The remarkable life of Jimmy Doi, Japanese American prisoner, patriot

97-year-old WWII veteran Jimmy Doi, a Japanese American who was first put in the intern camps, then drafted to fight against the Germans and Italians, shows off his Order National de la Legion D'Honnneur during an interview at his Decatur home. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Combined ShapeCaption
97-year-old WWII veteran Jimmy Doi, a Japanese American who was first put in the intern camps, then drafted to fight against the Germans and Italians, shows off his Order National de la Legion D'Honnneur during an interview at his Decatur home. (Bob Andres for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

Interned during WWII, he served twice in the Army.

Jimmy Doi was just about to tear into a rack of ribs at the Hickory House when a middle-aged couple from Tucker approached his table.

They eyed his shirt, bearing the hand-and-torch insignia of the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the legend “70th Anniversary Tour of Italy.”

“I just want to thank you for your service,” said the man. “My father also served in Italy.” Doi graciously accepted their thanks, then, with an appetite unusual for a man of 97, returned to his ribs and Brunswick stew.

When he stops in at Hickory House or Sushi Avenue or McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken, Doi is often thanked, especially when he wears his World War II veterans gear. Other patrons at these restaurants sometimes pay his bill before he can pull out his wallet.

But nobody was thanking Doi back in 1942, when the U.S. government began putting 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. The teenaged Doi was sent to the Gila River War Relocation Center, in Arizona, where temperatures regularly topped 115 degrees.

The historic arc that took skinny Jimmy Doi from being a prison camp detainee to becoming a member of the highly-decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, cheating death all along the way, is truly cinematic.

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After Jimmy Doi served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he re-enlisted, hoping to be sent to Japan where he could find his parents. Photo: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

After Jimmy Doi served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he re-enlisted, hoping to be sent to Japan where he could find his parents. Photo: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

Combined ShapeCaption
After Jimmy Doi served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, he re-enlisted, hoping to be sent to Japan where he could find his parents. Photo: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

In fact, a pair of composers, Roydon Tse and Marcus Yi, turned that story into a short opera, “Shikata Ga Nai,” commissioned and performed by the Atlanta Opera this summer during the company’s 96-hour Opera project.

You can find the opera online on the Atlanta Opera website.

See the opera here.

“Shikata ga nai,” literally “it cannot be helped,” is an unwritten Japanese philosophy and a national attitude which says, essentially, “suck it up.” If a problem can’t be solved, soldier on, and do what can be done.

Jimmy Doi did just that. He persevered through significant difficulties, and made his way to Georgia working as a chick sexer (more on that later). He and his wife Alice celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary this year. They have three successful children, a handful of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, a house in Decatur and a coffee table full of military medals.

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Jimmy and Alice Doi both grew up in California, where their parents became friends. Both were held in different internment camps; they married in 1952, after Jimmy returned from service. Photo: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

Jimmy and Alice Doi both grew up in California, where their parents became friends. Both were held in different internment camps; they married in 1952, after Jimmy returned from service. Photo: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

Combined ShapeCaption
Jimmy and Alice Doi both grew up in California, where their parents became friends. Both were held in different internment camps; they married in 1952, after Jimmy returned from service. Photo: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

Credit: Jimmy Doi

This month Doi was presented with the Legion of Honor by the nation of France during a ceremony in Las Vegas. Doi celebrated by sneaking out of his hotel room at 2 in the morning and winning $1,000 on a poker machine.

Roydon Tse, the composer of the opera, said he was inspired by Doi’s preternatural poise. During their interviews, Doi essentially said, “I came through the worst time in history, but it’s fine.”

Eloping

Doi’s saga begins with rebellion. His parents, from Hiroshima, rejected an arranged marriage that would have paired his mother with another groom. They crept away from the planned ceremony, hid in a shack until nightfall, made their way to Yokohama, then boarded what they thought was a ship to America.

Instead it took them to a forced labor camp in Veracruz, Mexico. They escaped, again, walked (according to Jimmy) to El Paso, then to Oxnard, California, where they had friends.

His parents had five children, did well in farming produce, and in 1939 decided to move back to Hiroshima. Jimmy and his brothers stayed behind: “We couldn’t speak Japanese,” he told oral historians at Kennesaw State University. “We were Americans.”

Internment

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were isolated. Jimmy ate lunch by himself every day at school. “They told the other kids not to talk to us,” he said.

Then, in 1942, he and his brother Dick Doi were sent to the Tulare Assembly Center, in the San Joaquin Valley, where interns were housed in horse stalls. “We were lucky to get a mattress,” he said. “Some people had to stuff hay inside a sack.”

