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In 1945, as members of the Japanese high command surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, Harry Nagata of U.S. Military Intelligence Service was there, serving the same country that had locked his Japanese-American family in an internment camp.

Seventy-three years later, at age 97, Nagata joined fellow veterans on an emotional trip to Washington, D.C., where he visited war memorials and museums and placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Changing of the Guard.

“It was a very silent and respectful ceremony,” said Nagata, who lives at St. Helena’s Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park. “Just the clicking of the soldier’s heel and the beautiful sound of the playing of Taps. It was inspiring.”

Another highlight was witnessing a Navy rifle drill at a museum, Nagata said.

The three-day trip was arranged by Honor Flight Bay Area, a nonprofit that flies veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials and museums related to the war during which they served.

Nagata was the oldest of the 26 veterans who joined the September trip. They were greeted at the San Francisco and D.C. airports with cheers, applause, salutes and music. Each was presented with a homemade quilt commemorating their service, courtesy of the nonprofit Quilts of Honor.

With sirens blaring and lights flashing, National Park police escorted the group down D.C. streets to 11 sites such as the World War II Memorial and the National Museum of American History, where an exhibit honors Japanese-Americans who served during World War II.

Nagata graduated from Central High School in his home town of Fresno in 1939. After the U.S. entered the war, Nagata, his parents and six siblings were rounded up and temporarily confined in livestock pens at the Fresno fairgrounds before being shipped off to the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas and later to the Gila River camp in Arizona. A seventh sibling was born in the camp in 1944.

The military combed internment camps for young Japanese Americans who could serve as linguists. Nagata was assigned to a branch of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service made up of Japanese Americans, mostly second-generation “Nisei” like him, who used their knowledge of the Japanese language to help the war effort.

Nagata was aboard the U.S.S. Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, when MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender that formally ended World War II. The 23-minute ceremony was broadcast around the world, and the sight of MacArthur with his trademark corncob pipe is still fixed in Nagata’s memory.

After the war, Corporal Nagata was stationed in Tokyo and assigned to the 720th Military Police Battalion, working in interpretation and interrogation. His family was finally released in 1946.

For more information about the Washington, D.C. tours for veterans, visit honorflightbayarea.org.

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.