It was 1939 and Canada had declared war. Minoru Yatabe remembers Latin class at that moment. His teacher, Ms. Crawford, gathered the boys in her class. She explained she would be forced to return to Glasgow, Scotland, to take care of her elderly parents.
“I know many of you boys are going to come overseas in uniform,” she had said, “so if you ever get to Glasgow, come and see me.”
Ms. Crawford then shook hands with each boy and wished them luck. For most of her students, Ms. Crawford was right. They would be called upon or volunteer to serve within a year or two.
However, for Minoru Yatabe, a second generation Japanese Canadian who later became a member of the Todmorden Royal Canadian Legion branch, enlistment would be delayed. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese Canadians were declared enemy aliens by their own government. They were sent to labour camps and interned. Yatabe was forced from his Vancouver home and sent to work on a farm in Ontario.
It wasn’t until January 1945 when Japanese Canadians were allowed to enlist. Nevertheless, the day they opened the doors to him, Yatabe waited in line to join the Canadian Army. For him, holding a grudge was short-sighted.
“We’re suffering now but looking at it from a long term point of view, this is our home,” He would go on to become a sergeant in Canada’s intelligence core. After Japan’s surrender, he was sent to northern Thailand to interrogate POWs of the Japanese 15th Area Army. His job was to weed out any soldiers who had committed atrocities during the construction of the Burma-Siam railway.
Yatabe, now 93, recalled the day his commanding officer asked him to interrogate an entire Japanese company at a nearby railway siding.
“Take the jeep,” his superior told him. “You have your revolver and take the sub-machine gun.”
“By myself?” Yatabe recalled asking.
When Sgt. Yatabe arrived and faced the enemy soldiers, the major in charge saluted him and explained the Japanese troops awaited his inspection.
“So, I stood on the jeep and the company, almost 80 of them, saluted me,” Yatabe said. “I never expected anything like that.”
After the war, in 1946, Minoru Yatabe was stationed in Yorkshire, England. It had been seven years since that handshake with Ms. Crawford, but he hadn’t forgotten her.
“She had strengthened my desire to join up,” Yatabe said. “I went up and met her, and she was so happy to see me. I was one of the very few that contacted her and I was one of the only ones who spent the day with her. She was so good to me.”