WWII

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Courage in Captivity: Three POWs’ Stories

 

Revisit stories from Bill Paty, Frank Padgett and Jerry Coffee and their harrowing experiences as prisoners of war.

 

Bill Paty, who served as Director of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, landed in German hands in Normandy, right before the D-Day Invasion.

 

On the other side of the world, retired Associate Justice Judge Frank Padgett parachuted into enemy territory during World War II and was held prisoner for eight months by the Japanese military.

 

Navy Captain Jerry Coffee spent seven years in captivity in North Vietnam.

 

These three stories of fortitude and faith are a testament to the strength of the human spirit and dedication to one’s country, even in the darkest of times.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 11, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Courage in Captivity: Three POWs’ Stories Audio

 

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Transcript

 

I became a POW, and that was a very humbling, frustrating experience for me. One of the worst things that could have happened, that I was taken out of combat while the great men I’d been training with all this time, and they’d go on into combat without me. And I never got over that for many, many years.

 

You didn’t want to be in a Japanese military prison. So, you know, you lose weight very quickly when you’ve got maybe dysentery, and malaria, and beriberi. Beriberi … the water accumulates in your lower extremities; they swell up. You can take your thumb and put it in, and see a puka. You know. You can’t walk very far. But then again, I wasn’t doing any walking. I couldn’t walk at all; I was in the damn cell.

 

My prayers changed from, Why me, to Show me. I quit saying, Why me, God, and I started saying, Show me, God. How can I use this positively? Help me to use it to go home as a better, stronger, smarter man in every possible way that I can. To go home as a better naval officer, go home as a better American, a better citizen, a better Navy pilot, a better Christian. Every possible way, God, help me to use this time productively so that it won’t be some kind of a void or vacuum in my life. And after that change in my prayers, every single day took a new meaning.

 

Former State Land Director William Paty, retired Hawai‘i Supreme Court Associate Justice Frank Padgett, and retired U.S. Navy Captain Jerry Coffee all survived ordeals as prisoners of war. On this compilation edition of Long Story Short, we look back at these previous Long Story Short guests and see how they never really stopped believing that they would come home alive. Courage in Captivity, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. While prisoners of war may be valuable commodities to their captors, that does not mean they’ll be well treated or survive. Sir Winston Churchill observed that courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because it is the quality which guarantees all others. This can mostly certainly be said about three Long Story Short guests. We begin with William Woods Paty, Jr., better known as Bill. In 1945, he left college to join the Army and become a paratrooper. He soon found himself on the ground in Normandy, France on D-Day, fighting in one of the most famous battles of World War II.

 

We dropped six miles further inland than we were supposed to. And then, on top of that, we dropped right on top of a German parachute regiment that had been training right in that area. Yeah; it wasn’t a comfortable landing. Yeah.

 

What happened when you landed?

 

Well … I ran into a French milkmaid early on. And some of you heard that story. D-Day morning, all this firing is going on, we’ve had skirmishes all night long from midnight. And you could hear the big shells from the Navy cruisers offshore coming in. The Spitfires and all were all over the place. She’s milking a cow in the middle of the hedgerow. And I walk over. I told my sergeant. . . We didn’t know exactly where they were, where the Germans were, and I go to give them my best Punahou French. Which is supposed to mean, Where are the Germans around here? She doesn’t say anything; she milks the cow. But she moved her head like this, and I look, and there’s a German patrol coming down the road just above us. So, I jump up, and jump back over the hedgerow. But I think I told my sergeant that I’m gonna get us a date tonight. I said, Captain, you didn’t do too good, did you?

 

Have a date with a German regiment.

 

Yeah. And I became a POW, and that was a very humbling, frustrating experience for me. One of the worst things that could have happened, that I was taken out of combat while the great men I’d been training with all this time, and they’d go on into combat without me. I never got over that for many, many years.

 

What were conditions like for you as a POW?

 

Nothing’s good about being a POW. The Germans, in terms of handling their officers, POWs, were more lenient than they were with the enlisted. By and large, if they went hungry, we went hungry. But it could have been worse. I think the worst part was being transported in forty box cars. Forty box cars, all jammed in together. And then, they shipped us up across France and into Germany. And every time we were at a marshland yard, they changed engines. And then the Spitfires or the B47s would come down, and the sirens would go off, and there you are locked in this boxcar. That got to be a little wearing.

 

Did you worry that they’d kill you, as a POW? Or torture you?

 

No, we didn’t get any treatment like that. But if you tried to get away, they don’t get very happy about that.

 

You tried to get away.

 

Yeah.

 

What’d you try?

 

Well, first of all, coming down, actually, I was wounded. They put me in an ambulance, and the Spitfires came down and shot up the buses we were in, the wounded. And so, the Germans would jump out and get in a ditch. If you tried to get out of the bus, you’d get shot. If you stayed there, you’d get strafed. So, in the process, the bus caught fire, and I scrambled out somehow. I was ambulatory, and got away, and got to a French farmer. And they took me up and they put me way up in their little attic they had up there. But they were gonna get the French Resistance guys to come in and help take me out. But as it turned out, the German artillery unit came in there and set it up as a command post, and they searched the place, and there I was. So that wasn’t too bad; they put me back into the bus.

 

They didn’t discipline you?

 

No. No, not then. They were too busy doing that. After that, the second time was kind of a bad one.

