Once to Every Man

One man’s disillusionment in God: Yoshinao “Turtle” Omiya, Dog Chapter, The only blind veteran in the 100th

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, June 1979, vol. 33 no. 3

Interview with Yoshinao “Turtle” Omiya about losing his sight in the war and how it has affected him after the war

God a hyprocrite [sic]? Few, if any, would dare harbor such a thought, much less consider it an everyday working principle… but Yoshinao Omiya does. This was the most compelling point expressed by Yoshinao in an interview held last month in his home on Hausten Street (near the site of the old Honolulu Stadium in Moiliili). But first, let me take you back some 40 years or so …. .

Yoshinao was then a member of the 1937-38 McKinley High School championship baseball team; he was catcher, and captain, of the team. That was the year McKinley achieved a sports “grandslam” by capturing the championships in the five major sports of that period – football, basketball, swimming, track and baseball; the first time that had happened in Honolulu Interscholastic League history. The feat has not been repeated.

But Yoshinao had started out as a first baseman, in his sophomore year. “They had a regular catcher then – Ohara – so I told my brother if I’m not going to be able to play regularly, no sense playing.” Omiya realized that under Coach Frank Hluboky’s intense drive for a championship, subs had very little chance to play. So with his catcher set, Hluboky then put Omiya at first – where, he earned a starting position, and got to play regularly.

Occasionally, when a game had already been won, Hluboky would switch Omiya to catcher, a position which was his first love. “One day, we were in batting practice,” says Omiya, “and I was behind the plate, wearing a mask and an oversized chest protector. As I crouched behind the batter, this guy, lefty Okada who was doing the throwing, said that the oversized protector protruding all around me looked like a turtle shell . . . in fact, it made me look like a turtle!” So Turtle he became, the nickname abetted by the fact that he was the slowest runner on the team.

When the 100th baseball team was playing in and around Wisconsin, on the team was Johnny Yamada who was much, much older than Turtle. Yamada used to kid Turtle a lot about his lead foot on the basepaths, until Turtle took him up one day and the two ran a foot race to see who would emerge, not the faster, but the slowest. “Oh, I had to beat somebody!” says Turtle. “And I beat him!”

Turtle was slow in more ways than one. He would normally be the last one out of the showers after a ball game. He recalls the time when the 100th team played a night game in Wisconsin Rapids. Because the team had a long ride ahead of it after the game in returning to Camp McCoy, Turtle decided that this time he’d shower ahead of the others so as not to be the last man out.

“As soon as (the game) pau, I run and take off so I won’t be the last guy. I was ahead of half the guys. But by the time I come out, nobody’s in the shower room! As I came out, the truck was about to leave. And night time, no one can check whether I was there. I barely made it!”

That scene followed Turtle into battle when the 100th Infantry Battalion moved into Italy. “Night time, in the front, many times we had to pack up in the dark, get our things together quickly. You know, I always had to rush. All the other guys are ready. And I made da kine lousy job packing because otherwise they’d move out and leave me behind. So it was really difficult for me. I had to catch up … as though I was some handicapped.”

Where and how did Turtle get hit? It was November 5, 1943, after the third crossing of the Volturno. The 100th was moving up Hill 600, in single file formation, through the thick olive groves. Heavy enemy artillery had brought on many casualties. The enemy had also cut fire lanes through the forests so that their machine guns could pour flanking fire upon the 100th as it passed through on its way up the hill. The area was also heavily mined. Then, because of a misunderstood radio message, part of Dog Company had halted to await further orders. When this break in the battalion’s advance was discovered, a couple of riflemen from one of the rifle companies were sent back to lead Dog Company forward through the mine fields. It was getting dark but the company had to push through because its heavy weapons would be needed to fight off the expected counterattacks by the Germans.

Turtle was the machine gunner in the 3rd Squad of the Second Platoon. Doc Hosaka was his squad leader and Chuji Saito the section leader; Harry Miyamoto the platoon leader. Martin Tohara was First Sergeant, Spark Matsunaga the Executive Officer and Jack Mizuha the CO of the company. Turtle’s close friend, Fuzzy Fujimori, was the squad leader of the 1st Squad, Second Platoon.

In the particular situation, Spark Matsunaga was leading the remainder of the company up the hill in the gathering dusk. As Turtle recalls it: “We were climbing up the hill and our messenger, Alekoki, happened to rip a mine, a “Bouncing Baby” The thing goes up and explodes and comes out in an umbrella shape. Alekoki was under the umbrella of steel fragments so he didn’t get hit. But (Yasuo) Kawano, the walkie-talkie operator, got killed. And Sparky Matsunaga got hit on the leg.

