MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Minoru "Mino" Ohye, 85, will serve as grand marshal of Friday's Veterans Day Parade in West Sacramento, where he lives.

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Survivor's saga takes new turn

Published: Monday, Nov. 7, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012 - 4:19 am

Minoru "Mino" Ohye is perhaps the only man alive who has served in both the Japanese Imperial Army and the U.S. Army.

He was conscripted by the Japanese in World War II, captured by the Russians in Manchuria in 1945 and sent to a Siberian prison camp.

He survived temperatures of 60 below zero. In 1951, he returned to Northern California, where he was born. That same year, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

On Friday, Ohye, 85, will be featured as the grand marshal for West Sacramento's Veterans Day Parade.

But his greatest thrill will come in January, when he can reunite with his brother in Japan, whom he hasn't seen in nearly 60 years.

"It's a miracle," Ohye said while simultaneously watching the 49ers kick a field goal and working the Jumble and crossword in his Sunday Bee. "I want to see my old friends, and where my father's ashes are buried on a mountainside facing the sea."

Ohye credits the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8762 in West Sacramento for saving his life - by taking him in when he was homeless, by getting medical treatment for him when he was near death, and by finding him a spot in Eskaton Wilson Manor in 2003.

Eskaton's administrator, Debbie Reynolds, approached Ohye for its Thrill of a Lifetime program and learned about his long-lost brother.

Last month, Reynolds, and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, organized a fundraiser at the VFW that raised $3,000 to send Ohye to Japan to reunite with his brother Hiroshi Kamimura, 84.

Reynolds said that when she first approached Ohye, he said "it's too far and laughed like he always does."

Laughter is Ohye's secret weapon, his answer to every situation and the antidote to life's tragedies.

Dad dies in river accident

Ohye was born in Sacramento in 1926. When he was 3 years old, his father died in a freak fishing accident in Marysville, hitting his head on a river rock.

Ohye's mother sent her young sons to live with relatives in Japan. His brother got adopted by one family; Ohye lived with an uncle who died when Ohye was in second grade. He moved in with another uncle.

"I didn't like him, so at 13 I joined a Japanese military youth group helping colonize Manchuria," he said. "It was the best decision I ever made. If I had stayed in Japan, I would have been sent to the Philippines or Okinawa, and I'd be gone - guaranteed."

On June 10, 1945, the Japanese army drafted him to fight the Soviets. On Aug. 22, Japan surrendered and Ohye was sent to work in a Siberian coal mine. He had to crawl on his hands and knees, and the more coal he dug out, the more he got fed.

Ohye was released in 1947, suffering from rickets, and returned to Japan, where he got a job giving away clothes. In 1951, he returned to California to see his mother in Yuba City, where he worked in the fields.

Then, during the Korean War, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Korea's Demilitarized Zone.

A man of many caps

Today, Ohye never leaves home without one of the 100 baseball caps that decorate his Eskaton apartment, along with numerous citations for his community service.

He helps set up Eskaton's Friday morning food locker, chops vegetables and helps the VFW put on its weekly meals. He has repainted benches at Alyce Norman Park.

Wearing a red backpack, a blue VFW jacket and an orange Thrill of a Lifetime cap, Ohye crosses Jefferson Boulevard and cuts through parks and alleys on his daily mile hike from Eskaton to the VFW Hall.

A sign on the wall reads "Homeless Isn't Any Veteran's Dream."

In the late 1950s, Ohye said, he lost everything running Sakura Sukiyaki, his Japanese restaurant in Oak Park. Then he worked as a gardener for many years.

But when customers didn't pay, he said, he became homeless until one of his VFW buddies took him in for 10 months and helped him find a cabin off West Capitol Avenue.

"He came here about 10 years ago and didn't have a home, and the VFW adopted Mino," VFW Post Commander Gary Reason said. "He made a home for himself here and mowed the yard for years."

About 12 years ago, he didn't show up at the VFW Hall for a week. His friends waded through the dense flotsam in his apartment until they found him on the brink of death.

"He was in bad shape," recalled fellow Korean War veteran Hugh King. "They took him to the hospital and cut him open from top to bottom, and he got an infection, but he's the toughest little guy I've ever met."

"I made a mistake - I should have stayed in the army," Ohye said. "I would have had a good job, maybe had a wife and kids too, somebody to take care of me."

The search for a brother

Ohye showed off his passport Sunday. He checked the time on the four clocks he keeps on the wall to make sure he keeps all his engagements.

His hearing is going, but his heart is strong.

"I wake up at 3:30 a.m., get the paper at 5, do the crossword and the word Jumble and eat an apple or cherry turnover," he said, chuckling as he pulled a finished crossword puzzle out of his backpocket.

"My secret is just keeping busy."

He said he had lost touch with his brother for decades. After Eskaton's Reynolds heard his wish, she enlisted Brian Berry, a California State University, Sacramento, alumnus in Japan, to write Ohye's brother.

Hiroshi-san wrote back: "I apologize for my usual long silence. I am glad to hear you are doing fine. I will be very pleased to see you again, Minoru. It is like a dream."

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Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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