Billy Kazuyoshi Hatano was 11 years old when his family was among more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry sent to internment camps in the United States during World War II. Six years later, while serving with the U.S. Army in Korea, he was captured by the Chinese Army and spent 33 months as a prisoner of war.
“He spent seven of his first 23 years behind bars, first for being Japanese and then for being a U.S. soldier,” said his son, Brian Hatano.
But Billy Hatano survived his 1,007 days of captivity in North Korea and returned to the United States, where he realized his dream of working for the federal government and raising a family.
Hatano died March 6 in Sacramento of heart-related causes, his son said. He was 86.
Never miss a local story.
Hatano’s parents, Yoshimasa and Yaeko Hatano, worked as farm laborers in Placer County before World War II. Hatano’s brother and two sisters were born in the United States, but the family had returned for a visit to Kumamoto, Japan, when Billy Hatano was born Nov. 29, 1930. As a result, he was a Japanese citizen.
Hatano’s older brother Mas Hatano said those of his generation, who were children and teenagers during World War II, were less affected by their internment experience than their parents. He and his siblings attended school in the Tule Lake camp. Although the education they received there was substandard, Mas Hatano said, thanks to the emphasis his parents put on education, they quickly caught up when they returned to public school after the war.
Billy Hatano graduated from Roseville High School and wanted to get a job with the federal government but was told he couldn’t because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. He asked a U.S. immigration official what he should do and was told he could renounce his Japanese citizenship and volunteer for the U.S. Army. But after signing the papers, Mas Hatano said, “he was technically a man without a country.”
Shortly after joining the Army, the Korean War began and and Billy Hatano was sent overseas. He had been in combat about a year when he was engaged in a battle near the Korean-Chinese border. Mas Hatano said his brother recalled how he and fellow soldiers fought waves of Chinese troops until they ran out of ammunition and were taken captive.
William Funchess said he was a first lieutenant and Hatano was a member of his 50-man platoon. He said Hatano played a key role because he spoke Japanese. The platoon included 12 South Koreans who didn’t speak English, but one spoke Japanese and Hatano served as translator.
“I kept Billy close by,” Funchess said, recalling that the two men shared a pup tent.
The platoon was near the border with China on Nov. 4, 1950, when they spotted Chinese troops crossing the river. Funchess said the platoon was part of an 800-man battalion, and the platoon’s efforts to hold off the Chinese troops allowed the rest of the battalion to escape.
Funchess was shot in the foot during the battle, and he said Hatano helped him walk during the 17-day March to a prison camp at Pyoktong in North Korea. They marched at night and were hidden during the day.
When they arrived at Pyoktong, they found the camp had been damaged by U.S. incendiary bombs, so the first two months were spent at few miles away in mud shacks, with straw roofs and no running water or toilet facilities. Food consisted of a cup of millet in the morning and another at night, Funchess said.
During the winter of 1950-51, an estimated 1,600 American soldiers died at Pyoktong, he said.
Funchess, who lives in South Carolina, said he and Hatano were separated during their years as POWs, but they reconnected after the war and remained in touch, exchanging Christmas and birthday cards.
“Billy was very much a hero,” Funchess said.
He was a deeply caring man. I think he had to bury how much he cared a little deeper as a result of the POW experience.
The Rev. Bob Oshita
Mas Hatano said his brother recalled that many of the American soldiers were used to eating meat and potatoes and were unable to adjust to the Pyoktong prison rations of soup and vegetables.
“But he said he ate that stuff,” Mas Hatano said.
His family noted, however, that Billy Hatano would never eat corn after returning from Korea because it resembled millet.
Brian Hatano said his father weighed 150 pounds when he left for Korea. During the first six months as a POW, he lost 50 pounds.
Hatano’s family was initially told that he was missing in action. It wasn’t until peace talks began and the North Koreans released a list of prisoners that they learned he was alive. After 33 months, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange, his brother said.
Billy Hatano had expected to receive U.S. citizenship by virtue of serving in the Army, but when he was discharged, he was informed that he would have to go through the application process and pass a citizenship test, which he did. He then set about getting a job with the federal government, and was hired as a mail clerk at the Sacramento Army Depot. He retired 34 years later as a computer systems analyst.
Billy Hatano was active in the Buddhist Church of Sacramento and Kumamoto Kenjin Kai, a benevolent organization that Japanese initially formed to aid each other when they came to the United States, his son said.
The Rev. Bob Oshita, chaplain for the California State Assembly, said he and Billy Hatano became good friends during the years Oshita served at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento. Although Hatano could come across as rather gruff, Oshita said, “he was a deeply caring man. I think he had to bury how much he cared a little deeper as a result of the POW experience.”
At the Buddhist Church, Hatano was among a group of older members who helped prepare meals for special events and for families at times of loss. When Hatano suffered serious heart problems a couple of years ago, Oshita said, “we thought we’d lost him, but he pulled through, and he would come out with his oxygen tank and walker to help.”
Oshita said Hatano didn’t talk much about his war experiences. “No doubt he carried those memories, but he held those things very close to his heart,” Oshita said. “He didn’t want to relive them for himself and it was not something he wanted to burden others with. But he said, ‘I’m lucky to be here.’ ”
Hatano is survived by his wife of 62 years, Grace Yamamura Hatano of Sacramento; sons Brian of Sacramento and Kevin of El Dorado Hills; brother Mas Hatano and sister Gerry Goishi, both of Sacramento; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m Saturday at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, 2401 Riverside Blvd.