 

What happened the second time you tried to get away?

 

Well, the second time I got out was on a discharge from the German hospital. And they had a compound there, and they had the barbed wire around the walls.

 

And what had you been treated for?

 

I had a Smizer bullet in my groin. It’s still there, by the way. And they never took it out. But be that as it may, we wanted to try to see if we could get out. And I guess there were several dozen, fifty or sixty were in the compound that had been pulled together. We had an idea that four of us would get out and make a break for it. And well, when the time came, there were only two of us, an Englishman and myself. So, we went out with blankets at night, and they had the watchtower, but the lights didn’t go on all the time. We threw the blankets over, climbed over the barbed wire, got down the and over the next one. And it gets kinda touchy there, because you’re not sure if the lights are gonna come on, they’re gonna use the machine guns. So we got over, and it was getting close to dawn by then.

 

Were you cut up by the barbed wire?

 

We had gloves we had gotten, and we also had blankets, so they were not too bad. So we hightailed it off across the field. And I guess after we’d gone a few miles, we decided we’d better try to hole up. And so, we holed up in a cowshed, and again, a French lady came by, and we gave her our best, charming Punahou French again. She said, No, wait, wait, wait. She comes back with four Germans and two police dogs.

 

So far, that Punahou French …

 

Didn’t work out too well. But we got solitary time for that, you know.

 

But solitary was the worst of it?

 

Solitary—no, they didn’t try. The Geneva Convention was observed quite well by them. But we got bread and water, and no lights. Gives you a lesson. Yeah.

 

Bill Paty didn’t give up trying to escape, and on his third try, he succeeded and made his way safely back home. On the other side of the world, Frank Padgett, a U.S. Air Force pilot, was captured and held prisoner for eight months by the Japanese military police. After losing an engine to enemy fire, he and his crew had to bail out. He was twenty-one years old.

 

When we bailed out, we weren’t sure where we were, because the navigator, when we were on the deck, he hadn’t take times and stuff because the engine was wind-milling, that propeller, he couldn’t use his instruments. So, we didn’t know where we were. Turned out, we were northwest of Hanoi.

 

So, did you fall into friendly hands at first, or not?

 

No. Well, yes and no. I was trying to walk out to China. You know, I didn’t know what the hell to do. We didn’t know that the French were alerted. The French had a thing that when they found an American plane was down, they’d go and walk up and down the roads whistling Tipperary. Nobody ever told us that.

 

That was a sign that there was a friendly person.

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Come show yourself.

 

Okay; okay.

 

Did you hear Tipperary, and not respond?

 

No. No; no, I didn’t. About the second day, I was walking on a pathway between rice, and I looked, and there were all these Vietnamese following me. So, I stopped, and I spoke enough French, and they spoke enough, so that they asked me if I was hungry, and I went back to their village and they fed me. And the Japanese arrived, and I tried to run out of the village. I got outside, but it was surrounded. Fortunately, I’d laid down my pistol while I was resting, and I didn’t have it, so I didn’t try to shoot it. That’s why I lived.

 

You can laugh about it now. You not only got captured by the Japanese, but you were put in the control of the Nazi gestapo equivalent of the Japanese forces.

 

Yeah. That’s the Kempeitai. The Kempeitai was a combination of military police and gestapo, which is kind of a bad combination. Fortunately, the jail in Chalon was really military police, and the jail downtown was regular Kempeitai. That’s where you’ll see the name Nix and the other name in July of ’45. And in the French prison camp, B-24s from the 7th Air Force raided Saigon. A plane got hit; you could see it. You know, you’re out in a trench watching your American plane go over, and listening to the bombs whistle. You know, they whistle when they come down. Anyway, these two guys bailed out, and the Kempeitai got them, and they cut their heads off.

 

And I’m being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. They beat you, and you’re back in the cell. And you know they’re coming back, and they’re gonna do it again. And it really bothers you, you know. And then, they take you out, and they take you back, and the first time they hit you … that’s it. They’ve done it, and you know they’re gonna hit you some more. That’s it; that’s it. There’s nothing you can do about it.

 

I was really intrigued by this quote in your book, with your son. It’s from an unknown person. But it says: To a prisoner of war, the enemy is everywhere; he controls your fate, your future, even your bodily functions. You’re at war at every second. You’re never given leave, and you can never leave the combat zone. Is that what it felt like?

 

Well, in a Kempeitai jail, yes.

 

You’re always on alert.

 

Well … yeah. It was a little different. They were starving us to death; okay? We wore a breech cloth, we had a blanket. The tatami pillow on it, had a six-by-eight cell, the lights were always on. They came and stared through the thing. But, you know, human beings are human beings. One of the guards was from a dairy farm in Japan, and the only thing he was interested in was getting back to Japan. So, they would come and talk to you, and they weren’t supposed to in that jail. They were not supposed to, but they did anyway.

 

So, that was a nice bit of humanity you could share. I notice when you talk about being a prisoner of war, as awful as it was, you laugh. Did you have that sense of humor when you were there?

 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Kind of a dark humor?

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

But I think that might be resilience, too.

 

Well, probably. But, you know, what are you gonna do? You can’t do anything about the circumstances, so you know, try to see if you can find anything good, okay; you know. There wasn’t in that jail. The best thing that happened was, every two or three days, you got to carry the chamber pot out and dump it in the sewer.

