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Theodore Kanamine dies; Japanese-American prison camp survivor who became an Army general

At age 12, Theodore Kanamine’s life changed dramatically.

By order of the United States, Kanamine and his family hastily packed up their North Hollywood home and were taken by bus to a prison camp in Arkansas.

Kanamine no longer saw Walt Disney showing unfinished cartoons to local children in his studio. Instead, barbed wire decorated the perimeter and watchtowers kept a close watch on the prisoners. Still, Kanamine adjusted to his new life.

Although the family was among the 20,000 people of Japanese descent the US imprisoned during World War II, Kanamine was unfazed by one of the darkest chapters in US history.

“Their belief was that they were put in the internment camp because the United States was a scared country,” said their daughter Laura Rutizer. “I didn’t know what to do, so I was just reacting like a scared country would.”

In fact, Kanamine gravitated toward military service after his release and became a highly decorated general: the US Army’s first active duty Japanese-American general, according to the US Army spokeswoman, Heather J. Hagan.

“In the path of his many unrecognized high-impact feats, General Kanamine’s rich and valuable military service was replete with key MP assignments in both peacetime and wartime,” shared the US Army Military Police Corps. in your Facebook page. “His remarkable career in the military was followed by a successful second career as a driving force on numerous civilian community advisory boards and councils.”

After decades of service to his country and community, Kanamine died of cancer March 2 at his Florida home, his daughter, Linda Kanamine, said. She was 93.

Theodore Kanamine photographed in September 2022.

(Courtesy of Linda Kanamine)

In the late 1940s, Kanamine earned his law degree from the University of Nebraska, but quickly realized that he could not see himself as a lawyer.

“The typical course would be to be a lawyer in the military,” Rutizer said. “Well, he didn’t want to do that because he wanted to be with the troops. He wanted to be on the ground and in the action.”

Kanamine served in the Naval Reserves and eventually left Nebraska to serve as a second lieutenant in the US Army Military Police Corps. He was later stationed in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, marking the first of many transfers with his family throughout his career.

Kanamine thrived in the military. He led the investigation into the My Lai Massacre, where hundreds of Vietnamese were raped and killed by American soldiers. He also researched the toxic chemical Agent Orange when he was stationed at the Pentagon. In 1976, the Army promoted him to brigadier general.

One of the highlights of his career was commanding the 716 Military Police Battalion to protect Saigon during the Vietnam War.

“What I remember about the Vietnam War, especially when I was assigned to a big city, was that during the day I was happy and busy. … At night, it was quiet and dark and creepy,” Kanamine recalled in a family book given to her on his 80th birthday.

Even in love, Kanamine followed her own course at a time when prejudice permeated everyday life. He met his future wife, Mary Stuben, while she was working in the pool at the Omaha Field Club one summer vacation. The couple, one Japanese and the other German, were secretly dating. They were married in 1954 in Iowa because Nebraska law prohibited interracial marriage.

Stuben’s parents were “not in favor of interracial,” Kanamine recalled. “We had to sneak out from time to time” with the help of his friends.

In 1981, Kanamine retired from active duty. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal as a retirement award. Years later, the Military Police Corps inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

Despite all the praise, Kanamine remained grounded and refused the praise.

“My awards and citations were for various tasks associated with my numerous assignments,” he wrote in Discover Nikkei, a website documenting the history of Japanese ancestry. “I just did what was necessary to the best of my ability.”

Even in retirement, Kanamine continued to serve his community. He volunteered at Holy Family Catholic Church in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he led the men’s club and other groups.

He also made time to swim almost every day. Kanamine first fell in love with the sport in his formative years, when he served as captain of his high school team and then joined the varsity team in college.

Kanamine continued his world travels and once bowled 12 strikes in a row, the perfect game. He also threw out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies game in 2005.

Despite life’s challenges, Kanamine found solace in family and friends.

“Life is not always ‘peach and cream,'” he wrote in Discover Nikkei. “Home and country must be protected. Have the self-discipline to know what is right and develop the skills necessary to do any task to the best of your ability.”

Kanamine is survived by his wife, five children, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.