Minister with a Flair

From GI to Buddhist priest: An interview with William Terao, Southern California Chapter

Author: Ben Tamashiro
Puka Puka Parades, July-August 1980, vol. 34 no.4

Interview with William Terao who became a Buddhist priest after the war

William Terao is a Kibei. He was born in Stockton, California in 1915. Two years later, his father decided to return to Hiroshima, taking the whole family along with him. William was the second of two sons; his sister had just been born. One of the first acts of the father upon resettlement in Hiroshima was to take out Japanese citizenship papers for his two sons. At 18, having finished high school, William told his father that he wanted to return to America. “What for?” asked the father. “If it’s simply to go to work, I won’t let you go.” In his mind, the father was dwelling on the tough times he had undergone in Stockton.

“No. I want to go back to study. To Los Angeles. For three years only.” He pleaded with his father. With much reluctance, the father finally consented so in 1935, William returned to the United States. Thereby hangs a tale of a man, burdened by the weight of an inner guilt, finding salvation through the way of his god.

William had difficulty mastering the English language. After three years of study he could barely understand it. This was not for lack of effort. So he asked his father for an extension of three years. Although his father wanted him to come home and go to college in Japan, he nevertheless approved William’s request. “And I was beginning to enjoy my stay,” says William. However, he was a dual citizen so he kept getting annual notices from the Japanese Consulate to report for military duty In Japan. He went to the consulate one day in response to one of these notices and ran into a very haughty office clerk (“Nama-iki” is William’s use of the Japanese). In a rage of anger at the cavalier attitude of the clerk, he cut off his Japanese citizenship.

Then fate intervened. Just about the time that William’s extension was up and he was pondering the dilemma of having to ask his father for another extension, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A month later, to the day, he was drafted into the army.

“You’re in the army now”

He went from the induction center at Ft. MacArthur to Camp Roberts where he had his first taste of military life, for three weeks; then to Camp Robinson, Arkansas, where he was part of a group of about 200 Nisei assembled there for eight weeks of basic training. He was issued a rifle, the first he had ever held in his hands. It made him feel manly. This was America!

But at his next station. Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, he found himself reduced to doing menial station duties and janitorial type work at the station hospital. What happened between Robinson and Leavenworth? Who knows? Terao didn’t. He was mad. His pride had been hurt. “There was a big officer’s club there (Leavenworth) and a big dance party held every Saturday night, where we had to serve drinks and clean up the next day. So we were getting madder and madder. Being treated like janitors, after having gone through basic training and all that.” But this was America, too. He began teeing off against the apparent injustices and in his rage, about every other word in his letters to friends in the relocation centers and elsewhere was a swear word. He then discovered that his letters were being censored, all of the swear words, especially, being snipped out. Rage turned into consternation with the further discovery that only letters of Nisei soldiers were being censored!

Luckily, relief from his mental tortures came in the form of a next assignment, to Camp Crowder, Missouri. While studying at Los Angeles, he had turned his artistic talents into the field of graphic arts and this had become his major line of study. At Crowder, he was assigned to the task of drawing maps and illustrating training directives in the Plans and Training office. Although he was in his own element now, he did not feel that this was what he had been drafted for. So as the year came to a close, he was still unhappy. His aim was to go into combat.

In the subsequent sequence of events affecting the life of William Terao, replacements were announced for the 442nd. He was dejected when his name was not on the first list of replacements. To ensure that he would be on the next call-up, he volunteered for a place on the second list. His company commander called him in and said to him, “You must be crazy! Volunteering for a combat outfit! You’ll get killed.” “That’s all right,” was William’s reply. “I’m going to die anyway.” So he was all happiness when he made the second list and was then sent to Ft. McClellan, Alabama, for final combat training.

The “Jap Revolt”

There were three companies of Nisei at McClellan, about 600 men, most of whom had been put through the kind of ringer that William had gone through, or more. Discrimination of one kind or another. However, in the second week of training, they were issued rifles. In the exultation, forgotten were the injustices of the past. But not so for 150 who refused to accept the rifles! Most likely each had a damned good reason for the refusal action. And William, though he sympathized with them, felt that the issuance of the rifles meant the return of trust by the army. For him, rifle in hand, he was willing and ready to fight for the country of his birth; to die for it.

The 150 were thrown into the stockade. The post chaplains went in to talk to them, after which they were given a second chance to accept the rifles. At this point, most of them did. The few who refused remained in the stockade. Newspaper headlines blared the news of the “Jap Revolt” and the word quickly spread to all the camps where Nisei were stationed; to places like Camp Shelby where the 100th had undergone its final preparation for combat and where the 442nd had followed.

