The Story of Nick Nagatani

By: Maru Rabinovitch, Danh Tran, Victor Chen, and Seng So

The 1960’s was momentous era nationally and globally. It was a time of tremendous movements, upheavals and uprisings throughout the world. The world was beginning to shift. People around the world were questioning the role of their lives in relation to the systems and structures that had been placed upon them. In particular, the sixties was also a time of great conflicts as well. In Vietnam, the struggle for independence against foreign and colonial powers was taking place. The ramifications of the events unfolding in Vietnam would change our lives forever. For Nick Nagatani, the Vietnam War marked a long, difficult and reflective journey to understand life, war, politics and the role of the U.S. in our lives. Furthermore as an Asian American serving in the U.S. military his experiences during the war would shape and provide the foundations for the social justice and revolutionary work that he is involved in today. Here is his story.

I woke up the other day wondering if people are returning to Vietnam more often today. Better yet, curious about how Americas would be treated there. That is to say, I was wondering if there would be animosity on the side of the Vietnamese people. Yet, lately all who have gone back have only positive things to say about Vietnamese people. Today, Vietnamese people have come to generate some sort of curiosity among Americans, especially because of their past and current thoughts about the war. What I remember hearing during the war, and what I am hearing today – it must be clarified that I am not expert in political thought – is that their understanding of the war is that it was between the two governments, it was not personal. The Cold War affected everybody, it did not matter whether you lived in the North or the South. Moreover, some people gained liberty and were able to make their own country – running it the way they wished to – while others lost everything and their countries were completely devastated.

Wars have a tendency to affect people’s lives, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. For example, World War II changed my family history. My grandparents were in the United States after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and they were put into concentration camps. They had come to America hoping to make some money and go back to the Japan; all those dreams were lost after Pearl Harbor. Furthermore, at the time of the bombing they were actually doing well in the agriculture business, but everything was taken away from them over night. They lost their money and land but most importantly they lost their freedom.

My parents meet after the concentration camps and had us. I am considered third generation. My parents did everything in their power to prevent us from ever going through the same types of issues they did – namely, the concentration camps. This was a very painful time for the Asian community, my family among them, they were constantly discriminated against for their physical appearance. Consequently, after they were released from the concentration camp, they were determined to prove to everyone that they were Americans and they could be trusted. Even if that involved breaking away from our own culture.

This break from the culture was evident in the shift in our names and language. Asians became Americanized, they were called “Nick” – for example – my generation does not have ethnic names. Additionally, people forgot the importance of language as a part of their identity. They stopped emphasizing the need to learn our ancestors’ language and started emphasizing the need of fitting in with the American culture. I am not going to say that this was necessarily completely wrong, but there was a danger attached to it. Mainly because if you do not know what happened before you it is hard to know what to do next. When I went to the military and enlisted I was 19 years-old and I knew little about my parents and grandparents history.

My story is different from that of others, but in the end it shares many similarities with other people from color. African Americans, Brown people, Native Americans, Asian Americans we all share a lot in common. We need to start seeing each other in other minorities, because we all belong to the same brotherhood and sisterhood. We have contributed to make this country what it is – and to make a positive image of ourselves – and have been victims of oppression at one time or another. We need to bring ourselves together and empower ourselves to claim equality.

I did not get this appreciation of the world overnight. During my high school years I was a poor student who had an extremely difficult time concentrating. I was not interested at all in what was being taught. Moreover, I thought was that “excitement” was everywhere except school. I had other interests and I hung out with people who shared that vision of life. Our community called us “at risk kids.” Our interests involved experimenting with lots of drugs, engaging in disobedience and getting into trouble. Consequently, my parents could not relate or understand what was wrong with me. This situation led my father to give me an ultimatum as soon as high school was over. Either college or the military. College it was.

I moved outside the city to my grandmother’s home. There was a community college in the neighborhood and I went there to study. The clean air and healthy eating must have had a positive effect on me because suddenly I was doing well at school. I had made it to the President’s List and I was playing basketball often. I was truly putting in an effort. Sadly, it only lasted a year. When I went back home at the end of the year I could not maintain it. And my problem with drugs was more severe now. The drugs were more deadly, the illegal activities were becoming a life style. At this point in my life I felt something had to change.

I was loaded that day. The four of us had taken barbiturates – those things numb you. We ended up at the recruiter’s office, and made that guy’s quota for the month. I remember leaving the office thinking “guess what I’m a marine now.” When I got home my dad asked how my day had been. As soon as I told him know the news he started shaking his head. During this time the wars’ escalation was starting to be shown on television. My parents were concerned and rightfully so. Here I was with a cloudy mind, unaware of Vietnam’s geographic location, enrolling to fight in the war. Moreover, my reasons had nothing had to do with being patriotic, they were probably related to my needing to run-away from something.

