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Remembering a Japanese-American Judge Advocate: Colonel Walter Tsukamoto

  • Published
  • By Col Derek K. Hirohata
  • Staff Judge Advocate
No one who studies American history would argue that our successes have come without facing significant challenges and learning expensive lessons rooted in the oppression of some of our most patriotic people. In fact, one of America's greatest strengths is our ability to recognize challenges, acknowledge institutional mistakes, and persevere in even the most difficult of times. History also teaches us that some of the most inspirational examples of the American spirit come from those individuals who blazed the trail for understanding and change despite insurmountable odds. One of these American patriots was Col Walter Tsukamoto.

On 29 July 1937, Walter Tsukamoto, a Japanese-American, was appointed as a judge advocate in the Judge Advocate General's Department of the United States Army. His challenge came on the heels of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, when thousands of Japanese Americans were involuntary relocated to camps. Born in Molokai, Hawaii, in 1904, Col Tsukamoto was raised and educated in Hawaii and California. After graduating from high school, he entered the University of California, Berkeley, where he served for four years in ROTC and became a cadet-Major just prior to graduation. He received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army in 1926. He then attended UC Berkeley's prestigious Boalt Law School. He passed the California bar and then was subsequently appointed as a judge advocate in the Reserve Officers Training Reserve Corps.

Col Tsukamoto ran a thriving law practice in northern California and served his country in the Army Reserves, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the course of his life. The attack ultimately forced Col Tsukamoto to close his law office and his family was interned in relocation camps. Despite these great difficulties, Col Tsukamoto immediately requested to be placed on active duty. His request was denied four times. Finally, his perseverance paid off and he received a telegram on 3 March 1943 to report for a physical and on 5 March, he was placed on active duty. During World War II, Col Tsukamoto served as a Legal Assistance Officer and Trial Judge Advocate.

Rising to the rank of Colonel, Col Tsukamoto continued to serve his country as a judge advocate at the Presidio in San Francisco, in post-WWII Japan at General MacArthur's Headquarters in Tokyo, in Korea during the Korean War, and, finally, in Heidelberg, Germany. He died on active duty of natural causes in 1961 in Germany having been awarded the Bronze Star twice during his illustrious career.

May is recognized as Asian-Pacific American Heritage month -- a special time we recognize and celebrate the strong contributions made by Americans with Asian and Pacific Island heritage. Col Tsukamoto's story is an amazing part of that heritage. Despite losing his business and his family being forced to live in a relocation camp, Col Tsukamoto's greatest desire was to serve his county in the profession of arms. Col Tsukamoto is an example of service personified and demonstrates why he will forever be remembered as an American Patriot.