U.S. diver's family overcame WWII struggle

Posted: Monday, June 14, 2004

ST. PETERS, Mo. Gary Hirai has never been to Japan. He doesn't speak Japanese. He nicknamed his daughter ''Kimiko,'' but has no idea what it means in the language of his ancestral land.

Hirai is an American through and through, proudly sending off his child to represent the United States at the Olympic Games.

''It all fits together perfectly, as far as I'm concerned,'' said Hirai, whose daughter, Kimiko Soldati, won a spot on the U.S. diving team at trials in suburban St. Louis.

There's no bitterness about where his life began. Hirai was born in February 1945 while his family was locked up in an Idaho internment camp, their freedom snatched away simply because of their Japanese heritage.

It didn't matter that Hirai's parents were born in this country, loyal Americans living in Seattle when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and lured their country into World War II.

Like thousands of other Japanese-Americans, Hirai's parents were uprooted from their home and sent off to a de facto prison, considered a threat to national security simply because of their family tree.


Kimiko Soldati, left, of Magnolia, Texas, and Laura Wilkinson, of Spring, Texas, dive in the preliminary round of the women's synchronized platform diving at the 2004 Olympic Team Trials, Wednesday, June 9, 2004 in St. Peters, Mo.

AP Photo/Tom Gannam

''How do you think that would make you feel?'' said Hirai's 89-year-old mother, Mae. ''I really don't even like to think about it. We just had to take it. But we went through a lot of suffering.''

The family had a car and had just bought a home when word came that they had to ''evacuate'' by a certain date. They were basically allowed to take the clothes they could carry nothing else.

''We had to leave everything just the way it was,'' Mae Hirai remembered Sunday. ''I even left the doilies on our table tops.''

The family hastily sold their home and car at a loss and boarded a train for a relocation camp in California. In all, they spent three years in confinement, most of it at a camp in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Mae's husband was allowed out to work in a nearby sawmill, earning $16 a month. The rest of his family lived behind a fence, confined to one small room in a barracks, sharing meals and bathroom facilities with their fellow detainees.

''It was really monotonous,'' Mae said. ''There wasn't much to do.''

The family was released shortly before the war ended in 1945, having gone through their entire savings during the ordeal. They remained in Idaho and got to work rebuilding their life.

Gary, who spent only two months in confinement, said his parents never talked much about the past. They didn't want to pass along any bitterness to their four children.

''They wanted us to be so ingrained with being Americans,'' he said.

Gary calls his a typical American life. He grew up in the tiny Idaho town of Cascade, graduating in a high school class that numbered a dozen. He went to college, graduating with a degree in physical therapy. He got a job in Colorado, married, raised two kids.

In a nod to his family history, Hirai did a college paper on America's policy toward citizens of Japanese descent during the war.

''I wanted to learn a little bit more about it,'' he said. ''Maybe there's some people who aren't event aware of what happened. That bothers me some, that people don't know our history. But that's about it.''

Hirai's daughter, whose actual name is Kimberly Mae, will be competing in the Olympics for the first time, an amazing story in her own right. At 30, Soldati was the oldest diver at the trials, a former gymnast who didn't start diving seriously until she went to college.

As a teenager, she had to deal with the death of her mother, Judy, who lost a lengthy battle with breast cancer at age 43. Soldati now wears her mother's wedding ring when she competes.

Also, her athletic career has been plagued by injuries, requiring four shoulder surgeries and two knee operations. She persevered, finally winning a long-sought Olympic berth on the 3-meter springboard.

Soldati's family rooted her on at the St. Peters Rec-Plex, wearing T-shirts with ''Kimiko'' written on the front, ''USA Diving'' on the back.

''I'm proud of my heritage and proud of my family,'' Soldati said. ''I have a whole crowd of Japanese cheering for me, and it's awesome. My family is extremely important to me.''

Growing up, she constantly asked questions about her family's background. Her father didn't hide the details, but never showed any signs of animosity.

''It's always there,'' Hirai said. ''It's just an underlying thing.''

In 2001, Soldati got a chance to return to the land of her forefathers, representing the United States at the world championships in Japan.

''She had a great time,'' Hirai recalled. ''They let her carry the flag (at the opening ceremonies). It was neat experience for her.''

Hirai feels the same way now. In just one generation, his family has gone from prisoners to Olympians.

''How can I complain?'' Hirai said. ''I've had a great life. Good schooling. Great kids. You're not going to get any complaints from me, especially now.''

His mother sat in the stands, a strand of red and blue stars resting atop her white hair.

Asked what it meant to have a granddaughter representing the country that once locked her up, tears formed in her eyes.

''I can't even tell you what this means,'' she said. ''I'm so proud.''

An American through and through.

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