“I was on the lower part of the ill, carrying my machine gun tripod. We were going up single file. And I just happened to look up, wondering why they had stopped. All I saw was a blue flash as a shrapnel hit into my right eyebrow. This was about 6 p.m.”

Just a single piece of steel . . . the mine had exploded about seven or eight men ahead of Turtle. Doc Hosaka was immediately ahead of Turtle; he was not touched at all by the blast.

Just a wayward piece of steel . . . for otherwise, Turtle was unmarked. Doc Hosaka and medic Billy Kobashigawa immediately tended to Turtle’s wound. But because so many had been hit in the encounters up Hill 600, it wasn’t till the next day that he could be evacuated out of the area. Alekoki, medic Kengo Otagaki and others gave Turtle a hand and stood watch over him through the night.

Just a small wayward piece of steel . . . normally, only enough to cause a minor puncture in the skin and enough to qualify a guy for a Purple Heart. But in Turtle’s case, the puncture was devastating. That piece of metal, trademarked Germany, shattered Turtle’s right eye. And his left eye was rendered useless by the concussion. Turtle has been blind ever since.

Fate is awfully ironic at times. To a guy who had been born slow in his movements to begin with – now, he couldn’t move by himself at at all. Where once he could at least beat some guy in a footrace, he was reduced to taking one step at a time. And where he had been at least able to make a passable job of packing things in the dark – now, in his permanent darkness, he was incapable of making even “da kine lousy job” of it. But into this void came Audrey.

Turtle had treated his way through the hospitals in the war zone, into Bizerte (Tunisia) and finally to Valley Forge Hospital It was there that Earl Finch, the 100th’s stateside benefactor, heard about Turtle and got the Army to send Turtle to Morris town, New Jersey, to acquire a seeing-eye dog, through the organization called “Seeing-Eye, Incorporated.”

Many kinds of dogs are used for seeing-eye purposes. After the evaluation of Turtle’s character and needs, the organization assigned a German police dog to him. The dog’s name was Audrey. Then followed four weeks of training. After that, he had to wait another two weeks at Morris town for transportation home to Hawaii. This was in the winter of 1944/45.

Finally, in early February ’45, he and Audrey were placed on a C-47 plane to Boston. From there, they started their long journey across the continent, making many intermediate stops before they finally reached Hamilton Air Force Base in California. From there, they flew home, reaching Honolulu on February 21. Here, he was sent to the hospital set up on the St. Louis College campus. He was discharged from the Army a month later.

Turtle’s parents used to run a small grocery store in Moiliili near where the present Star Super Market stands. The Omiya home itself was smack up against the left field fence of Moiliili Field. Turtle remembers his father as a kindly fellow who used to extend credit to all his customers. His father, with the help of the children, used to make deliveries all over the place. And often, what little money his father used to collect would be spent on sa-ke. That combination – credit and wine – made it difficult to profitably run the store. So the family gave up the operation when the father died in 1941. But in early 1945, the house by the left field fence was still home. This is where Turtle returned to, with Audrey.

Turtle speaks of Audrey with great affection. In the four years that the two were together, Audrey used to lead Turtle everywhere. For instance, climbing up and down the stairways in the grandstands of the nearby Honolulu Stadium was no problem; Audrey would stay one step ahead of Turtle and to the point where he could tread those stairways almost like a normal person. Turtle used to love to sit in the grandstands, transistor in hand, listening to the ball game and the baseball chatter around him.

Surely, the ball games must have often taken him back to his glory days at McKinley and the fun he used to have with the boys of the 100th baseball team . . . or of that time in Oran, North Africa, when the 100th Infantry Battalion first became a part of the 34th Infantry Division, and word got to the division of the baseball prowess of the Nisei battalion from Hawaii, so “Old Man” Turner was asked if he could provide some augmentation to the division’s baseball team which was then fighting for the area championship, so co-coaches Doc Kometani and Jim Lovell sent over Hide Yarnashita, Lt. Paul Fronin and Turtle Omiya . . . and in the game for the North African army baseball championship, Fronin was on his way to pitching a no- hitter; then with the 34th’s cleanup batter on second and Hide Yarnashita on first, Turtle came to bat and socked a triple, driving in the two runs which, as it turned were enough to win the game, because Fronin did pitch a no-hit-no-run game and the 34th won the championship, 4-0!

