American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt present Casey Kunimura with an award for his dedication to Utah Boys State. Photo by Don Weber/The American Legion

A Legionnaire’s battle from an American internment camp to war

As a young teenager living in California in 1940, Casey Kunimara’s daily life was filled with school, friends and sports; he “felt as American as the next kid.” But that all ended on Dec. 7, 1941, a date that changed America forever, as well as the life Kunimura once knew.

Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, an executive order was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 16-year-old Kunimura, his mother and siblings were forced to leave their home in Gilroy and relocate to an internment camp. Though a native-born U.S. citizen, he was detained because of his Japanese ancestry.

But Kunimura’s story following life in camp is one of forgiveness and love for country. After once carrying around an “enemy alien” draft classification card, Kunimura went on to serve with one of the most highly decorated units of World War II – the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – and served in the Korean and Vietnam War. He too has been an active American Legion member for 48 continuous years, serving as Department of Utah commander in 1994, and a 30-year staff member of Utah Boys State.

American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt recently presented Kunimura with an award for his continuous years with Utah Boys State and service to his country.

“America is my country. I’ve always said one thing, ‘My country … right or wrong, my country,’” said 92-year-old Kunimura, who resides in North Ogden, Utah, where he’s a member and past commander of Post 9.

When word reached Kunimura that Pearl Harbor was attacked he “reacted like any other American – I thought I needed to do something to aid my country,” he said. “I did not think of the enemy, Japan, being the ancestral home of my parents. I, being an American citizen, felt like I should do what I could for my country.”

But joining the military like his friends were lining up to do wouldn’t become an option for Kunimura. He was denied service due to his Japanese ancestry. “I was an American and my loyalty was to the only country I knew. This feeling never left my thoughts during the entire trying ordeal over the next few years,” he said.

Kunimura credits his love for America to his upbringing by immigrant parents, who instilled dedication, loyalty and humility. His father emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan, to the United States in 1905, and his mother followed suit in 1923. Kunimura’s father passed away in 1939, leaving his wife and six children to be waiting outside a high school in Gilroy in June 1942 for departure to two internment camps.

Kunimura and his family left their home with only what they could carry, not knowing where they were going or how long they would be gone. They were first sent to live in a horse stall on a rodeo ground in Salinas, Calif., for a few months before taking a three-day train ride to the Poston War Relocation Center (the largest of the 10 American internment camps) in southwest Arizona. It was there that Block 32 became home to Kunimura for a year.

During his time at Poston, Kunimura lived with his family in a small room in a wooden barrack that was surrounded by the hot Arizona desert, trying “to live a normal life as a possible.” He got a job as a chief chef in the mess hall, earning $16 a month to prepare and plan meals, watched movies outdoors, participated in athletics and attended dances with friends. Yet, he longed to leave camp and serve his country, which was still not an option. He found his way out of camp as he was afforded the opportunity to work in Chicago for an auto parts store.

It was during his time in Chicago that an all Japanese-American combat unit – except for its officers – was being formed, and Kunimura’s calling to serve would be possible.

Kunimura joined the U.S. Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 1944 after Selective Service reclassified and issued him a draft notice. He joined the unit as a machine gunner, fighting his way through France while his family and friends remained in Poston, “being held prisoners by the very country I was fighting for,” he said. “But my patriotism, devotion to my nation, and love of country could not be denied.”

Kunimura witnessed firsthand the 442nd earn a Congressional Gold Medal in November 2011 for their efforts in waging a successful campaign against Nazis in southern France and northern Italy. In all, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, inlcuding 21 Medals of Honor. “These proud men proved to the nation of their loyalty and dedication and the right to be called Americans,” he said. “I’m extremely proud to have had the privilege of serving shoulder to shoulder with all those brave, young men and having been a small part of that history.”

Following the end of World War II, Kunimura served in the Korean and Vietnam War, met his wife Dorothy – a Korean War veteran of the Army Auxiliary Army Corps and a member of Post 9 – raised three children, and retired from the military and civil service.

Since his involvement with Utah Boys State began more than 30 years ago, he’s been a counselor, assisted with party elections, and now organizes and helps pass out awards. He’s remained involved in the program because of his “love of country, of the military, of veterans and of the young men to instill upon them the ideas of democracy,” Kunimura said. “The purpose of Boys State is to educate why we have a primary, a general election and elect for various offices. These kids are going to grow up to become our leaders.”

Dorothy has been an integral part of Boys State for just as long, baking cakes and cookies for the young men. “These boys love Dorothy, and she’s making them fat, too,” Kunimura said.

Although Kunimura doesn’t know how much longer he’ll remain on the Boys State staff at his age, he said that his longstanding involvement with The American Legion was a way to “spend a little of my own time to make this country just a little bit better in the long run.”