(When William’s group was given its last furlough prior to oversea shipment, some in the group went to Shelby to say goodbye to friends. There, the mainland Nisei were busted up by the Hawaii boys training at Shelby. Why? “Because, I think, they had heard about the 150 at McClellan,” says William. “But you see, you guys from Hawaii never went through the kind of experience we had to go through.”)

After completion of 17 weeks of training at McClellan, William went from Meade in Maryland to Patrick Henry in Virginia, then was shipped out from Newport News as part of a 3-company strength of Nisei. They were headed as replacements for the 100/442.

Mary And Her Own Problems

Let me digress a bit and turn the focus on Mary, William’s wife. They were married in 1946 and have a daughter who works for Japan Airlines. But before all this came about, Mary, who was born in Oregon, had undergone her own set of travails. In May ’42 during the period of the evacuation of the Japanese from the West Coast, the family had to dispose of its two stores and a small hotel. In the rush of events, the stores whose net worth was around $6,000 were sold for $125 while the hotel sold for a slightly better price at $1,000 but which was still less than a third of what it should have been. Just before the family left the place, one day a bunch of drunken white stevedores forced their way into the hotel and smashed every glass piece in the hotel – from glass front to lights to drinking cups and hallway mirrors and what not. “My mother and I were just shivering in the corner,” recalls Mary of the incident. “So in a way we were glad that we were leaving.”

News item. The House recently approved the creation of a 7-member commission to investigate the World War II internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes and forced them into internment camps for the duration of the war. Although the bill would authorize only an investigation into President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 of Feb. 19, 1942, it could open the way for the internees to file financial claims against the U.S. The Senate had earlier approved a similar bill. The internment has been described as “one of the grotesque aberrations of the American political system.”
Mary’s father was interned for the duration. He was shunted from prison camp to prison camp. Mary herself was in the Minidoka, Idaho, relocation center from August 1942 to September 1945. At the beginnings of the evacuation, she and her group were hustled into the Portland horse stables before being sent on to Idaho. She was kept busy working in the legal aid department. She also taught sewing. Her brother was drafted and served time as an interpreter. The family was reunited after the war, in Oregon.


Meanwhile, William had arrived in Italy. He was assigned to Company B of the 100th commanded by Sakae Takahashi. The 100th by then was the 1st Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team which was getting ready to leave for Marseilles, France, and the battle for Bruyeres. William took part in the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” at the end of October 1944 and was wounded in the leg by shrapnel. He was hospitalized for two months, then rejoined Baker Company at Menton, even though he had not fully recovered from his wounds. (The Germans had struck through the Ardennes Forest on December 16 in a last-ditch effort to break up the Allied offense. One of the consequences in the consternation caused by the surprise attack was that patients were being forced to leave the hospitals for return to their units.) He was therefore held back when the 442nd returned to Italy in March 1945 and was subsequently assigned to a signal depot along with about ten other wounded Nisei. The depot was stationed near Nancy in northern France. It became engaged in the final Allied push into Germany and when the war ended the depot was in Mannheim. With nothing to do now, he was kept occupied in such foolish tasks as repainting Jeeps. Some vehicles were painted many times over. Putting his graphic art talents to use, he began to gussie up the Jeeps by painting figures of nude girls on them. Finally in September he was sent to. Antwerp where he boarded a tanker headed for Galveston and was discharged at Ft. Lewis near Seattle in October 1945.

The Making Of A Buddhist Priest

V-J Day came while William was still in Mannheim (about 50 miles inside Germany, from the northeastern corner of France). The news that Hiroshima had been wiped out by the A-bomb caused William great consternation. He wondered what could have happened to his parents and his sister. His brother who was a Buddhist priest, had followed William to America and was assigned to temples, first in Oakland, then in Seattle. He was interned for the duration and heard about the bombing of Hiroshima while in prison camp.

Subsequently, when the brothers were reunited in Spokane, they learned that both of their parents, their sister’s husband, and the husband’s parents – five of the family circle – had been killed in the atom bomb blast. The only survivors were the sister and three young children. The news devasted [sic] the brothers. William had difficulty quieting the discordant voices within him: why was it that the country unleashing the instrument of terror which killed his parents be the one he had just fought for? The unbelief haunted him. It was at this point that the brothers vowed to do something; not in retaliation but as a means of salvation. But what? How? William’s resources were meager; his brother had much less, if anything at all. They then decided that, in memory of their parents, they would establish a Buddhist church some place where there was a need. Through the pursuit of Buddhism, William and his brother would seek the inner calm of their hearts through the Kharmic law of the universe.

