A few thoughts on covering WWII veterans, and the use of the term, 'Japs'. / by Beth Nakamura



There’s something that occurs to me when I’m covering WWII veterans, but it usually doesn’t enter my mind until it’s almost too late. Call it the unintended consequences of making the (for me) complicated decision of changing my last name when I got married -- a name that turned, from that day forward, unmistakably Japanese. That I would from time to time wrestle with this change never entered my mind.

I’ve done stories on WWII veterans my entire professional life and, while it’s difficult – and dangerous – to characterize a group of people, whatever the group, I’ll go out on a limb and say WWII vets are, by and large, a lovely bunch: gracious, good humored and, in keeping with the “greatest generation” moniker, overwhelmingly humble.  Covering them as long as I have, I’ve developed a kind of attachment over the years. Watching as their numbers dwindle makes me sad – a natural consequence of affection, attachment, and the inevitable loss that comes with it.

Sitting with these men and hearing their stories – and what stories they contain! –invariably leads to tales of coming up against the enemy. When it happens, I’m always caught off guard: no wait-for-it bracing, no anticipatory resistance. Just the one word, which, once it starts, generally starts flying.


Let the internal machinations begin!

Did I say my last name when I introduced myself, I silently wonder? Maybe, given my appearance, they thought I said McNamara, not Nakamura. (This is a common mistake people make when meeting me, and understandable. I’m half Irish, with not a drop of Japanese in my blood.) What if they ask for my card? They’ll see my name. And then they’ll know. Avoid. Business. Cards.


I try to keep my journalistic relationships pretty clean; Introducing complicating and entirely unnecessary elements is something I’m loathe to do. The idea is to keep the stories flowing, not stop them up with speed bumps like, well, like my last name.

A few years ago, when I was just learning to tell stories using different tools, I made my first video.

In it, one man, WWII veteran Craig Marlette, spoke eloquently about his role in the fighting, and of how many people may have died as a direct result of his actions.  It’s a poignant, confessional moment and it happens quickly, :50 seconds into the video:


When I met Craig that morning, the first thing I did was introduce myself – first and last names – and give him my business card. I’ve often wondered, thinking back to that day, whether or not hearing my name had anything at all to do with the emotions that poured out of him that morning. I wince at the thought.

Meeting Craig and the other men of the USS Dunlap meant the world to me. I loved them – admittedly a Don Juan kind of love, simultaneously genuine and fleeting – and I loved every minute of telling their stories.

Same for some years prior, when I stood on Omaha Beach and watched in awe as men, whose stories of D-Day I knew intimately, stood in tears on the same shore they washed up on, seasick and terrified, fifty years prior. They hadn’t set foot on that beach since the day of the historic maneuver and likely never would again. Not one second of the experience was lost on me. I’ll never forget it.

I have also listened as my husband – a Japanese national who came to the United States to go to graduate school – shared stories of excruciating pain: being taunted by young men in rural Missouri uttering fake Chinese in his direction. Being told by a veteran, “I bombed your country. I’ll never let you take my picture.” (My husband, Motoya, is a photographer.)

I’m not sure if Wallace Doble, whose Pearl Harbor story I wrote this week, ever got wind of my last name. I introduced myself first name only that day, and set my business card on the table just as I was leaving.

I savored every moment I spent with him that day. 

Was I hiding? You could say that.

I prefer to think of it as getting out of the way of the story.