the Atomic Bomb: An American Physician’s Memoir of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Marshall Islands”
Listening to him talk as we drove down Wilshire Boulevard on a picture perfect Los Angeles day, I realized this man had lived more lives than seem possible.
Jim Yamazaki joined the army before Pearl Harbor. When shipping out for Europe, where Japanese-American troops were deemed “safe” to fight, he went to see his parents in a wartime internment camp in Arkansas.
After completing his medical education in Wisconsin, Yamazaki was assigned to the 106th Infantry Division as a Combat Medic (Battalion Surgeon). On December 6, 1944, the “Golden Lion” division landed in France and embarked on the Rhineland Campaign.
Ten days later, the Germans launched a bold strike through the forested Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front. The offensive was called Operation “Watch on the Rhine” by the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht.
With over 800,000 men committed and over 19,000 killed, the Battle of the Bulge became the single biggest and bloodiest battle that American forces fought in World War II. We won that battle but paid a very high price in the process. Jim paid it personally.
Yamazaki was captured by the Germans and then force-marched 800 miles as a prisoner of war. He managed to survive but that wouldn’t surprise you if you know the man.
Yamazaki wasn’t the only Japanese-American fighting in Europe. The 3,800 men of the 442nd Infantry were of Jim’s ancestry and earned the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion.” The unit fought valiantly across with Italy, southern France, and Germany and became the most highly decorated military unit in the history of the United States Armed Forces. The 442nd alone had 21 Medal of Honor recipients and famously rescued the “Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains in October 1944. These kind of heroics exacted a high price. U.S. Army battle reports show the official casualty rate was 93%. Wounded soldiers reportedly would often escape from hospitals to return to fight in the front line battles.
After the war, at the age of 33, the US government asked Dr. Yamazaki to head the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. From 1949 to 1951, he worked with children in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and with Marshall Islanders who suffered from American postwar nuclear testing. His research focused on the effects of radiation on fetuses, and as his team had predicted, devastating abnormalities were seen in babies who were yet unborn when the bombs hit, and numerous mothers experienced still-births or miscarriages.
Upon his return to the US, Dr. Yamazaki continued his dedicated research on the effects of radiation on children, became a clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA, and maintained a pediatric practice. He has continued to promote nuclear disarmament and also to follow the effects of nuclear radiation on generations of families in Japan throughout his career.
In partnership with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Dr. Yamazaki has established a website ChildrenoftheAtomicBomb.com.
And all this time, this genuine American hero has been married to the love of his life, Aki. Denise’s special affection for this couple is a delight to behold, and Jim and I relate so well that it feels like I’ve known him forever.