Sonora resident Joe Haratani shows commendations he earned during his service in the 442nd Combat Regimental Team â the most decorated infantry regiment in U.S. Army history. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat
Film highlights Japanese American World War II vets
Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat /
When perhaps dozens of people gather Sunday at the Sonora Inn to watch a documentary about the 442nd Combat Regimental Team - the most decorated infantry regiment in U.S. Army history - Sonora resident Joe Haratani will be there too.
Haratani, celebrating his 90th birthday Sunday, served in the unit during World War II. In addition to its members' bravery, the unit is notable in that it was comprised almost entirely of soldiers of Japanese descent.
As many as 50 people from his family will join Haratani to watch the film, "Valor with Honor."
Family members, many of whom live outside the area, were already planning to visit Haratani for his birthday. But when his son, Richard Haratini, of Columbia, heard about the movie, he immediately contacted event organizer Joe Gamboa.
Gamboa, who is sponsoring the free screening, wasn't aware there was a local veteran of the 442nd until he received Richard Haratani's call.
Gamboa heads Media Wise USA Communications Inc., a nonprofit organization that hosts showings of independently produced documentaries, most of which are about World War II.
The 85-minute film is based on more than 35 interviews of Japanese American veterans who served in the 442nd.
Like many of the unit's members, Haratani was being held in a Japanese internment camp when he enlisted in the Army in 1943.
He had just enrolled at Modesto Junior College when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, catapulting the United States into World War II.
He lived in a Caucasian family's home, helping in their home furnishings store for room and board.
"It was a Sunday, and I was homewith the family," Haratani recalled. "They gave me some money and said, 'Go downtown to the theater and go to a movie,' because they didn't know what to do with me."
When he returned, the family told him that having a Japanese American living in their home could be bad for business.
He moved in with a fellow Modesto Junior College student until President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the evacuation of Japanese Americans to internment camps.
Haratani and others in the area were transported to the Merced County Fairgrounds, where they lived for four months. In September 1942, they were shipped to Amache Relocation Center - a small, desolate internment camp in southeastern Colorado near the town of Granada.
He and about 8,000 other Japanese Americans lived and worked at the camp, sleeping in barracks, eating meals in mess halls, and trudging through snow to use community bathrooms. Haratani worked as a dishwasher in the hospital.
"Being young, you just accepted it," Haratani recalled. "After a period of adjustment living military-like in barracks, people started having parties or dances and things like that to occupy ourselves. We basically created our own social life."
The federal government later announced Japanese Americans would be allowed to enlist in the Army. They were given two options: volunteer for service or be an alien enemy.
"It's hard to imagine the things they did during those years," Haratani said. "I mean, now, people would just not accept it."
Haratani enlisted in April 1943 and left the internment camp for basic training at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Miss.
He then traveled to Europe with the unit, fighting battles in France and Italy until he was discharged in January 1945. He returned home to Livingston, one of several California towns he lived in growing up.
"I walked one mile with my dufflebag from the bus station in town to the (Methodist) church," he recalled.
Haratani was born in the farming community of Florin in October 1923, but moved frequently because his father, a Methodist pastor, was assigned to different churches around the state.
Alienated in his own country after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Haratani was treated with respect when he returned from his service because of the 442nd's success,
The unit earned the nickname "Purple Heart Battalion" from its high distinction in the war and record-setting decoration count.
"I think people looked up to us because of that," he said.
He returned to Modesto Junior College that fall, where he met his wife, Amy, to whom he has been married for 65 years.
Growing up in the small Central Valley farming community of Empire, Amy was also transported to the Merced Fairgrounds and Granada internment camp, but she and Haratani never ran into each other.
Haratani earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Stanford University while Amy received a degree in education from San Jose State University.
Amy got her first teaching job in Oakland, and Haratani continued his education at University of California, Berkeley, earning a master's degree in sanitary engineering.
Haratani took a job with the California Department of Water Resources in Sacramento. Three years later, he joined up with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which allowed him to spend several years traveling the world.
He and Amy had three sons - Guy, who was born in Sacramento, Richard, born in La Paz, and Saji, born in Saigon.
Haratani later asked for a transfer to the Peace Corps and became part of the staff covering five countries along the western coast of South America. Soon, he was director of the Ecuador staff.
When the Peace Corps began accepting families instead of only single people, Haratani resigned from his well-compensated staff position so that he and Amy could be volunteers instead.
After serving in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, the couple searched for a place in California to settle down. In 1972, they made their way to the Sierra foothills and, weary from traveling, nonchalantly bought a shabby cabin in Columbia.
"We lived in a shack when we were volunteers out in the Galapagos, so we thought, 'That's okay. It looks like our place in the Galapagos,' " Amy said.
When they returned to the cabin to move in, they wondered what they were thinking when they bought it.
But they lived in the Columbia home until 1985, when they moved to their current house near downtown Sonora.
Haratani worked for the U.S. Forest Service from 1973 to 1978 before being hired again by US AID. But after four years of work in the Middle East, he decided to retire.
He remained a consultant for 10 more years, which included travel to places such as Yemen, Egypt, Chad, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, the Gaza Strip, Ethiopia, and South and Central America.
Haratani said that while watching the documentary with his family will be a nice way to spend his 90th birthday, he doesn't know what emotions will surface.
"It will be a new experience," he said. "We'll see how I react."