The day I was being deployed I went downtown to take the bus to San Diego. I got there for my first day of training and I was higher than a kite. I remember it was pitch dark and the leading officer came in and started calling us names. He was hitting people, which cause me to sort of wake up. I got off the bus and landed in an area where many buses were dropping people off. The truth is that it never got any better than that. We were subjected to constant harassment and brainwashing. The brainwashing was a priority for them to in order to get people to do something that they would not automatically do, namely kill other human beings. If you did not learn, you would pay the consequences. Marines who performed poorly were sent to “motivation.” The “place” was supposed to “motivate” you to be a good marine, instead they would torture you. Marines in motivation would be put to work, breaking rocks and taking them to the stacks.

The most important thing we learned was to obey. There was a lot of the propaganda circulating at the time. We were fed lies about Vietnam that were deliberately constructed to dehumanize a race of people. Vietnamese people were portrayed as barbaric; they were given names such as Charlie, gook, Ho Chi Minh. Moreover, I was the only Asian in company of three platoons – out of 300 something marines. This meant that I was singled out a lot. They would use me as an example during indoctrination classes- “this is how the enemy looks like.” In my company not everyone came from same background. Some people came from states such as Wyoming, and had never seen an Asian before. And here we were with people in positions of authority – to whom everyone must obey – telling me to stand up; and asking the company to remember what this face looks like because it will save your life. This was my motherfucking face.

Many Asians went to training and afterwards to the war either together or separately and we all have some of the same stories, it was life threatening. Once an Asian in the marines gets to Vietnam during week one, as the new person he has to walk the point, meaning walk ahead of the platoon leading the way. This has to do with the fact that everyone has to pay their dues. The platoon, however, is welcomed to an ambushed. The Viet-Cong starts shooting at them, so he starts running back to take cover. He is wearing the American uniform, but someone sees an “Asian” or – as it was said at that time – “Oriental,” who looks like a gook and starts shooting at him. He gets trapped in cross fire. Once the shooting stopped and he was still alive, he asked “who the fuck shot at me?” From that time they took him out the point, but it still shows how even American soldiers were discriminated against while fighting for their country.

The war was indeed brutal and merciless, leaving in me many haunting memories. Yet, there were some parts of it that had a bright side. During the time, I bonded with the people I served with, the type of bond that was formed only when an individual experiences traumatic and unpleasant experiences with others. I got to know people from different parts of America, and an interesting fact was that when it came to Marine Corp, we were just like one another. Our heads were shaved, and we were all in green uniform. We were the identical green gun machines ready for the bloody battles. In a certain perspective, we were all equal ironically much at the same time there was another war going on right in the heart of America, the war of racism and racial injustice. Many of my fellow soldiers came from places where minority ethnic groups had no civil rights or social justice. Many of them still carried the racist ideals rooted in their minds for many generations before they joined the Marine, but now they were just like us. We were elbow to elbow and went on to the war where we were all treated alike. There were adjustments that all of us had to make, for the terrible living conditions and life that we were enduring together. During the time of war, there was nothing much to ask for.

The Vietnam War, just like any other wars that America had been involved in before, was full of deaths, anxieties and hatreds. Nevertheless, there was one thing that set apart this war from all other wars, it was that we had not known the purpose and the reasons why we were there in Vietnam, why we had to interfere with this country’s affairs, why we had to kill these people. The only thing we were told was we had to stop the spread of Communism to prevent the domino effect that it could cause and we were told we went to war to protect our own democracy. I always felt I should not have been there in the first place. A soldier going to war for his country usually had the feeling that he was risking his life in exchange for the safety of his family and community back home and that he was willing to do so. For this war, I never had that feeling. Just like many other soldiers, I was confused by the government. I always felt that there were many issues being covered up and not brought to the forefront. There were many problems that were unsolved for many groups of people. Many victims were villainized and targeted as subjects of hatred and as soldiers we were taught to hate them, for the purpose to being better killers in the war. Also, part of the war’s motive was racism, which was a disease of Americans. Differences are good and we should all celebrate differences. Nevertheless, contradictorily, we were taught to fear the differences. What else could we do when it was the mainstream?

After I left the Marine, I came back home and noticed that there were many movements, not only in America but many places in the world, that many ethnicities started to be empowered and to define themselves. A lot of changes were made to the society. Before I joined the Marine, we Asians had been called Orientals, and African Americans had been called Negroes. Now the terms were changed, and these ethnic groups were empowered by their own ethnic prides. Beside these social movements, the youths were also very active in the community. Nevertheless, there were three main problems with our community: drug abuse by youths, gangs started by youths, and youth alienation. By early 1970s, there were a quite a few youths in my community, and 30 of them, mostly high school kids, died of drug overdoses. The community, primarily Japanese, still had their pride, so they disguised their children’s’ drug overdose deaths by saying their sons had died of heart attack. People of course were not stupefied, so the need to organize the community became stronger than ever. They started a massive fundraiser, bringing in the politicians so that a youth center could be built for these youths in the community. The founding of the youth center should have been the responsibility of the government to create opportunities for youth to learn positive aspects and build a healthy life, but we could not wait for the government to make our life right. We took it into our own hands. The youth center was built on a two-story house on Pico Blvd, on the west side. It was initiated by a group of ex-gang members. It was secured by a grassroots community organization that later became known widely as the Yellow Brotherhood. It was the mainstay for many youth in the community that supported and it offered support emotionally and socially. Unfortunately, after a few years, the leadership was beginning to burn out. Many of the kids grew up. Some graduated from universities and moved on with their lives. Some had families and children. Yellow Brotherhood then became some sort of a half-way house. Afterward, the closure became imminent when an incident occurred between one of the kids in the Brotherhood and the gang of motor-bikers at a gas station nearby, where to resolve the conflict, the bikers carried riffles and car jacks to start a violent raid at the Yellow Brotherhood house.