 

That was your excursion; right?

 

Yeah.

 

Now, you had become a Catholic when you were thirteen or fourteen. Did that faith kick in, or was that helpful to you at this time?

 

I said the Hail Mary; I said the Rosary on my knuckles every day, and I prayed that I’d get released. God apparently moves at His own speed; it took a while.

 

Frank Padgett was released from prison and sent back home when the war ended. He later served as a justice in Hawai‘i’s highest court. Just over twenty years later, the United States was involved in another overseas war, this time in Vietnam. Navy Captain Gerald Coffee, better known as Jerry Coffee, also was a pilot. He spent seven years and nine days in a North Vietnamese prison after his plane was shot down.

 

I had to eject at a very, very high speed, and the airplane was totally out of control, rolling rapidly. So, when I pulled the face curtain, it was about six hundred and eighty miles per hour. And you can kind of imagine the impact hitting the airstream at six-eighty. I say, you know, it was like going down H-1 in your convertible with the top down and standing up in the front seat. At six hundred miles an hour. And I was knocked unconscious immediately, but regained consciousness floating in the water. And already, some small Vietnamese boats and militia men, and army guys were there, and I was captured immediately. Right after I was captured, some airplanes from the Kitty Hawk, the carrier that I was operating from, showed up and they see the boats there, and they see my life preserver and the dye marker out here, and they think the boats are still on the way out to pick me up. And so, they figured, well, if they strafed the boats, they won’t be able to get me. But they didn’t know I was already in the boat. So, these two A-1 aircrafts strafed the boats that we were in, and I’m watching the bullets whack at the side of the boat. The Vietnamese stood up in the boats and returned their fire with their own weapons. And we got to the beach finally, and jumped out and ran across the wide sandy beach and dove behind a rice paddy dike to take cover just about the same time that an A-4 Skyhawk from the Kitty Hawk rolled in and fired a pack of rockets, which blew all those beach boats to splinters. That was my introduction to North Vietnam. Sometime in that battle, my crewman was killed. He was my navigator, and I never saw him again, and kept asking all through the prison experience, you know, about him. Have you seen him? Have you seen my crewman? And nobody ever had. And his remains were returned here through Hickam in the late 80s, as a matter of fact. And I found myself a prisoner of war, a POW. And it takes a while to, we used to say, get to know the ropes. But the ropes were how they tortured us.

 

Yeah. You know, I think people are very interested in the torture part, ‘cause we all think, Could we have withstood that? What would that be like? I mean, just the mental agony of never knowing when it was gonna happen, or what it was gonna entail. And early on, there’s this really vivid scene that you describe in your book, where you were with your broken arm and, I think, a shattered elbow, you were tied up with your arms in back.

 

That’s right; to a tree. Yeah.

 

And to a tree, and essentially, you became a game of tetherball to some Vietnamese on the ground.

 

Yes; exactly. The tree was on a hill, and the guards kept pushing me downhill, and all the weight was on my arms. I was tied to an upper branch of the tree. And I was so naïve. I mean, I was a professional naval officer, military officer, and I didn’t even realize, it didn’t really register to me that I was being brutally tortured at the time. It wasn’t until I had a chance to kinda catch my breath, and laying on a stack of hay in this stable, which was in this little village in Central North Vietnam, and I just realized, Oh, god, I’ve just been tortured.

 

Well, you mentioned that at one point, your broken arm was sort of encased in inflammation, swelling which acted like a sort of cast.

 

It was.

 

It was an untreated broken arm.

 

It was an untreated broken arm. And my hand swelled up, and I couldn’t get the red hot ring I was wearing on my finger off. So, they put me in interrogation one night, and sliced my finger open, and pulled the ring off, squeezed the blood in the lymph out. And then the next night, they took me to a military hospital and set my arm, and all the swelling went down. And they could have just taken the ring off. And they did a reasonably good job on my arm. That’s about as good as they did for their own people. But they wanted to keep us in presentable shape, at least, to be propaganda vehicles.

 

You had to be so strong, though. I mean, you were in this tiny little cell. It was just filthy, and unsanitary, and you never knew when you were gonna get called into the next session.

 

Exactly. And as you described that cell, everything that happened to you got infected because of the environment in which we were living.

 

An infection could have killed you.

 

Yeah; it could have, and did kill some men.

 

The toilet was a bucket without a cover.

 

A bucket right there; yeah.

 

In this very small space.

 

Right; right.

 

And you exercised in that tiny little space.

 

Right.

 

How many miles a day did you walk, at three steps at a time.

 

Three miles day, three steps at a time. One of the first things you do when you’re moved into a cell—and the cells did vary sometimes in size. But you’d walk it off and see how many laps it had to be for a mile. And you’d go get your exercise, and you’d do pushups on on those concrete bunks, and stay in as good a shape as possible. ‘Cause you never knew what the next day was gonna require. In some cases, guys were forced to march northward towards the Chinese border to a new prison. They weren’t hauled up there by trucks; they had to march. And images of the March of Corregidor in World War II in the Philippines comes to mind, where if you fell behind, you got killed. And so, we’d try to stay in as good a physical shape as possible.

 

What are some of the attributes that you think made each of those who survived, and later did well in life; what were of the common attributes that you all shared?

