George Aki

Aki’s reasons for joining the 442nd were mixed. He remembered being “cooped up within one square mile, surrounded by barbed wire and guards.” Although other Japanese in the camp were angry at the U.S. government for imprisoning them and thus denounced him, Aki’s view was more nuanced. He saw himself as an American and decided that if other young men from the camp were willing to go to war, it was his duty to join them. Aki enlisted in 1943, passed an examination and was sent to the Army Chaplains School at Harvard University. He was the last of the three Nisei ministers who served the 100th/442nd.

Aki was soon in close contact with Hawaii Nisei in the 442nd, whom he referred to as “Islanders.” In order to communicate with them, he learned Pidgin English, the multiethnic English spoken by so many in Hawaii. While Chaplains Yamada and Higuchi deployed to Europe with most of the 442nd soldiers, Aki remained behind at Camp Shelby.

In March 1944, Aki was sent to Fort McClellan, Alabama, to help the young men being trained as replacement troops for the 442nd. In addition to his duties as chaplain, Aki helped the men and their wives find accommodations so they could spend some time together before the soldiers left for war. In the segregated South, he remembers calling on every hotel in Anniston, Alabama, before finding one that was willing to take in a young Nisei couple.

In January 1945, Chaplain Aki was sent to Italy to replace Chaplain Israel Yost, who had served with the 100th Infantry Battalion from their first days in combat. Battalion records indicate that Aki joined the 100th on July 8, 1945.

Chaplain Aki spent much of his time visiting soldiers in hospitals and identifying those 100th/442nd men who had been killed in action from their dog tags, as they had been buried in battlefields without formal identification. He later wrote that it was depressing to see so many dead — men who had “died alone, in agony in a strange land.” Over and over, he asked himself what motivated these young men to die for a country that had sent their families to internment camps.

In 1946, Chaplain Aki was discharged from the Army at the rank of major. Exhausted and emotionally drained, he returned to Fresno.

Aki returned to active ministry in 1947, serving first in Fresno and then Chicago before returning to the warm climate of Southern California in 1960. In 1968, after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aki joined a scholarship program for disadvantaged youth, helping to shape its mission in broadening the list of eligible recipients. One of the scholarships is named in his honor. He also advocated for fair housing and community counseling. Aki became a community leader, urging people of all races and ethnicities to overcome their prejudices and embrace tolerance for others.

After retiring in 1981, the Akis lived in Japan for a year, visiting Misaki’s family and Aki’s ancestral village. When they returned to the United States, they moved into Pilgrim Place, a facility for retired Christian clergy in Claremont, California, where Aki, at age 96, still resided in February 2011.

by Michael Markrich

Michael Markrich is a Honolulu-based researcher, writer and editor, who co-edited the memoirs of Chaplain Israel Yost with Yost’s eldest daughter, Monica. “Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion,” was published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2006.

Additional Notes:

In 2011 the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Japanese American men who served in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II. It is the nation’s highest civilian medal and is awarded by act of Congress. On December 23, 2012, the 98 year old Reverend Aki received a replica of the medal at a small ceremony in the retirement facility where he lives in southern California. Two 442nd veterans and the reverend’s son presented him with the medal.

Reverend Aki celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends on September 13, 2014. An article appeared in the Los Angeles Japanese Daily News, Rafu Shimpo:

On July 4, 2018, Reverend Aki passed away, a few months short of his 104th birthday.