In retrospect, Turtle’s clout by any other member of the team would have been a homer! Nevertheless, the three players from the 100th had helped to make 34th Division history. But that one game was all they had time for because shortly after, the 100th was shipped out to Salerno … to make its own history, for Hawaii and the United States Army.

For a while, during the latter half of 1945, Turtle was confident enough, because of Audrey, to go to work at Hawaiian Pine. There, he worked in the corrugated box department, assembling cardboard boxes for packing gallon-sized pineapple cans. He worked half a day, at about 60¢ an hour. The employees of the company used to marvel at the way Audrey used to guide Turtle around the corners, through the packed passageways and the overhead walkways of the plant. In the afternoons, Turtle began to take lessons in massage from Dr. Okazaki.

The Omiya family had moved to its present home on Hausten Street in 1947. There, Audrey became a zealous guardian of Turtle. Sometimes, when Turtle’s sister-in- law would offer to help make his bed, Audrey would block her way into the bedroom. And whenever he’d take a sunbath, Audrey would take one, too; when he rolled his body from one side to the other, she would do likewise.

Then one day in November 1948, when she was out of her harness, she dashed across the street after another dog and was run over by a passing truck. It so happened that Taro Suzuki was back of the truck in his car. He picked up Audrey and rushed to the animal hospital but she could not be saved so the doctor put her to sleep.

Turtle returned to Morris town the following year and got another dog, Lady, whom he promptly renamed Lady Audrey. Although she was with him for ten years, she never measured up to the love, affection and intelligence of the first Audrey.

After Lady Audrey died in 1959 of sickness, Turtle wanted no more dogs. For the first time in 15 years, he was without a constant companion. Family and friends took over the task of guiding and taking him around until, almost ten years later, in 1968, he went to the Palo Alto Rehabilitation Center for Blinded Veterans. There he learned the use of the cane.

For one brief period, 1947 to 1949, after completing his lessons from Dr. Okazaki, Turtle opened his own masseur business. The family put in a little extension to the house and it was here that he carried on his business. Business was good, too good, in fact! People began to call upon him in the evenings and on weekends and he soon found himself being overworked. Then one day, his stomach unexplainedly “ballooned” with gas; it was several days before the gas finally cleared itself. Meanwhile, he suffered a burning sensation throughout his body. He thinks it may have been caused by the constant breathing-in of the massage ointment, compounded by the lack of proper ventilation in his massage room. Whatever, the illness made him give up his business.

Where, what, to whom, does a man turn to – for help or direction – when he feels that he has come to the end of his ropes. Many turn to the bottle but this was not Turtle’s cup of tea. Some give up on life, but Turtle, in his shuffles through the military hospitals, had encountered many others worse off than him.

So, as many another in a like situation had done before him, Turtle turned to the Bible. Says Turtle: “Like Paul, who became a preacher for God and was in seclusion for three years in order to prepare himself, I was willing to sacrifice myself – to read the Bible and do all those things or whatever that God willed me to do. So instead of enjoying music and listening to the radio and going out to parties, and the like – I was trying to understand what God willed me to do, so the rest of the people could benefit by it.”

Turtle can quote chapter and verse on almost any point one chooses to discuss. He cited Daniel 9:24-27, for instance, as being analogous to his situation. The Book of Daniel was written during the days of the bitter persecution of the Jews by Epiphanes, king of Syria, during his reign from 175 to 164 B.C. Its writings were for the purpose of sustaining the faith of the people in God and in the ultimate triumph of his kingdom in the face of present disasters and persecutions, “it seems as though God was speaking to me to understand all these things,” says Turtle.

Turtle first tried Braille books but running his fingers over the type was too tiresome and monotonous. So he turned to “talking books” which are nothing more than books set on phonograph records. For instance, the entire Bible, in its recorded form, can be bought for about $35 worth of records. Turtle reveled in these “books” because he could hear, for instance, the characters in the Bible; he followed their every move as the voice on the records played the part of Jesus, or a disciple, or the woman at the well. It was the voice expertise on the records, similar to the old-time “ben-shi” at the Japanese silent movies, which gave Turtle the “feel” for the Bible.

So it was through this means that he began to delve into the Bible, beginning about 1951. He wanted to start with the Gospels, in their order in the New Testament Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – but something made him go to John first. And he could not get away from John, for about eight months. He ended up by memorizing all of John. He continued his intense study through the end of the decade.

