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Veteran Profiles

Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.

KENNY K. HIRATA ★ U.S. ARMY ★ KOREAN WAR

Len Sherwinski, Honor Flight Chicago Veteran Interview Chairman
(Flight Date: 04/12/2017)

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(Lowell, IN ) Kenny will never forget the day his family was told to gather up what they could carry and report to the fairgrounds near Stockton, CA.  Beginning at the age of thirteen, his experiences of this would give anyone the right to be bitter. When asked how his father reacted to losing his tomato farm and all the equipment he owned, Kenny does not hesitate to share his feelings. He remembers the lesson of loyalty he learned from the words of his Dad who said, “I understand the US government is looking out for all people in the USA and I accept it.” His father, like many others, was an American of Japanese descent but he was an American first.

Kenny’s story is interesting by itself, however, when you consider that his wife Chiyo’s family suffered an identical fate you realize what a different set of values was instilled in both by their parents. No bitterness but loyalty. This loyalty was challenged once again as Kenny, just five years later in 1946, at the age of 18 was drafted. He was ready to go and prove his loyalty to the United States once again. He did receive a deferment long enough to finish high school and by that time the draft was ended for WWII. He was drafted a second time in 1950 for the Korean War and entered the Army, but not before marrying Chiyo. Was it for love or for the extra money he would receive as a married service man. They have been married for 67 years, so it had to be love!

Kenny and Chiyo were in different internment camps but both shared recollections that will surprise you. As young teens, they each found that they enjoyed the experience of being with other children of Japanese descent.  They played outside with a very strict curfew at night. Typical teenage life! Kenny explains that the camps were designed to be self-sufficient, so whatever skill one had was used at the camps. Chiyo’ s father was a chef, both of their mothers contributed by sewing and of course his father’s farming skills helped in producing food. Conditions in the camp existed of separate quarters for married vs single individuals. As a family, they were given a larger area to live in, a 12x16 room for five people!  
 
Kenny recalls family members who served in the 442nd infantry regiment of the Army. This unit was considered the most decorated unit during WWII and was a fighting unit composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry.   

When their internment was over, each person was given $50 and a “free” ride to a city they “selected” from a list provided by the government. Kenny’s sisters had already selected Cleveland, OH and by chance Chiyo’ s family did as well. They met there while attending a social function designed for Japanese Americans. It wasn’t love at first site.  Kenny had to work hard to beat out a young man Chiyo was dating, one that Kenny worked with at the garage. During this time, Kenny also developed his love of fast cars and drag racing. Later in life he would be inducted into the Hot Rod Racing Hall of Fame.

HirataK170412IMG02When Kenny entered the Army, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne 994th Infantry group of the 2nd Army. His skills as a mechanic were used when he was assigned to the Engineering Maintenance Group in Korea. Before you start to think this was relatively safe duty for a combat zone, Kenny explains that they were assigned to fix generators, bridges and other equipment in support of the front line. Many times, they were in front of the front line! Fortunately, their commanding officer was smart enough to have the mortar rounds hit 100 yards away from them so they had time to evacuate before the heavy shelling started. Kenny recalls his commander telling them that “no generator was worth losing your life for”.

When Kenny returned from the service, he was pleasantly surprised to find that Chiyo had saved all the marriage allotment received from the service. He immediately went out and bought a 1950 Victoria, sealing their fate as forever being involved with cars and auto racing. It was about this time that Kenny was encouraged by a fellow Army buddy to move to Lowell, IN. Kenny and Chiyo were once again on the move but this time it worked out to be their last. Kenny & Chiyo opened Hirata’s Lowell Body shop and have run a successful business there for over 60 years.

Although proud of his service in Korea, the biggest smile on Kenny’s face is when he is talking about cars (sorry Chiyo). He shares one more story of cars when he talks about working hard to save for his first car a 1942 Mercury convertible. His Dad told him he would match whatever Kenny saved to help purchase the vehicle. Kenny saved $700 and when it came time to buy the car his Dad paid for the whole car. Kenny took the extra money he now had and, what else, he purchased auto parts for his new car.

Kenny was very proud to show me the 1932 roadster he plans to restore but as with any good business man, Kenny is loyal to his customers and their cars come first. Kenny’s roadster has a long way to go to becoming the car he had in his early twenties.    
Enjoy your Honor Flight Mr. Hirata! It is well deserved and our way of thanking you for your loyalty to your country.

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