 

I think optimism. And it costs no more to be an optimist than it does a pessimist, and it’s a lot happier way to live your life, I think. But those who were the most optimistic and could translate that optimism to faith, or through faith, I think that they were the ones that were able to make the most of the experience, and learn the most, and be able to make the biggest contribution because of the experience after we returned. I think that guys who were mechanically-minded also, that could be inventive, and guys can do some of the most remarkable things, not the least of which was learning how to put our sandals, to balance them on the edge of the top of the bucket, to sit down on the sandals instead of the edge of the bucket and made a toilet seat. How come I didn’t figure this out earlier? You know.

 

Veritable luxury.

 

Oh, what a breakthrough. You know. And also because most of us were aviators. I have to say this; there’s something about military aviation that is kind of a winnowing process. And we were all college graduates, because you had to graduate from college to get your wings, whether it be Air Force or Navy. So, we were all better educated and had an appreciation for the things that you could learn by yourself, by just going inward and thinking about yourself, and thinking about the world, and thinking about what the future might hold.

 

You couldn’t be afraid to face yourself, and a lot of people have trouble with that.

 

Exactly; exactly.

 

Jerry Coffee wasn’t released from prison until the end of the war in 1973. He stayed in the Navy until he retired a dozen years later. He became a national commentator on political and military issues, a motivational speaker, and a columnist. Despite lingering health problems for their captivity, Bill Paty, Frank Padgett, and Jerry Coffee went on to have full lives. Mahalo to these men for their heroic service to our country, and for the inspiration and life lessons we gain from your courage in captivity. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

They call our name, you walk across in front of this guy, and he said, You know, you do not need to accept repatriation, you may stay in our country if you like. What? Get out of here, you know. Walk away and salute Colonel Abel, and shake his hand, and then this big Air Force major put his arm around my shoulder and said, Come on, Commander, I’ll take you out to the airplane. And we walk up. And we’re going up the ramp of the C-141, and at the top of the ramp there’s four, I’m sure, hand-selected gorgeous Air Force nurses. Go up there and hug them, and you know, they smelled so good. Got magazines and newspapers, and hot coffee, and donuts, and so on. And we’re all chattering away there, and finally we get the last guys aboard. And the pilot comes up on the intercom and he says, Come on, guys, let’s strap in; we’re ready to go. And it got quiet. And we’re all thinking, Wow, is this gonna be it? So, we strap in, and he cranks up those engines on the airplane. Cr-r-r. We’re taxiing out toward the runway. He gets on the and revs up the engines to full throttle, and pulling the brakes back, and he finally releases the brakes, and we’re rolling down this kind of rough runway. And we’re all straining against our straps saying, Come on, you beast, get airborne. Get airborne; come on, let’s go. And then they pick up speed and the nose comes up, and then we hear that hydraulic whine of the wheels going up into the wheel wells and clunk up in there. And we’re climbing on out, and the pilot comes up and says, Congratulations, gentlemen, we’re just leaving North Vietnam. And then, we believed it. And then, we cheered.

 

[END]

 



NOVA
The Last B-24

 

Dive to the bottom of the Adriatic Sea in search of the Tulsamerican, a B-24 bomber that crashed off the coast of Croatia during World War II. In 2010, divers located the plane. Now the Department of Defense, aided by the Croatian Navy and some of the world’s leading underwater archaeologists, sets to work investigating the wreckage.

 

 

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW
Santa Clara, CA Part 1 of 3

 

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW is in Santa Clara, where host Mark L. Walberg and appraiser Stephen Fletcher travel to the Japanese American Museum of San Jose to learn about arts and crafts made by Japanese and Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nora Okja Keller

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 9, 2008

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Finding a Voice Through Writing

 

Nora Okja Keller, born to an American father and a Korean mother, has written two critically-acclaimed and important novels, Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, based on the almost unspeakable experiences endured by Korean women during World War II, and the lives of Korean-Americans that came after them.

 

Nora Okja Keller Audio

 

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Transcript

 

If you’re a reader of ethnic books, books about women, or books by local authors, you may be familiar with the writings of Nora Okja Keller. But even if you aren’t, you’ll be delighted to hear Nora’s stories about finding identity and a voice through writing. Aloha no; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawai‘i. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Please join me as I sit down with author Nora Okja Keller next.

 

Nora Okja Keller, born to an American father and a Korean mother, has written two critically-acclaimed and important novels, Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, based on the almost unspeakable experiences endured by Korean women during World War II, and the lives of Korean-Americans that came after them. Although Nora’s stories are very dark, she herself is a personable, local hapa girl with a supportive husband and two little girls.

 

You know, if I had read your books without having ever seen you or heard much about you—

 

M-hm.

 

I would be expecting to come to this table today, and to see somebody very dark, with the mileage carved

 

[chuckle]

 

–in her face. Because you conjure up such brutal imagery, and some difficult themes, like abandonment. Where does that come from?

 

You know, I get that all the time. You know, people say, Oh, I thought you were gonna be like, so dour and, you know, like intense. And I think writing allows me to express—we all have that duality. You know, the light and the dark. And I think in part, writing is my outlet for that darkness. So that in the daytime when I’m with my kids, and I you know, go about my daily life, I can release that into the writing, and live you know, very lightheartedly.

 

So by day, in the sunlight—

 

Yes.

 

–you’re a happy—

 

My secret identity.

