[EdNote: COL Walter Tsukamoto was one of the early pioneers of JACL.  In the 1930's he was the pro bono Executive Secretary, traveling nationally to resolve civil rights issues.  When WW II broke out Tsukamoto encouraged Japanese Americans to volunteer to support the war effort.  COL Tsukamoto’s daughter, Dorie, and her husband, retired Judge Charles Kobayashi, JAVA life member, reside in Sacramento..] 


Remembering a Japanese-American Judge Advocate: Colonel Walter Tsukamoto


         This is Asian American Month-where we celebrate the diversity of America, and what brings us together as Americans. No one who studies history would say that the history of America is without blemishes, but the beauty and strength of America is recognizing and learning from those mistakes of prejudice and growing stronger because of seeing beyond a person's physical appearance. 

         One of the blemishes in American History is the involuntary relocation of thousands of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the segregation of those Japanese Americans who wanted to serve.  However, out of that dark time, arose stories of heroism and loyalty that are now part of the mosaic of what is America and illustrates the true beauty of what we aspire to as Americans.  In recognition of the heroism and dedication of the soldiers of the segregated "Nisei" (second generation Japanese Americans - slightly inaccurate because there were many Japanese Americans who served who were 3rd or even 4th Generation Americans), congress passed and the President signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd Combat Regimental Team, 100th Infantry Battalion, and Military Intelligence service. The 442nd would became the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients. The motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was "go for broke."

         Now, to bring this home to the JAG family, I can think of no more appropriate story for Asian American month then the first Japanese-American Judge Advocate of the United States Military.

         Imagine, you are an American.  You were born an American.

You are educated in America, in fact, you were an overachiever in High School.  After graduating from high school, you entered UC at Berkeley, where you served 4 years with the University of California ROTC and became a cadet Major just prior to graduation. Imagine how proud you are to earn the gold bars of a 2nd Lt in the United States Army. Then imagine that you are admitted to the UC Boalt Law School. Upon graduation from law school three years later, while maintaining your reserve commission, you passed the
California Bar.

In many cases, this would not take any imagination at all, this is the story of many of us in the JAG corps.

     Then imagine a sneak attack on the country you are sworn to defend, you hear the call of duty and step up.  Again, not an unusual story for us.  However, imagine volunteering, but despite staying active with your reserve commission for years, your loyalty is called into question. You request to become an activated United States Army Reserve Officer and be placed on active duty, but the US Army refuses your request, not once but FOUR times.

         Would you still try? Walter Tsukamoto did, and FINALLY after four rejections, he received a letter dated February 10, 1943 from the War Department that informed him that his request for activation was being considered in Washington, DC. Then on March 3, 1943, a telegram arrives from the War Department to report for a physical.

         Finally on March 5, he was placed on active duty and ordered to report to the University of Michigan for training. This is the story of COL Walter Tsukamoto, United States Army, Judge Advocate.

The first Japanese American Army Judge Advocate, an incredible trail blazer, but his story is not over.

         On May 31, 1943 Walter was assigned to MIS Language School and on June 5 was appointed as Legal Assistance Officer. On August 23 he was appointed also as Trial Judge Advocate at Fort Snelling. During most of the World War II, Walter was stationed at Camp Savage. At the end of the war, Tsukamoto decided to remain on active duty rather than resume a law practice and was transferred to the Presidio of San Francisco and shortly thereafter to General MacArthur's Headquarters in Tokyo. When the Korean conflict
erupted, the army assigned Tsukamoto to preside over several cases in Korea where the battles were being waged, literally in close proximity to his location, so much so that on several occasions he was in the line of fire of Communist snipers, all of which culminated in the award of the Bronze Star at the age of 47.

         Then in 1952 Major Tsukamoto was reassigned to the Presidio of San Francisco until June, 1955, when he (a Lieutenant Colonel by then) was transferred to Europe to assume the position of the Chief of the USAREUR Judge Advocate Military Affairs Branch at Heidelberg, Germany. In February 1957 the US Army informed Lt. Colonel Tsukamoto that he would have to be terminated from service because of his age, however, because of his expertise in military law, acquired over the years and because of his well deserved reputation for his legal skills and knowledge, he was encouraged to apply for an exemption from the termination policy. He did and remained on active service.

     History confirms that decision was a good one, in December 1957, General George Hickman, the Judge Advocate himself, selected nine of the best senior Judge Advocate General officers to become permanent law officers for general court martial to assume the role of "the counterpart of an autonomous Federal Judge." Lt. Colonel Walter Tsukamoto was one of those selected and added another trail blazing accomplishment to his career.

     In October 1960, Lt. Col. Tsukamoto was promoted to the rank of full Colonel, a promotion which was recognized by his colleagues as having been long overdue. Making him the first Japanese-American JAG Colonel in US History and the most senior.

     Unfortunately, Walter Tsukamoto died in Heidelberg, Germany a little over a year later due to a heart attack and was buried at the Presidio of San Francisco Military Cemetery with full military honors.

He also received the highest award given to any Judge Advocate officer at that time, the Legion of Merit, posthumously presented by the Office of the President of the United States.

   Now, I started this piece telling the story of the first Japanese-American Judge Advocate, but really, it is more appropriate to end this by saying that this is a story of an American. Major General Jacob Devers who led the allied invasion into southern France, said of these early Nisei soldiers, 442 CRT/100 IB, "There is one supreme, final test of loyalty for one's native land -- a readiness and willingness to fight for and, if need be, to die for one's country. These Americans passed that test with colors flying. They've proved their loyalty and devotion beyond all question. These men more than earned the right to be called just Americans. Their Americanism may be described only by degree, and that is the highest."
Yes, this is a story of an American, just an American and when all is said and done, that is the beauty of America.

Legal Advisor,
Office of the Defense Representative - Pakistan