But as the years of study went by, doubts and recriminations began to seep into his mind. The Bible speaks of salvation, resurrection and revelation. But nothing of that sort seemed to come his way. So he began losing that key element – faith. The he stopped listening to the Bible altogether. That was about ten years ago.

“There are so many preachers of the Bible; they debate among themselves, and the whole thing is like a jigsaw puzzle – how to determine what is the truth,” says Turtle. “I’ve suffered so much that I can’t endure any more. So I’ve said to myself, if I’m going to suffer that much, might as well give up. So I quit altogether and I want to stay away from it but somehow the words are living in my heart and I can’t get rid of it. Sometimes, it’s an excruciating thing, like a constant battle between the Devil and God in me. Why suffer like this? What for?

“Lots of things are taken away from me, all the good things I wanted; regardless of my heart, taken away from me … I can’t cope with it. So I kinda gave up altogether.

“I believed in God guiding me, and many things I wanted to do, I didn’t do. And what I hated to do, I did, because it was the will of God. I left everything to God and so many years went by – not days or weeks – but so many years and years, and still goodness did not come of it.

“I did so many foolish things, like believing that my eyesight would be restored, but it didn’t come to pass. That belief was against my will. It made foolish me feel so foolish.”

Turtle says that “As far as Scriptures go, God says he will uphold his word. And in fact, he calls others hypocrites if they can’t keep their promises. But God does not uphold his word…so I can call him a hypocrite, too. Before I never did judge God like that. But now, I judge God myself.”

Perhaps Turtle has a right to his bitterness, his strong words. Take the Book of Job, for instance. Of the misfortunes which befell Job, God restored everything to him, in greater measure, after seven years of suffering. Turtle makes the point that in the whole of the Bible, God does not hold sufferings against his own people beyond the period of seven years. “But for me,” Turtle laments, “there’s no end. That’s why I’ve given up altogether. For I suffered the loss of all things.”

Turtle claims that he is a much freer man today. This past winter, he spent about two months at Reno, Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas until his money ran out. And he steps out more often; he’s been coming out regularly to Dog Chapter affairs. But for all this, he admits; “I go to these places, trying to forget, to wash away all these things. But it just can’t be done. It’s so hard to understand these things.”

Certainly no one, least of all Turtle himself, pretends to understand why that particular piece of steel sought him out 35 years ago. And he has no recriminations for that misfortune; others were wounded and killed in that same blast. But he does have a feeling that perhaps that piece of steel was meant to help him “see” a vision of life uncluttered by that which detracts the rest of us. Which is why he tried so hard, but nothing seemed to work.

But there have been some gains. Surely the perceptions of his other senses have been heightened. Attentive listening to radio and

TV enables him to forcefully discuss almost any local and world happening; he can sharply define the sounds of things and voices of people; he “follows” the roll of the dice through the voice of the croupier. When food is set before him, the server need only indicate to him that the rice is at “6 o’clock,” the soup at “9,” ham at “12,” beans at “3” and so on; he wards off intoxicating liquids, even beer; and a commonplace dish is often an exciting new experience to him as for instance, having been told of the delights of the Mexican tacos, he expressed a desire to taste it so he recently had his first bite into one at a Taco Bell establishment. The offer of one’s shoulder is all he needs to help him move from place to place; a light touch of his right hand upon that shoulder and he’s ready to go wherever one goes. He’s well “read” into the Bible and other books through the medium of the talking books. And so on. In other words, he keeps himself sound of mind and body about as well as the next hale-hearted person.

What flags his spirit is why God seems to have deserted him at a moment when he wanted to do something for God; when he was willing to sacrifice himself to whatever God willed; when he wanted so much to do things for others.

As I sat across from Turtle In his living room with only the tape recorder between us, listening to his lamentations, his words came pouring out of him. Then he turned to Paul again, to Ephesians 3:8-9, for a rationale for his current fun trips to the mainland: “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ.”

What Turtle is saying is that he needs a win someplace to reinstill in him the old confidence he once had; a win to help him find the “unsearchable riches…hid in God.” In a nutshell, since nothing has come his way yet, and he’s been a loser for so long, he now needs a win to give him back his old spirit of wanting to be a winner; the confidence he once had in himself, like those days when he could step up to the plate, runner on first, and bring home that winning run with a smash right up the middle!

To which I can only add that if he can do that for himself by way of the crap tables, then therein may yet lie the salvation he seeks, the God he has deserted.