 

–mom with kids. [chuckle]

 

[Chuckle] I know; I get people say, Oh, I thought you would write like children’s books about you know, happy bunnies in a field or something.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

And instead, it’s violence.

 

Yeah, so they pick up something like Fox Girl thinking, Oh, it’s gonna be a happy story about, you know, a fox and, you know, woodland animals. [chuckle] And instead, they’re, Oh; that is—it’s something that I do struggle with, and I think in part, that’s why I took a break after writing Fox Girl. The intensity of that. That was a—

 

Yeah, I—

 

–tough, tough one for me.

 

You are a nationally known author, but you’ve lived here, how long?

 

I’ve lived here since I was five. Well, I was born in Seoul. And then my family left Seoul when I was about three, and we traveled a little bit through the U.S. and arrived here when I was five. My dad’s from Ohio, so they went back there, and they went through the Midwest. And then my mom was so unhappy, you know, and especially this was in the 70s, so feeling very isolated. And she knew some of her friends had settled in Hawai‘i, and she just begged and begged, and they moved here. Basically —

 

So she could feel more comfortable?

 

M-hm. You know—

 

How did they get together? What’s the story of your dad and mom?

 

Let’s see. I’m not quite sure. I’ve heard several different versions. My mom’s a storyteller as well, and so I’ve heard one version that she was a famous singer in Korea, and was singing at a club, and my dad saw her and fell in love. So that’s one version. And then another version I got was that they had met in her village outside of Pusan while he was there for the war, during the war.

 

What does he say? Does he have a version?

 

He just says, Well, what does your mom say?

 

[chuckle]

 

Whatever she says, okay. And I go, well [chuckle]. He says, Ask her. [chuckle]

 

And she had never been here before, but had heard it was a nice place to live?

 

Yes. Well, she had friends, and then her friends would tell her, Oh, you have to come; come visit, come try it out, live here for a little bit. And so that’s what she did. She ended up staying, but my dad ended up go—they ended up divorcing, and he’s now living in New York.

 

I see.

 

Yeah. And she loved it, because she found like a community. And since then, she remarried and moved to Seattle. But she never found that community in Seattle, and since her husband passed away, two, three years ago, she’s moved back, and she’s, you know, reformed the friendships that she’s had for thirty years here. And so this has really been the place that she calls home.

 

And yet, we don’t really have a large Korean population. It wasn’t that, was it—

 

No, no. But my mom has a lot of friends. You know, she’s very gregarious, and so [chuckle]–

 

Are you that way too? Are you very social?

 

I am to a certain extent, but not as much as my mother. I definitely like to have my alone time. And I think most writers do. You know, you need that time to reflect and to think, and to kind of exist in this other world that you’re creating. And to do that, you need some isolation, moments of, moments of quiet.

 

Is anybody allowed to intrude? Can your husband—

 

Oh—

 

–interact with you then?

 

My kids can sometimes; but my husband, no. I’m like, I’m writing. [chuckle]

 

Did you have periods in your life where you felt like you had to choose between your ethnicities?

 

No, not—

 

Or did you have difficulty feeling accepted, or—

 

Well, in adolescence. And maybe that’s just a mark of adolescence, where we’re all struggling against something and rebelling against something. And for me, it was being Korean. And partly because I didn’t know very many other Koreans, except for my mother’s friends, who were first generation.

 

M-hm.

 

And I did go through a period as a teenager saying, Oh, I don’t want to be associated with anything Korean. You know, it’s like, oh, nothing that my mom is—you know, I don’t want to learn any—I don’t want to learn the language, I don’t want to eat the food, I don’t want to—

 

Was that a mom thing?

 

I think in part, that’s a big thing. And so that’s why I say, maybe all adolescents go through that. But I would say, like if people say, W hat ethnicity are you? And I’d say, Oh, I’m a little bit of everything.

 

Ah.

 

You know.

 

You didn’t have to choose sides?

 

I didn’t want to choose.

 

Or pick one.

 

I said, I’m everything. Yeah.

 

Nora Okja Keller has lived in different worlds – from Seoul to Honolulu. Struggling with identity, she found her voice as an author. She began writing during her early school days at Ala Wai Elementary, Hahaione and Punahou. Today, Nora’s works are translated into Korean and published internationally.

 

When did the writing bug hit you?

 

Oh, you know, I think I was always writing. I remember scribbling little poems—in elementary, I would start. And I would do little poems, and I would read something and think, Oh, that’s so wonderful. And I would try to mimic the language in the book, and think about how the writer, you know, put the words together to get that effect, to make it sound the way it did. So I was trying to do that, even in elementary.

 

And were you also looking for a time alone to think about things like that?

 

Oh, I had time alone, because I had to catch the bus home. And so that was my time alone, and I’d write, and then sometimes I’d get so involved I’d miss my stop and end up, you know, having to get—you know, call from the bus station for a ride home.

 

Do you remember what you wrote about in your early years?

 

Oh, I think I wrote—yeah. I do. I wrote about kids I might have, you know, met, and I would form little stories around people. Or I’d see something going on, like maybe somebody walking down the street, an older woman picking flowers or something. And I might write a story about that, or animals. You know, I had lots of pets growing up. We—I grew up partly in W aimanalo, so we had quite a few dogs and cats running around, so I’d have little animal stories.

 

M-hm.

