An American story of a Gold Star family

The family of columnist David Mas Masumoto, including his grandmother, are pictured in 1944 at Gila River Relocation Center, where they had been imprisoned.
The family of columnist David Mas Masumoto, including his grandmother, are pictured in 1944 at Gila River Relocation Center, where they had been imprisoned. David Mas Masumoto

Our family hid the photo of my Uncle George’s memorial service.

George Hiroshi Masumoto had joined the all-Japanese American 442nd Army infantry regiment and fought in Europe. He was killed Oct. 16, 1944, at Bruyeres in northeastern France while fighting against fascism and for freedom. He was the eldest son in a family of six.

I stumbled on the photo one day when I was about 10. It was in my grandmother’s dresser, stored in a drawer under clothes, tucked away with documents including her alien registration card and a handful of letters and government documents.

She had wrapped the photo with the letter from the Army chaplain informing her of the death of her son. A yellowed white handkerchief protected the documents, bound together with a red ribbon and some fraying twine.

The backstory of the photo and the service confused and overwhelmed me. The photo was taken in 1944 at Gila River Relocation Center, where my family had been imprisoned for two years during World War II because they looked like the enemy.

During World War II, more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, many born in the United States and U.S. citizens, were uprooted and forcibly removed from the West Coast and relocated in desolate prison camps scattered throughout the western United States. My family was stripped of rights, evacuated from the farm in Fresno County. They boarded trains for the Arizona desert and were locked up behind barbed wire.

I was born after that time so I never met Uncle George. He, along with hundreds of others, had joined the 442nd regiment and battled Germans in Europe while their families were being incarcerated in America.

I imagine his life was taken by honest German bullets that didn’t discriminate between who looked like an American and who did not. My uncle and others like him strove to prove their loyalty to the country that had judged their parents and siblings as the enemy.

In the photo, two other Gold Star families complete the portrait. One family has a son who’s dressed in an active Army uniform and holds upright the photo of his deceased brother. My family stands to the right side. My father, who had been drafted into the Army earlier that year, also posed in uniform with his brother and sisters.

My grandfather loosely holds the American flag as if he’s unsure where to place his hands. My grandmother raises the photo of her dead son. She looks confused, sad and lost.

A Gold Star family accepts the flag of a fallen son while held captive because of their faces. A Gold Star mother loses her number one son, spends the rest of her life bewildered because America is where they take freedom away from you. Yet despite the racism, my family returned to California and this valley, worked hard in the fields and struggled to re-establish their identity as Americans.

An immigrant story defines our family. In the midst of the swirling turmoil of prejudice, they forged a life in this country they wanted to call home. Today, as some of the politics of race simmer in our nation, I study the photo of my family taken in the middle of the Arizona desert while locked up because they supposedly were not American enough.

I can see a spirit of resilience in those faces. They affirmed their place in this land and strove for acceptance. Despite all the attempts at exclusion, my family would not be marginalized: They fought for inclusion. This is the story behind a Gold Star family.

My grandmother can now assume her place, recast with a sense of history that she is not alone and can join the ranks of Gold Star mothers. She grieved for her son and a country she rightfully claimed as hers, despite the racism.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books including “Epitaph for a Peach.”