From there they were transferred to the Gila River Relocation Center, which was located on Indian reservation land about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix.

About 13,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in Gila. Detainees would dig holes in the dirt under the barracks and brush away the scorpions and rattlesnakes to hunker down and avoid the midday heat.

Doi worked in the kitchen, washing dishes, six days a week, for $8 a month, and played shortstop and second base on the high school baseball team. His team was “awful,” he said, but they had fun playing against “Caucasian” teams in the area. The highlight of those bus trips was when they’d stop at Sears Roebuck and he’d buy Glenn Miller records and a Coca-Cola.

At age 18 he was drafted.

The Army

Training at Camp Blanding, near Starcke, Florida, Doi waded through snake-infested swamps. He became part of the 442nd, which was composed almost entirely of Japanese Americans and became known as the most decorated unit in U.S. military history, for its size and length of service.

The 442nd played a significant role in breaking through the Gothic Line in northern Italy; Doi’s brother Michael was part of Company A, which participated in the legendary rescue of the Texas Battalion in October 1944, taking heavy casualties. “They wanted to prove what good Americans they were,” said Michael’s daughter, Janice “Sam” Sears, who lives in Cumming. “They loved their country.”

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Janice "Sam" Sears holds a photo of her father, Michael Doi, who was among the Japanese American soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Photo: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

Janice "Sam" Sears holds a photo of her father, Michael Doi, who was among the Japanese American soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Photo: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

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Janice "Sam" Sears holds a photo of her father, Michael Doi, who was among the Japanese American soldiers who fought in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Photo: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

Credit: Bo Emerson

Jimmy Doi was stationed in France by that time, and heard, inaccurately, that his brother was among the casualties. Hitchhiking to Nice, he was lounging outside a perfume shop, when he saw a familiar figure coming down the street toward him. It was Michael.

“Hey, I thought you were dead!” he told his brother.

“Hey!” said Michael. “Can you loan me some money?”

Among his exploits with G Company, Jimmy Doi accepted the surrender of a group of German soldiers holed up in a Roman-era fort in the mountains of northern Italy.

He also helped evacuate a wounded soldier off a snowy peak in those same mountains, carrying him down on a stretcher at night, while the enemy tracked their flashlight and fired artillery shells. “He did help save a man’s life,” said Chris Sketchley, who created a museum dedicated to the 442nd in Seattle. “I really admire these guys.”

After his tour was up, Doi re-enlisted, hoping to be sent to Japan to check on his parents, who he hadn’t heard from in six years. He made his way to Kaita, in the Hiroshima prefecture, and saw his father raking the yard. “Hi Pop!” he called out, and his father rushed to embrace him, something that he had rarely done before. Both parents and his grandmother had survived the atomic bomb; his grandmother was outside the house at the time of the explosion, and her umbrella burst into flames, but she was unhurt.

Civilian life

Back in the U.S. Doi met and married Alice (their fathers were friends) and found work as a chick sexer, determining whether newborn chicks were male or female.

He could make that distinction fast, sexing up to 1,200 chicks an hour, or two every second. The work brought him to Georgia, and he and Alice built a house in a new subdivision off Rainbow Drive.

The 442nd staged reunions in Las Vegas and Hawaii almost every year, and it was Doi’s greatest joy to attend and see his Army buddies, who like him, had survived imprisonment, war and discrimination and found success.

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Jimmy Doi (right) and his older brother Michael Doi (left) celebrate with a fellow member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (center) in 2010, when the 442nd was given the Congressional Gold Medal. Photo: Janice Sears

Credit: Janice Sears

Jimmy Doi (right) and his older brother Michael Doi (left) celebrate with a fellow member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (center) in 2010, when the 442nd was given the Congressional Gold Medal. Photo: Janice Sears

Credit: Janice Sears

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Jimmy Doi (right) and his older brother Michael Doi (left) celebrate with a fellow member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (center) in 2010, when the 442nd was given the Congressional Gold Medal. Photo: Janice Sears

Credit: Janice Sears

Credit: Janice Sears

In 2010 the group gathered in Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, and Jimmy attended with his brother Michael. Michael died in 2014. Now Jimmy is the only sibling left, and among the few left of the 442nd.

“He was one of the young ones,” said Sketchley of Doi. “Now there are only a handful.”

“You’ve been to many reunions,” said Alice, 91, one afternoon at their Decatur home, as she bustled through the house, finding chairs and beverages for visitors.

“But no more,” said Jimmy.