 

Things like that. But you know, all that—when I look back, I think, well, of course I became a writer, because I was doing it since I was a kid. But all that time, I never thought, Oh, I’m gonna grow up to become a writer, I’m gonna do this for my career. I never thought of that.

 

And that was never featured on career day, right?

 

Oh, never. And talking with my mom and my parents, It was like, Well, no, try to you know, do something practical. You know, have something that’s gonna support you for your life. You know, nobody’s gonna listen to you tell stories. You know, that’s not gonna—you know—

 

Did they—

 

–anything like that.

 

–think you were kind of an absent-minded or dreamy girl?

 

Oh, of course. Yeah; definitely. I mean, I missed my bus stop several times [chuckle], you know, just daydreaming, and I’d be, you know, and my family would be having conversations, and I would be somewhere else, you know, thinking, oh, about the characters that I was gonna write about. So they say, Of course, you know, you did that all the time. But that was never—I never considered it an option, you know, that I would become a writer.

 

So when you—when you went to Punahou, what were you thinking in terms of what you were gonna do, and how you were gonna do it?

 

Oh, I don’t—when I was in high school, I don’t—if anything, you know, I was drawn to arts. But the visual arts, so painting, drawing. I loved biology, so I thought maybe I can—maybe I could become that doctor my mom had always—

 

[chuckle]

 

–you know, envisioned. That lasted until calculus. After calculus, I realized, no, I can’t—

 

Back to arts.

 

Yeah; back to the arts. [chuckle]

 

College?

 

UH. I got my undergraduate degree in English and psychology. And even there, I was not sure what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until much later, I would say really, my fourth year—I took five years for that double degree, that I said, Oh, I have enough credits for English, I might as well get a double major, you know, along with psychology, I might as well add English to it.

 

Well, were your teachers not telling you, You should—you’re a writer, you should go into this.

 

My English teachers would say that, but—and I was always encouraged. But it was more like maybe go into teaching, or go into—I mean, I was always encouraged with writing, like You’re a good writer, but—

 

How are you gonna use it? What’s the—

 

Yeah.

 

–paycheck gonna be?

 

It was like, well, what about law school, or you know, how will this translate in the practical world?

 

What writers have you loved along the way?

 

When I was in high school, we had the classics. You know, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck. And back then, I was drawn to Hemingway for his—you know, the very clean lines, the straightforward. Now, I’m thinking, oh, you know, I can’t bear those, you know, another war story and another—you know, another manly man point of view. When I was in college, I took an Asian American studies course, and one of the people that we read was Maxine Hong Kingston. And that was actually the first time I read something and I thought, Oh, you know, this is someone who has a background similar to mine, and we can write about this? You know, we can write about stories that talk about ethnicity, and we can write about stories that talk about girls? It was a really a moment that I thought, Oh, there’s room for a voice like mine. And so she was a strong influence at that time in my life. Cathy Song, who I read in that class as well, has been as a friend now, a big influence in my life.

 

So she influenced you as a writer—

 

Yeah.

 

–and you got to know her, and she’s a friend?

 

Yeah. It’s so funny, because in that class, I remembered asking—going up to my professor after class one day and saying, Well, you know, I’m thinking about writing, and do you—can you recommend any—are there any Korean Americans that we can read? Because we had read, like, Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American. You know, those very—the big ethnicities at that time, I guess. And so I said, Is there any

 

Korean Americans that I could look to as role models? No.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle] I went, Oh, oh. I was like in shock, and I didn’t know what—and I was like, Oh, there’s nobody for me to follow.

 

Did you find Cathy Song on your own?

 

No. And the next day, she said, Oh, I was thinking, and you know, Yes, yes, there are. You know. And in fact, Cathy Song is one, but she’s only half Korean. I said, That’s okay. You know.

 

[chuckle]

 

[chuckle]

 

So am I.

 

Yeah; exactly. So then I read her works, you know, Picture Bride, and I wrote part of my thesis on Cathy. And didn’t meet her until after that. And now, we’re—we ended up, she’s one of my best friends. And so it’s fun how things kinda circle around.

 

Nora Okja Keller has found a small group of writers, including poet Cathy Song, with whom she feels comfortable sharing her work. And, in Comfort Woman and Fox Girl, she was able to eloquently and vividly depict abandonment, abuse, survival, redemption. The term ‘comfort woman’ is a euphemism from World War II, referring to a woman forced into sexual slavery.

 

When you wrote Comfort Woman, what kind of research did you do to find out these just horrible scenarios that happened?

 

Yeah. W ell, when I first heard about it in ’93. There wasn’t a lot of information on it. You know, I had thought I knew a lot about Korean history and Korean culture because of my mom, and her stories about growing up, and just reading about it. But when I first heard about it—heard about it through a symposium at UH. Keum-Ju Hwang, a former ‘comfort woman,’ came to speak there. And as she spoke, I just remember thinking, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this. You know, this is such an important part of this history, and how come I didn’t hear about this? You know, kind of like—

 

How come you didn’t?

