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Takuma Tanada, a 92-year-old resident of west Napa, makes no claims for heroic service in World War II in the fight against Japan. “Others are the real heroes,” he said.

While vast numbers of American soldiers, sailors and pilot lost their lives or endured miserable conditions in the Pacific, Tanada was on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff as an agricultural advisor in the Military Intelligence Service.

Yet his contribution was not without significance. When the war ended and American forces ran Japan, Tanada said he was in charge of the importation and manufacture of fertilizer. This humanitarian effort, combined with American food aid, prevented millions of Japanese from starving to death after the war, he said.

Three weeks ago, Tanada stood before the top leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, D.C. to accept the Congressional Gold Medal for his war service.

The medal — one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States — went to Tanada and 99 other WWII veterans not only for their individual actions during the war, but to recognize the patriotism of Japanese Americans at a time of rabid prejudice at home.

The Congressional Gold Medal is part of America’s ongoing effort to atone for injustices done to Japanese Americans during WWII, said Tanada, who professes to holding no personal bitterness.

At the time of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Tanada, the son of Japanese who immigrated to Hawaii two decades earlier, was a biology student at the University of Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor triggered a wave of public hostility against Japanese Americans whose loyalty to America was questioned, Tanada said. “We were considered spies, a Fifth Column and so forth,” he said in an interview.

On the West Coast, the U.S. government rounded up more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including entire families, after Pearl Harbor and moved them to guarded camps.

In Hawaii, Japanese Americans, who constituted a much higher percentage of the population, were not sent to internment camps. “The authorities in Hawaii recognized our loyalty,” Tanada said.

Tanada and his brother both volunteered for the Army. His brother, Shigeo Tanada, was accepted and fought against Germany in an all-Japanese American unit that was highly decorated after the war.

Tanada said he was first rejected by the military, then drafted later. Because of his ethnicity and bilingual capabilities, he was assigned to the Military Intelligence Service where 5,000 Japanese Americans did top-secret work translating Japanese communications. He reached the rank of technical sergeant.

Holding a master’s in biology, Tanada was assigned to MacArthur’s staff to work on agriculture and food issues.

Presiding over the award ceremony in the Capitol on Nov. 2 were Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader; Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader; House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

“He was all smiles. I think this energized him,” said Juliet Tanada, his daughter who is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. 

Given all that happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, “this is a kind of closure,” she said.

Tanada’s son-in-law, David Vesely, a retired Army colonel, said the Congressional medal should help to heal old wounds. “I hope when he goes to his grave,” he said of his father-in-law, “he feels there is atonement for what the government did.”

While pleased with the Congressional Gold Medal, Tanada downplays his service. “I never experienced hardship, mentally or physically. It was an easy job for me,” he said.

Japan’s decision to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor was a “very stupid” move, Tanada said. Japan is lucky it lost the war, he said.

“It turned out better for them,” he said. Under American leadership and with American aid, Japan was able to create a more civil society and lay the groundwork for future economic prosperity, he said.

Tanada went on to have a distinguished career as a plant researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He was “rumored” to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize, but nothing came of it, he said.

Anyone who searches the Internet for “Tanada effect” will find  entries about an electrical plant phenomenon named for Tanada, the discoverer.

Tanada and his wife moved to Napa 28 years ago to retire near their daughter, Juliet Tanada, who was then teaching optometry at Berkeley. 

Widowed in 1986, he tends a one-acre garden in Browns Valley where he grows fruits and vegetables and wages war against marauding deer. 

“I like the climate,” he said. “Napa has a small-town atmosphere, which appeals to me. I don’t like big cities. It was the perfect place for me to settle.”

America is more tolerant of minorities today than it was in the 1940s, Tanada said. While there was some backlash against American Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, it was nothing like what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, he said.

“I think we are much more open-minded than before,” he said.

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