“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.
I knew the evening would shine for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it took place at the Japanese American National Museum. The soaring architecture of the museum’s grand hall was a fitting place for interviewing Dr. Yamazaki in front of over 100 guests. Jim was joined by my friend Dr. Bennett Ramberg who served as the interviewer. I’ve known Bennett since 1998 and wrote about this illustrious man in a June 2006 Los Angeles CityBeat article where we discussed the Iranian nuclear issue.
A Ph.D. in International Relations from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, Ramberg is the author of a plethora of books and articles on nuclear issues. Most well-known for his classic treatment of the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to military attack and sabotage – Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy (University of California Press) – Ramberg has been on the faculty at Stanford, Princeton, and UCLA, consulted Congress on foreign policy, and worked in the State Department during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Over the last several years, Dr. Ramberg has become the country’s most published newspaper commentator on nuclear security issues, having authored dozens of Op-Eds in major papers in his attempt to turn the world away from another nuclear arms race.
After greetings and introductions from the museum’s President, Akemi Kikumura Yano, and PSR-LA board member, Dr. Jimmy Hara, Ramberg asked Yamazaki about his life, and the various experiences in the book. Dr. Yamazaki spoke of the human toll of nuclear warfare and the specific vulnerability of children to the effects of these weapons. The men discussed the brutal ironies of racial and cultural conflict, of war and sacrifice, and a portrait of events whose lessons remain difficult and troubling 64 years later.
When Ramberg opened the floor for questions and comments, none were more moving than those by Shigeru Nakayama, an actual survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing August 6, 1945. He was 17 at the time. Several physicians asked Yamazaki about the multi-generational effects of the bomb that continue to be discovered. And of course there is the inevitable question about whether or not the Japanese would have surrendered without the atomic bomb. Yamazaki says he doesn’t know – his primary concern is and has always been about the future, to make sure that nuclear weapons are never used again.
When I got to the microphone, I asked Jim where he was when he first heard of the bombing of Hiroshima August 5, 1945.
“I was in Ashville North Carolina with other returning POW’s,” Jim said. Yet even being these returning heroes, Yamazaki and other soldiers of the integrated 106th soldiers had to watch ‘how to be an American patriot’ films.
“The fellow servicemen he was resting in the mountains with were not Japanese-American,” said Schecter. “They were his buddies from his unit. They were being re-indoctrinated because they had been POWs, and the US was afraid they could have been brain-washed.”
When news of the atomic bombings and subsequent Allied victory over Japan were announced, Asheville practically shut itself down.
“They confined us to our rooms,” Dr. Yamazaki said, including the recollection that Asheville shut down all its bars in anticipation of American soldiers going on a rampage. “They thought we were going to tear the place up,” Jim said.
“The ruckus the authorities were afraid of was a celebration over the victory!” Schecter told me later. “Strange world, huh?”
Dr. James Yamazaki is a brave yet peaceful man. He fights so that all of us can never experience the horrors of nuclear war. He also has found the secret to long and loving life with Aki. I think that one reason we get along so well is I know that secret too. That secret is to love fiercely, fight fiercely and put people and planet first.
Video of of Dr. James Yamazaki in his eyewitness account, compares the human casualties of the Battle of the Bulge (the biggest battle of World War II), with the human casualties of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Video trailer of the documentary, “Dr. James Yamazaki and the Children of the Atomic Bomb.”