 

Well, I think in part—and I had asked this of my mom. You know, you told me so much about this history, you knew so much about culture, and I ask you for all these stories. Where are these stories about these women? And she said, W ell, you know, it’s such a painful thing to talk about, for Koreans in general, I think, and for her generation, that they just didn’t speak about it. And even my older sister, who didn’t leave Korea until she was a teenager; she said she remembers like there might be some reference. Like on the Korean soap operas, there’d be like this mysterious woman, veiled in black, going through the background. And the reference would be, Oh, you know, do you see that woman? Something bad happened to her during the war. And so it would be understood, but never talked about. And I think there was so much pain, and so much shame surrounding that event. And Keum-Ju Hwang said it herself, that so many of the women—well, the women who survived—you know, I’ve read statistics since then that maybe ninety percent of the women did not even survive the camps. But the women who did survive felt like they couldn’t even return to their family, and they carried so much of that shame within them, that they couldn’t even speak about it, and they didn’t talk about that part of their lives.

 

What was the reality? What were the lives like of the Korean women who were taken captive, and then forced to act as comfort women?

 

Oh; oh. Well, there was probably, you know, hundred, two hundred thousand women—Korean women, not to mention the Chinese women, the Indonesian women, Filipino women. These were women between the ages of eleven or twelve, and thirty-five, forty, who were taken forcibly by the Japanese army, taken into small camps. And they were, in some cases, taken out of the classroom, taken away from families, and forced into these, you know, camps where they were kept to service the Japanese soldiers.

 

And what kind of hardships did they go through; they were raped?

 

Right; repeatedly. You know, forced to service maybe thirty to forty men a day, abortions. And I think, to add insult to all of that, is that the women who survived these camps were not—were treated as like as invisible, you know, by the Japanese government afterwards. And you know, as nonexistent and that there were no camps. You know, that was the parting line right after the war; Oh, no, there was no such thing as these camps, and there was no such thing as these women. If these women were there, they wanted to be there, they volunteered. It was, you know, that they did it to support the army. You know. It was—that was the attitude. So I think maybe that was one of the most hurtful things for these women. And added to why it was so difficult for them to speak about their stories, you know, along with the shame and along with the trauma, is that they had to deal with you know—the official line was they did not exist. Yeah.

 

So either they didn’t exist, or they had to define themselves as what awful things happened to them.

 

Right; right. Yeah.

 

And you said most of them couldn’t go home?

 

Yes; so many of them, did not return to their families. Some—you know, in their families’ eyes, they were dead, they didn’t return from the war. And they—the families might not have known what happened to them.

 

Why didn’t they go home?

 

Keum-Ju Hwang said, because the girl that she was, was now dead, and that she could not bear to shame her family with what had happened to her.

 

Thats one of the themes in both books.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s what it takes to survive.

 

Right.

 

And how do you move on?

 

Right; how do you move on, how do you continue to form connections with other people, how do you continue to love? What do you pass on to the next generation?

 

How do you be open to other people, when you’ve seen this just dastardly horrible side.

 

Right. Exactly. Exactly. So that’s something that I circle back to again. And the strength and the fortitude that it takes to be able to do that, to not just give up and say, I’m—that’s it. [chuckle] You know.

 

Well, in both of your books, I think your characters just put their minds in another place. They just detach from their body. Which might work as a short term strategy, but how does that affect them later in life?

 

Right; right; you know. Well, I think there’s always gonna be a disconnect that you are in some ways present for your children or the people in your lives. But there’s always that part of you that is held back. And for something as horrific as those experiences and the prostitution in the comfort camps, it’s not something that they would share with their children. So there’s always something hidden, and something withheld, and that’s a type of pain as well. You know, not to be fully open.

 

And if you do share, as your children might want you to, you’ve just given them just—

 

Yes.

 

–terrible images

 

A burden.

 

–to live with.

 

Right. You’ve passed on your burden.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, some readers have come up to me and said, Oh, you know, after I read, you know, Comfort Woman or Fox Girl, now I feel like I have this burden, you know. And I said, Well, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

 

M-hm.

 

You know, I—

 

The burden of—

 

–felt like I was—

 

–history.

 

–carrying that. Yeah; I was carrying that burden writing it, so now you know, you’ve read it. It’s—you know, you share that burden—

 

What has your mom said about your taking up this burden of history?

 

Oh, you know, she’s proud. You know. And one of the most moving things for me after Comfort Woman was written and published in Korean, I got to take my mom and my kids to Korea. And she hadn’t been back for twenty-five years. And to be there with—when she was reuniting with some of her family that she hadn’t seen for that long, and to—at the same time that was my book was coming out; I mean, it was just really—it was so moving. And to be able to share that with her. So I told her, The book’s an apology for all the times that I said I wasn’t Korean—

 

[chuckle]

 

–and I didn’t want to, you know, participate in culture, and wear the hanbok—

 

[chuckle]

 

–dress, and so we laugh about it now. I was so blessed at that time, and—

 

And timing is good too, isn’t it?

 

I think—

 

There was a—there was a desire to see this material come out.

 

Yes. Because that was just about the same time that the first—that the comfort women first began speaking about it, and first breaking their stories, you know. Keum-Ju Hwang said she’s talking about it now, after all these years because she—before she dies, she wanted the story to be known, this history to be known. And so I think a lot of the comfort women were coming out—coming forward with their stories at that time. The struggles that I portray in the book are so intense and so—you know, most of us will never have to experience something, but we all go through our struggles, and we all strive for redemption. W e all strive to make connections, and to open ourselves up, and to find that grace in life. And so I feel like that’s just as important to write about.

