No one asks to be a Gold Star Family. You have a family member in the military service, they fight in a war and die, and only then do you receive the title. The recent controversy of Gold Star families and the presidential election compel me to reexamine the significance of my family’s story. The context of a photograph taken at a family memorial service for a fallen soldier son challenges my sense of history and definition of being an American.
I never thought about the meaning of being a Gold Star family and never portrayed my grandmother as being a Gold Star Mother. Growing up, 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 accidentally stumbled on the photo 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 citizens of this country, were uprooted and forcibly removed from the West Coast and relocated in desolate prison camps scattered throughout the western U.S. My family was stripped of their rights, evacuated from their farm in rural Fresno County and put on trains for the Arizona desert, where they were locked up behind barbed wire.
I was born after that time so I never met my 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, along with many, strove to prove his loyalty to the very country that had judged his parents and siblings as the enemy.
In the photo, two other Gold Star families complete the portrait. One family has a son who is 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 is unsure where to place his hands. My grandmother raises the photo of her dead son. She looks confused, sad and lost.
The situation confounds and astounds my soul. A Gold Star family accepts the flag of a fallen son while held captive because of their faces. A Gold Star mother loses her No. 1 son and 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 reestablish 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 am forced to pause as 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 now 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 backstory behind a Gold Star family. And my grandmother can now assume her place, recast with a sense of history that she is not alone, and join the ranks of Gold Star mothers. She grieved for her son and a country she rightfully claimed as hers.
David “Mas” Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and the award-winning author of eight books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”