Paul Ohtaki, who grew up on Bainbridge Island and served as an internment camp reporter for the Review during World War II, passed away on April 27 at his home in San Francisco. He would have been 85 in August.
He was a quiet, soft spoken, gentle man, somewhat shy, humble and very bright. “An upright guy,” his childhood friend Shig Moritani would say.
My wife and I first met Ohtaki in 1996 in San Francisco. I liked Paul immediately. We spent the day reminiscing about the island. We almost missed our plane home, and we corresponded over the years.
Paul’s father was born in Nigata, Japan, and left Waseda University in Tokyo to seek the dream of America. Though life here was a struggle, he never returned to Japan. Paul described his parents as “educated non-farmers.” Paul had a brother (an executive with Northwest and Japan Airlines) and a sister. All are gone now.
The family lived on the north side of Shepard Way in a residence attached to the Japanese Community Hall in Winslow. Paul’s parents were caretakers of the hall and taught there, too.
Paul attended Bainbridge High and graduated in 1942 (while living in an internment camp), but in 1940 he was hired by Review editors, Walt and Milly Woodward, to do clean up work in their Pleasant Beach print shop.
“I wasn’t really that serious,” Paul said, “but every Friday, I would drive an old Model A truck there and clean up the shop. Walt called me ‘the clean up kid.’”
When the World War II internment order came, the Woodwards made sure uprooted island neighbors were not forgotten. Paul was sworn in as “camp correspondent” – the first of five reporting from Manzanar, Calif., and later from Minidoka, Idaho.
“Paul, you gotta report the news. When you go down (to California), I want you to send me a wire,” Ohtaki recalled Woodward saying. “(Woodward) made arrangements with one soldier, I’d give it to the soldier and the soldier would get it to the Associated Press and send it by wire. That’s how they got the first article.
“In the beginning, I didn’t feel Walt was a friend. (He was) a very honorable person, but I don’t think he intermingled and socialized with the Japanese. It might have started out that way.”
He quickly gained respect for Walt Woodward because of the stand he took for his island neighbors.
“There is only one other newspaper (other than the Review) that said the evacuation was wrong – The Orange County Register – a good paper! It had one, maybe a couple, editorials. But Walt not only wrote editorials, he kept camp reporters throughout the war.”
Paul could leave the camp to go east, but not west, so he turned his reporter job over to Tony Koura and went to Chicago to find work. He sought work as a printer in Chicago, not knowing he’d spend his life in the printing business. He turned to island acquaintances when his first employer sought references.
“I was using Walt Woodward’s name, (coach) Walter Miller and (our neighbors) the Cumles, as references. I never knew companies would write and ask them (about me). Years later, I wrote to the National Archives … and found copies of letters that Walt had written on my behalf. And from Miller and Mrs. Cumle, too!”
Koura eventually joined Paul in Chicago, but not before passing his Review job over to his sister, Sa (Nakata), a classmate of Paul’s.
“In Chicago I batched with Paul and others from Bainbridge and he introduced me to my first part-time job at the print shop. I have fond memories of good times in Chicago.”
Paul soon joined his friends in volunteering for military service. and was sent to Minnesota to military intelligence Japanese language school.
“Talk about a good school,” he said. “They taught us how to speak, read, write, normal and military history, Japanese psychology – getting us ready for the invasion of Japan.”
Ohtaki served in the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific and with occupation forces in Japan. He was modest and almost embarrassed to wear the label “intelligence service.” Paul would say, “The real heroes were guys like Mo Nakata and Art Koura, who fought with the 4-4-2 in Europe.”
(In February, Paul wrote me about a new book written by James C. McNaughton, “Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the MIS during World War II,” which he considered thorough and accurate.)
“I really feel that I want to go back (to Bainbridge),” Paul told me in 1996, “even if it’s symbolic, to say, ‘Thank you!’ to the old people, but most have passed away.”
He did return out of curiosity, briefly to see what his former community had become after a half-century. Unfortunately, “I just tore right through and only saw a few friends.” He returned again for the funeral of Walt Woodward, at which time Paul thanked many old friends at a reception.
“Our family were newcomers,” Paul said. “We received a lot of help from the Moritani, Nakata, Nakao and Sakuma families; other Japanese pioneers; the Grow brothers and their families, our neighbors the Cumles, Oaklands, Smiths, Olivers, Henshaws, Wyatts; and high school teachers, such as Miss Statira Biggs, Roy Dennis, “Pop” Miller, and Phil Rudl.”
Ohtaki continued: “Lavonne Oakland – she’s an Ericksen –when I was ready to be discharged from the service, said: ‘We have this room in the back of our shop. There’s nobody back there now. You can use it, commute and use your G.I. Bill to go to school and maybe work part time.’ Those are things that I wanted to tell. I tried to get the story read into the Congressional record.”
Paul had created a book on the island internment experience for the Bainbridge Island Museum.
Tony Joura adds: “He contributed his work for the first chapter of “In Good Conscience, Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment,” by the Kansha Project and Shizue Seigel. I’ll miss this modest, little giant of a man.”
His sister-in-law, Barbara (Setsuko) Ishikawa recalls: “Paul used to say that he was so proud of Bainbridge Island. We often thought he would move back there.”
He is here.
Paul is survived by his wife, Kitty. A public memorial will be held a 2 p.m. Sunday, May 18, at the Ashley & McMullen Mortuary, 4200 Geary Blvd., San Francisco. Remembrances are suggested to the Bainbridge Island Nikkei Memorial, PO Box 10355, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.
– Gerald Elfendahl is a local historian