 

You know, you said you showed chapters you’d written to fellow local writers, and of course, you had an editor in New York. What’s it like when you know, these words are you baby, and the crafting belongs to you. When somebody wants to change it, what’s that like?

 

Well, first I do a lot. I try to get my vision down as closely as I can on paper first, before I can even bear to show it to somebody in my writing group, even. But these are people I trust. And I know, like, they’re such good people that I feel like I can trust them with my work, and that they’re gonna look at the work and say, This is what it needs. This is what I think needs to be done. Or even if anybody says, I don’t like it, it’s for the good of the piece. And I know it’s always with the good intentions of how can we make this writing better. And in fact, when I teach classes, that’s the attitude that I go in with. And I say, You know, it might seem like I’m gonna write all over your paper, and I’m gonna say, This doesn’t work here. But my intention is always, How can I make this piece better, how can I make something become what it should be, or closest to the vision that you have in your head.

 

So it’s like artists who—or sculptors who start with a piece of stone or wood, and they say they’re freeing something from that material.

 

I think in some ways. I always you know, I started out thinking I was gonna be—if I was gonna be any artist, it would be in the visual arts, like drawing or painting. And so when I think of, you know, crafting a story or crafting a novel, that’s kind of the terms that I think of it as. Like, a rough sketch, you know. Doing the background wash, you know.

 

And what does it—

 

Adding the—

 

–want to be. Yeah.

 

Yeah. You know, what form is emerging from this, you know. So it is, that is somewhat. And trying to communicate that to my writing group first, and having another eye look at the piece, and saying, Well, this form is still a little bit hazy, you know, can you sketch it, you know, bring it forward a little bit. Or this character should not be a background character; you need to make this character—bring him into the foreground. You know, so it does help. And so you know, I’ve been so, so lucky to have people that I trust, you know, first reading it, being first editors for my work.

 

M-hm. I think I remember you saying this is gonna be a—

 

M-hm.

 

–trilogy. And there hasn’t been a third book yet.

 

I know.

 

Whats the third book going to be about?

 

It will take place in Hawai‘i more so than the other two books. But still follow the theme of—you know, Comfort Woman dealt with the comfort women during World War II. Fox Girl, Korean War, but took place mainly in Korea. This next book will kinda jump forward another twenty years or so, and reflect more on Korean Americans in Hawai‘i.

 

So there’s more to come from this talented writer, mining a rich, largely unexplored cultural vein – the Korean-American experience in Hawai‘i. Mahalo to Nora Okja Keller for sharing stories; and to you, for enjoying them with me. Please join me next week for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawai‘i. A hui hou kakou!

 

You’ve become a teacher part time—

 

Part-time.

 

–recently. What’s that like, creative writing?

 

Oh, it’s fun. And I’ve been teaching students younger than I’ve taught before. And it’s so fun. It’s something that I’ve found that I really enjoy. And I enjoy teaching the younger students, because you know, they take them— they don’t take themselves as seriously, I think. And they are more willing to take risks with their stories, and they’re more willing to explore different things. And I find that refreshing, and it reminds me a little bit about what writing, creative writing should be; you know, a little bit of risk taking, a little bit of exploration, a little bit of saying, I don’t know what this is gonna turn out to be, but I’m willing to go along with this story in the time being. So I just enjoy them. They’re so funny.

 

 

 

Our American Family:
The Furutas

 

Through hard work, the Furutas, a Japanese American family in Wintersburg, CA established a successful goldfish farm, only to have their business devastated and family separated in the wake of WWII. Following years in an Arizona relocation camp, their indomitable spirit prevails as they return home and band together to pursue the American dream a second time.

 

 

SEASONING THE SEASONS SPECIAL
Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i, Part 2: The Proud Families

SEASONING THE SEASONS SPECIAL - Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i, Part 2: The Proud Families

 

The Japanese community in Hawai‘i grew and flourished before WWII, but their lives were turned upside down on December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. This program looks at the story of people who survived these tempestuous times, continuing to love two different nations and cultures.

 

 

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS
War for Guam

 

War for Guam traces the enduring legacy from World War II in Guam, a U.S. territory since 1898, and how the native people of Guam, the Chamorros, remained loyal to the U.S. under Japanese occupation, only to be later stripped of much of their ancestral lands by the American military. Through rare archival footage, contemporary film, and testimonies of survivors and their descendants, the story is told from various points of view, including from war survivors like Antonio Artero, Jr., whose father was awarded one of the first Medals of Freedom for his heroic deeds in protecting American lives; and two key historical figures, Radioman George Tweed and Father Jesus Baza Duenas.

 

 

NHK SPECIAL
Rescuing the Lost Battalion: The Story Behind the “Heroes”

 

Through interviews, reenactments and archival material, this documentary recounts the story behind the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese American soldiers who rescued a battalion of fellow US troops surrounded by German forces in France during the latter part of World War II. These Nisei soldiers became instant heroes – but at a steep cost.

 

 

WWII MEGA WEAPONS
The Tunnels of Okinawa

 

Learn why Imperial Japan built a network of defensive lines, bunkers and fortifications across the island of Okinawa.

 

The tide of war in the Pacific has now fully turned against the Imperial Japanese forces. In a fierce and brutal island hopping campaign, the Americans are winning battle after battle, rapidly gaining ground in their ultimate goal of invading mainland Japan. However, the Japanese decide that the island of Okinawa will be their own last bastion of defense.

 

 

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