Co-sponsored by the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington
I am extremely lucky to have grown up in Seattle at the NVC because it has always taught me valuable life lessons from history about a legacy that flows through not only my own family but also our community and continues to do so through the generations. In many other cases, however, some later realize that while growing up they did not learn about the most important chapter in American history.
For Tom Graves, a New Jersey native, this was the case. While growing up, he didn’t witness any discrimination towards Japanese Americans. Tom became more surprised and stunned by each Nisei veteran’s story where he found himself feeling very strongly about the injustice of the incarceration camps and a generation who not only beat the enemy, but also had to strive for victory over prejudice at home. Nisei soldiers opened the doors for all people to be successful.
Honoring the Past, Educating the Future
Tom is a significant example of an individual who exercises the NVC and NVC Foundation’s mission of Honoring the past, Educating the future. In 2001, Tom met his first Nisei veteran in San Francisco and from there he began uncovering more and more about the WWII experience. The stories of the Nisei generation began as a simple photography project which then grew into a more than decade long collection of individual experiences from people who lived throughout a piece of history that many, even to this day, are hardly familiar with. His book, titled Twice Heroes, is a collection of portraits and interviews with America’s Nisei veterans of WWII and Korea. Each photo in the book is as individualized and unique as the story. Tom’s use of photography to incorporate the history of the Nisei soldiers is warm, real and beautiful.
Never Give Up
Tom shared the most memorable lesson from the project, which is to never give up. The human spirit displays amazing amounts of resilience and even with war he recounted from an interview, “We are all human, even the enemy is human.” The Nisei did not give up to rescue the Lost Battalion. They did not give up when they assaulted the Gothic Line. They did not give up when Hawaii was attacked or when a hundred thousand were sent to American concentration camps. For Tom, this book displays how the Nisei generation did not give up during the impacts of war and how a generation taught values, cherished their children and sacrificed for education.
Some of the Nisei veterans interviewed by Tom were not happy about the title -- simply because they do not consider themselves heroes. With the story of sacrifice and bravery faced by a generation who were once considered untrustworthy and forbidden to serve in the military, courage is evident. When the war is over, it’s the end of the game. It doesn’t matter the score, human lives are lost, grief occurs and those who survive have to continue living their lives. Courage cannot be taught and through the Nisei generation, Tom received a tremendous education from this project. He shared that this project has been a great joy in his life to have met all these people, hear their stories and be able to help share their stories.
Tom carries a copy of his book containing signatures of Nisei Veterans and takes it wherever he goes. He asks all Nikkei veterans to sign his book and one day hopes to display it in the Smithsonian. It is a piece of history, and as he calls it, “The world’s greatest yearbook. His treasure.” After he concluded his talk, he asked all of the Nikkei veterans to sign his yearbook.
It was so very moving to hear Tom’s personal work and know that this legacy continues to flow from the past through the generations, through a community and the importance of spreading it further through story telling. I am so grateful to witness the NVC mission in action. Honoring the past, Educating the future.