As for starting a Buddhist church in Spokane, many of the Japanese there were already in the fold of the Methodist church. But there were others who were like William, floating around – trying to find some calm and a way out of the backwash and the flotsam and jetsam created by the long years of war. So the brothers found a receptive climate there. They rented the upstairs of a family residence and started a mission. “I helped my brother establish the church, and altogether I studied under him for 15 years,” says William. But he realized that only through schooling in Kyoto could one expect to receive confirmation as a priest. He wanted to get to Japan, not only to see his sister and get a first-hand of how his parents had perished in the fire of the A-bomb blast, but also to pursue his resolve that “the only way to give thanks to my parents for letting me come to America” was through an act of Buddhism. But getting there was another matter.

Then, incongruous as it may seem, he turned to the military. Less than two years after his discharge he reenlisted in the army for a two-year hitch. “This was the only I could get to Japan. I spent the first six months in the language school in Monterey and graduated with top honors. Then I was sent to General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo as an interpreter. While there, I went to Kyoto to get a statue of Buddha for the Spokane church and a few other things. I also went to visit the Lord Abbot Ohtani in Kyoto and talked to him for an hour and explained everything that we were doing in the Spokane church. The Lord Abbot of the Kyoto Hongwanji is the only person with ordaining powers.”

William also went to visit his sister in Hiroshima. “I went to the Memorial Building and saw all the exhibits; the skeletons and what not. And my first grade school – it was just about in the center of the blast. It was burned and twisted. After the visit I felt a little better.

“And my friends urged me to use my influence at GHQ to try to get permission for the Lord Abbot to come to America. Other religious leaders were traveling back and forth. But not Buddhists. However, I had no influence at all. After all, I was only an interpreter.”

After his army hitch was over, he continued to work with his brother in the Spokane church. The church continued to grow and soon William and his brother were able to purchase a 2-story house a block away. The congregation now had a church building, the first Buddhist church in Spokane, the original Spokane Buddhist Church.

Then came the good news that the Lord Abbot was coming to San Francisco for ordination purposed. William’s brother submitted a special request to the Lord Abbot for a special dispensation to have William ordained because of the good work he was doing with the people of Spokane. Similar indorsemments [sic] were submitted by the governing Bishop of the Buddhist churches in America, and by others. So it was that in 1952, along with a dozen others, Williams was ordained into the priesthood. Says William, “As far as I know, I was the first, and the only one to date, who has entered the priesthood in this manner.”

As for being a minister, William says, “I’m a tough guy because of the life I went through. Because of that, I could communicate well with people. Through the ministry I could help the elders and youngsters. I could understand Nisei’s feelings. Having lost my own parents, I know how people feel when they lose their parents and others. I am not concerned too much with ritual but more interested in getting down to helping people, easing their suffering. Those are the kinds of things in which I like to help out. Being a minister, it makes it easier for people to ask me for help.” In a nutshell, that is William Terao’s philosophy about his religion. As for himself: “Gradually, I became a very satisfied man. I had a good ministry, a good family.”

Then in 1961, William received his “jirei” or certificate of ministry from the Kyoto Hongwanji. This document was the culmination in his search for a priesthood because the certificate grants the recipient the authority to perform most any function of the church.

The Spokane Buddhist Church continued to move ahead. In 1967, the congregation bough an old Baptist church and remodeled it to serve as its temple of woship, thus freeing itself from property obligations to the two brothers. Eight years ago, William left the church and moved to Los Angeles. At that time the church was serving 40 families with a total membership of 200.

“I retired about five years ago. I’m not affiliated with any church now.” Living expenses have to be met, however, especially pleasurable ones like coming to Hawaii to attend the Club 100 Convention recently concluded on Kauai. So, in his semi-retirement, as he calls it, he has turned once again to his graphic arts skill. Reproduced below is that calling card; also his current ministerial calling card:

A daughter was born to the Teraos in 1947. “The birth of my daughter served as a good teacher for me. It made me realize that the feelings I have for her are the same feelings of love my parents must have had for me. My daughter’s birth gave new meaning to my life, which is hope.”

However, hope also served to nurture the feeling of guilt he has harbored within himself ever since that A-bomb blast occurred over Hiroshima.

The Burden…

He has never forgiven himself for having left his parents when he was 18; for having thought only of himself when he pleaded with his father to let him come to the United States. And so – to atone for the sin of having deserted his parents, for having neglected them . . . until it was too late – he became a Buddhist priest.

And The Glory

Today, William lives the life of a happy man; semi-retired, with two lovely grandchildren and a wonderful wife. In retirement, his outward manifestations are that of a carefree man. He can sit down and imbide with the gang and tell the best of stories. Neither has he forgotten the swear words that had been snipped out of his correspondence at Ft. Leavenworth.

But most important, he has found true happiness through the teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.