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It’s ‘Once a Don, Always a Don’ for 84-Year-Old Alumnus

World War II Japanese American internee fulfills his 66-year wish to graduate from Santa Barbara High.

Frank Fukuzawa may have had decades on his 550 fellow Santa Barbara High graduates Thursday but there was no hiding his pride in finally being able to experience commencement. (Barbara Keyani photo / Santa Barbara School District)

Michito Frank Fukuzawa, 84, isn’t one to dwell on sins of the past.

Fukuzawa, who goes by his middle name, Frank, doesn’t hold it against the United States that he and his family were carted off to an internment camp two months before his graduation from Santa Barbara High School in 1942.

He’s not bitter about the fact that, even after his stint at the camp in Gila River, Ariz., he was drafted to fight in World War II, where he witnessed heavy combat in France and Italy.

Fukazawa’s only request has been modest: to someday take part in the American rite of passage that for most people kicks off adulthood — the high school graduation ceremony.

For him, someday turned out to be Thursday. At 3 p.m., 66 years after attending Santa Barbara High, the cap-and-gown clad octogenarian blended with about 550 other graduating seniors on the grass field of Peabody Stadium, becoming a breathing emblem of the school’s motto: “Once a Don, Always a Don.”

Frank Fukuzawa cut a dashing figure in his 1942 Santa Barbara High yearbook photo. (Santa Barbara High School photo)

Back in 1942, Fukuzawa’s family learned of their orders to leave town through signs posted on various streetlights in Santa Barbara calling on people of Japanese descent to head to West Beach. There, they boarded a Greyhound bus and headed to Temecula, where they stayed for a few months while construction crews finished the larger camp in Arizona.

Before that ignominious day, however, Fukuzawa said he had always been treated well in Santa Barbara.

On Thursday, he received a warm homecoming, marching down the hill between his own son and Superintendent Brian Sarvis while the band played the school anthem. At one point, the rest of the graduating students initiated a rhythmic “clap clap!” in his honor that the rest of the crowd picked up on.

Fukuzawa’s father worked as a gardener at a large local estate and his mother was a homemaker. Before Fukuzawa was born, his father had lived in Orange County, but the farm work he was doing there dried up. On a whim, he decided to board a train for either San Diego or Santa Barbara.

“It was 5 cents cheaper to come to Santa Barbara, so he came here,” Fukuzawa said Thursday. Sitting in the hallway of his alma mater about an hour before the graduation ceremony, the Gardena resident and retired high school teacher from Los Angeles city schools looked somewhat bemused by the small pack of reporters, photographers and TV cameras surrounding him.

As now, the number of Japanese-Americans living in Santa Barbara during the 1930s and ‘40s was small: Fukuzawa one of six in his graduating class. Nonetheless, he led a fairly normal life before war hysteria turned his life upside down.

As a kid, Fukazawa joined the Boy Scouts, and as a high-schooler he served in student government and played football, basketball and baseball.

Then came Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was only after the historic attack on U.S. soil that Fukuzawa said he started feeling the sting of racism — the strange looks, the whispers. But even now he says he understands.

“If I were an American (of another race) I would have felt the same thing,” he said. “What the heck were they pulling?”

Still, his closest high school pals in Santa Barbara didn’t abandon him.

The day after the attack, a buddy named Mel pulled up to his house in a car.

Santa Barbara High’s Class of 2008 filled the field at Peabody Stadium on Thursday afternoon. (Nancy Shobe photo)

“He said, ‘I’m picking you up to see that nothing happens to you,” Fukuzawa recalled.

Even while Fukuzawa was at camp, close Santa Barbara friends continued to keep in touch.

Once, a young man he knew from Boy Scouts, Harold Bowman, was feeling celebratory after being accepted at Dartmouth. He sent Fukuzawa some money, but Fukazawa wrote back that he had no use for it.

“We don’t have a place where you can buy things, so I have no use for the money,” he said he wrote.

As for camp, Fukuzawa said it was what it was.

“Camp was camp,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s a Boy Scout camp, or an Army camp — you have certain regimentations, certain rules to follow, certain inconveniences. I didn’t think of it as a heavenly place, or that it was hell. It was just camp.”

The worst part about it was being separated from his father, who was shuttled off to another camp for first-generation Japanese immigrants. They reunited after the war.

While in camp, Fukuzawa was drafted to serve with the Army’s 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit. The “Go For Broke” regiment is recognized as being the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. Fukuzawa himself received three Bronze Battle Stars for action and a Bronze Star Medal for bravery, among other decorations.

After the war, he returned to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB, where he earned his teaching credential. From 1953 until his retirement in 1985, he taught special education for the physically challenged and graphic arts in Los Angeles public schools.

On Thursday, like many graduates, Fukuzawa came to the ceremony with plenty of family. Among them was his son, Leigh, 52, who said his father had never told him about being deprived of a graduation ceremony until recently.

The son said he has always been struck by his father’s forgiving attitude.

“If I was in that predicament I’d probably be pretty upset,” he said.

A senior officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Long Beach, Leigh Fukuzawa said his father has also been pretty mum when it comes to war stories. But he did tell him one.

Before Fukuzawa went to war, he was not religious. So he thought nothing of it when his mother said she’d pray for him. But one day, his battalion was psyching itself up to embark on a mission that was sure to be bloody. The soliders were to climb a hill mounted with machine gun-toting Germans.

Just before they started up, a heavy fog rolled in, allowing the battalion to take the hill with relative ease.

“He looks back at that and says, ‘I could tell grandma was praying for me,’” Leigh said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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