Sixty-nine years ago, in December 1941, my father — the younger son and the youngest child of an older widow, Mary Abe — was 12 years old. Charles Hugh Abe (“Hugh” to his family) was half-Japanese, half-American, and the baby of his family in rural southwestern Virginia. He and his siblings, Fairy, 14, and Farmer, 16, attended school nearby and helped their mother eke out a living raising apples on family orchards. Mary’s family was large and well-known in the Poages Mill community outside of Roanoke, Va.
Because their extended family throughout the area on Mary’s side was white and because their Japanese father was eight years deceased, the community seemed to look past the shiny black hair, almond eyes and olive complexions of their Japanese ancestry. They may have been Japanese “Abes” on paper. but they were “Lights” on my grandmother’s side and, besides, what is more American than the name “Abe,” mispronounced as the nickname of President Lincoln?
At least nobody said anything aloud to their faces, not then. Not before Pearl Harbor.
It’s hard to imagine that on that Friday, at the beginning of that first weekend in December, he was a member of an extended community, but by the Sunday evening of the same weekend, he was looked upon with suspicion. What treasonous acts exactly was a young boy capable of? One who just vaguely remembered his Japanese father and spoke only country-twinged American twang?
My dad looks like Chin-Ho on the old Hawaii Five-O. Yeah, I know it’s the wrong Asian country, but the description has always been enough for strangers old enough to remember the TV show to pick him out of a crowd.
The irony is that my father thinks he’s white. Entirely. It never enters his mind that white people clearly see him as a Japanese, Korean, or Chinese man. Nor will he admit that such identification has ever been racist or derogatory in nature. Decades after Pearl Harbor, after an Air Force career and having lived, ironically, at both Hickam Field, Hawaii, and Tachikawa Air Force Base outside of Tokyo, he continues to deny any racism or discrimination. Maybe it’s pride. Despite what he says, both the formal historical record and his private family history tell another story.
The formal historical record tells us about Japanese internment camps. Family scuttlebutt indicated that our family’s “half-breed” nature as well as their father’s U.S. Navy service record kept them from such consideration.
But it’s a huge coincidence that my uncle Farmer suddenly began to experience fights at school with his classmates, ran away from home, lied about his age, and enlisted in the U.S. Army before the end of 1941 – at age 16. Dad lasted two more years at home, before he tried to follow in his brother Farmer’s footsteps. The FBI finally caught up with him in basic training in Fayetteville, N.C., and sent him home to wait through a few more birthdays. He tried the same stunt as soon as he could, and he was caught again. But he was allowed to transfer to the Army Air Corps — later the Air Force — because they were then accepting younger recruits than the regular Army.
My uncle, Farmer Elijah Abe, served in Europe and was the recipient of the Bronze Star. He served almost 15 years in the U.S. Army. My father, Charles Abe, served as a senior master sergeant in the United States Air Force for almost 30 years.
It’s ironic then, for me, that Pearl Harbor led both young Japanese-American men into military careers to prove their loyalties to the United States. For my father, it also somehow erased half his heritage.