The Yellow Brotherhood was once a magnet to all youths in the community. Before the closure, there were some high school kids in the community. One of them was discriminated against because of his Asian ethnicity, so they banded up and took revenge. At the time, I was working on several projects in the community in Little Tokyo and I was called on to counsel these youths to guide them away from violence. After being introduced to Yellow Brotherhood, they came there more frequently, and soon after, the news spread. More friends of theirs started to join. To me, the concept of brotherhood and sisterhood is more of the feeling of belonging, a sense of being part of something and a sense of trust. That was how these youths were drawn to the house and there they developed a mutual care and the sense of community.

Yellow Brotherhood was also important in my life because it through Yellow Brotherhood that I met my wife. I met my wife when I was 21. I was interested in Yellow Brotherhood and she was really into it as well. When we had children we tried to raise our kids with the same values with community awareness. It was one of the main things that brought us together. Working with high school kids to me was the most effective way in making any kind of change. My wife was involved with Yellow Brotherhood by working with kids, being a driver, and setting a leadership role model for females.

When you think of Yellow Brotherhood, you think of mostly young men, so it was nice to have women be involved also. A lot of people joined Yellow Brotherhood because it was a fad but people who stuck around were really sincere about what they were doing. They were involved in the community by organizing events and other things. Now through raising our own kids, it’s nice to know that they have that awareness for their community.

Along with Yellow Brotherhood I became a part of an organization called AMMO. I was one of the members of AMMO. We formed because when I got out of the military, I began to slowly question a lot of things. I began to learn certain things that I never thought about before. One of these things was my history as a person of color. I learned that my history paralleled that of other histories of people of other ethnicities. I began to lose trust in people with power because of this. One of the many that I questioned was why I had to go to Vietnam in the first place, when all we wanted to do was survive and come home. We were not there to save anyone or protect our way of life back home. We were there simply because we were stupid. We were stupid for not questioning why we were there in the first place. A lot of innocent lives were taken, not only from one side. The U.S. was napalming and killing people indiscriminately, it was like genocide. Old people, children, and women were all killed. As an Asian, I felt like this had to stop. I felt that this was the main reason why we had to form AMMO.

We had credibility because we had firsthand experience of the atrocities of war. In a way, we were doing something that was necessary or doing our part in the anti-war movement. Just saying bring the troops home was not good enough. The bombings also carried over to Cambodia. So, what we did was talk to any community group that invited us to talk, we raised money for medical supplies. Even though we raised minimal money, it was still money for medical supplies. It was more of a gesture. We shared our experiences to high school students. We put out a newsletter and formed network and coalitions with veterans from other cities, in particular Asian veterans. When other Asian veterans came out of the service, we welcomed them and tried to help out the veterans because at the time the V8 was horrible. It was crazy how you can be in Vietnam and three days later, you come back here. Back then there was no talk of post-traumatic stress disorder. People were coming back messed up and there was no welcoming for them, if anything, there was hostility. It was because the war was not popular.

Later on in my life after I got married and had children, I became involved with youth through coaching basketball. It was important to spend time with my kids. When my oldest son was growing up, they had leagues that started when you were 6 years old. One thing that kept me in line was sports because everything in my life was chaotic. I got recognition from doing sports. Participating in groups allowed for you to learn things about people. Working towards a common cause allowed for you to work together as a team. I enjoyed this idea. I decided to coach basketball because it was my area of expertise. The greatest teacher, not only in basketball, was John Wooden at UCLA. He was more of a coach for basketball, but also taught life lessons. Growing up, I watched and listened to the UCLA basketball games. During activities like this, you could instill certain values such as working together as a team or backing each other up. This can be broken up to drills and fundamentals, but it taught you hot to play defense with your team and help each other get the ball. When you put these things together, basketball can be a beautiful game. The kids that were involved, especially with my son, were part of a movement or revolutionary people. Our message with working with our kids was pretty consistent. All of the parents grew up together and had history together. We also shared similar values and did things in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. For Japanese Americans, there is no geographic community, so things and activities like this helped provide a sense of community. Plus, I actually liked playing basketball.

Nick Nagatani’s life provides us with a greater understanding of the forces and factors that have shaped Asian and Pacific Islanders today. His experiences represent a lifetime of struggle, resistance and movement building for communities towards a just world. And today as the U.S. becomes further and further involved in the world at large we can use Nick’s life as an example on how to deal with the conditions and choices that we are facing presently. More importantly, Nick serves as an illustration that transformation is lifelong process. And as you transform and empower yourself you will also transform and empower to the lives around you.