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The journey of an American hero: WWII vet Charles Shibata’s life story


Elizabeth Medora

NORTH VALLEY – Behind every hero, there’s a story. Charles Shibata’s story began 92 years ago in Indio, Calif.

Born Oct. 29, 1922, Charles grew up on his family’s farm. His parents, both born in Japan, settled in Indio in the early 1920s, fashioning a farm out of land they bought. Charles lived in Indio throughout his childhood, then moved to Los Angeles to attend Los Angeles City College, pursuing a degree in petroleum engineering.

In 1941, the tragic Pearl Harbor attack occurred, an event that Charles said in his notes, “was to change my whole life.”

“And then on Dec. 7, Sunday morning, a friend knocked at our home and said, ‘Charlie, you better turn on your radio. Something terrible is happening.’”

Charles’ life was about to take a turn for the worse. Former friends began to shun him and other Japanese Americans.

In his notes, Charles expressed his shock and distress at this time as he and his family tried to let everyone know that they were “not the enemy. We are Americans,” he wrote.

In February 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing removal of people from military areas if desired. This order led to the creation of internment camps for Japanese American citizens. Without any trial or proof of wrongdoing, over one hundred thousand people were made to leave their homes and live in hastily-constructed camps. Very few belongings could be taken.

Charles described the notice he and his family got: they would be given a 48-hour notice to evacuate their homes and be allowed one suitcase for their belongings. No word was given on where the evacuees would be going, leaving families to wonder if they needed coats and blankets or if they should prepare for hot weather. Buyers, taking advantage of the evacuees’ situation, approached many families and bought their belongings for rock-bottom prices.

Charles left Los Angeles, where he had been staying with his sister, and went home to his parents in Indio. He knew he would be ordered to an interment camp soon, and he wanted to be with his “folks and family.” A deputy sheriff who was friends with Charles’ brother told the family they would soon be evacuated, granting them an extra week to prepare.

“Then, the fateful day arrived,” Charles wrote. “May 22, 1942, when we got on an old bus in Indio and headed out into the eastern desert.”

Charles and his family were housed in the largest of the internment camps, in Poston, Ariz. It was 115 degrees at the time of their arrival. Living quarters were made of rough lumber. Steel cots were the only furniture. Each evacuee was given one blanket and one mattress bag to be stuffed with straw.

The Arizona heat made the outdoor faucet’s water in the Shibata family’s block too hot to drink. They had to go to another block to find water cool enough to drink. Volunteer cooks prepared the food from ingredients from Army supplies. Charles remembered that the usual meat was beef heart or liver. He didn’t eat a piece of fruit for a year in that camp.

Charles volunteered for work details harvesting vegetables from farms outside the camp. He called the best part of the work assignments “being free.”

Charles had registered for the draft when he arrived in the Poston camp; he described himself as “eager to serve our country.” However, after he registered, it was announced that the military didn’t want Japanese Americans as soldiers.

“They announced that they did not want us, that they didn’t believe that we were loyal Americans,” Charles remembered. “I don’t know how they came to that conclusion, but they said we were the enemy.”

In 1943, that decision was reversed. Charles reported that a Chinese American man met with generals in Washington, D.C. and finally convinced them to give a unit of Japanese American soldiers out of Hawaii a try. The 100th Battalion showed great success.

“And so, the U.S. Army sent recruiters to the 10 camps around the United States and the famous 442nd Unit was born,” Charles shared.

Charles requested and received permission to relocate to Chicago, Ill., where one of his brothers was living. Here, he worked in a war plant for a year. He was not drafted. After hearing that his brother Henry had been injured in the service, Charles decided to volunteer. He volunteered to serve with the Military Intelligence Service and prepared to be part of the coming invasion of Japan.

Before being shipped out, Charles was given a short furlough. He went back to the Poston camp to visit his parents.

“My father took me aside and said the following words: ‘Charlie, I want to tell you that America is your country and you must serve your country. I am proud of you and I know you will serve your country well. Just remember that your mission is the most important thing. I know you will be successful and your mother and I love you and are proud of you.’”

Japan surrendered while Charles’ unit was in Manila. Charles was then sent to Tokyo, assigned to General MacArthur’s headquarters. Charles was assigned a basic job monitoring an area near the headquarters. Through his work, Charles saw many Japanese residents, some who questioned his Japanese appearance coupled with his American uniform. Charles was able to answer in Japanese and tell them that, “I am not here to harm you or punish you. I work with General MacArthur and we are trying to change Japan back to a peaceful country.”  His kindness brought new acceptance from Japanese residents.

Charles began being assigned to meetings, due to his bilingual abilities. When his discharge date came near, he was asked to reenlist or to join civil service. He stayed in Japan working in civil service for the continued war recovery.

Charles married his wife Hisako (who took the name Jeanne) in Japan, after a bill allowing marriages between American servicemen and Japanese women was passed. The bill offered a short window for the marriage to take place. Charles and Jeanne relocated to the United States in 1948 and traveled back to Indio. Jeanne took multiple English classes, learned to drive, and worked to learn the American way of life. Charles and Jeanne had five children. Jeanne died in 2013, after 66 years of marriage.

Charles still lives in Indio. He makes frequent visits to his children and their families. He shares his story of internment and military service around the country through school and special event presentations.

The Military Intelligence Service, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were honored in 2010. President Barack Obama signed a bill granting these military forces the Congressional Gold Medal, commemorating their service to the United States.

Charles Shibata regularly visits Arizona. To contact his family and request that he speak at an event, email Kim at