AJA Veteran – “A Life Lived Well”

AJA Veteran – “A Life Lived Well”

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Centenarian Dr. Seiya Ohata enjoying a cup of coffee at the Wendy’s in Kahului recently. (Photo by Colleen Uechi)

Dr. Seiya Ohata Has Been a Good Son, a Good Doctor, a Good Veteran

Colleen Uechi
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

A 1943 photo of Dr. Ohata at Fort Sam Houston in Texas after being accepted into the U.S. Army Medical Corps. (Photo courtesy the Ohata family)

As Seiichi Ohata and his family enjoyed Sunday morning breakfast at their home in the sugar plantation town of Pä‘ia, little did they know that Japanese planes had just decimated the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet home-based at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu. With that, America was drawn into World War II.

“Before he could even finish his meal, the police were at the doorstep,” recalled Dr. Seiya Ohata of his father. The elder Ohata was dragged off to the Wailuku prison and, over the course of the next few years, sent to military jails throughout the continental U.S.

It was the beginning of a tumultuous period that would separate the Ohata family — father in jail, mother on Maui, a brother in the Japanese army and Seiya Ohata serving in the European theater. Ohata would spend the war fighting for America, and the years after that, fighting for his land and his father.

Maui to Missouri

Ohata recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Sharp as ever, the retired physician sips a cup of coffee in the Kahului Wendy’s as he pulls up decades-old details — the height and weight of his college roommate, the hours he worked as a telephone switchboard operator, his monthly salary as a medical intern in the 1940s.

Born in Lahaina on June 7, 1917, Ohata’s earliest memories go back to a “carefree” childhood spent on the north shore of Maui, where he grew up with his seven brothers and sisters.

“Nothing to worry about,” he recalled. “We’d get up in the morning during the summer months. We didn’t have any clothes. We just jumped into our swimming trunks and went straight to the beach.”

Ohata’s father, Seiichi, a physician, hailed from Shizuoka, Japan, while his mother, Hisa Nishio, was a college teacher from Kyöto. The couple married in Japan and moved to O‘ahu in 1912 to fill a need for Japanese-speaking doctors for Hawai‘i’s immigrant population.

In 1922, after the family settled on Maui, Ohata’s father purchased about two acres of land in Pä‘ia to build a hospital.

Ohata graduated from the old Maui High in Hämäkuapoko in 1935 and then ventured across the Pacific Ocean to attend college at the University of Dayton in Ohio in 1939. He was a student at the St. Louis School of Medicine in Missouri when the war broke out. Ohata said he learned of his father’s fate from his sister.

As a doctor in a small plantation community, Ohata’s father naturally became a leader. As president of the Maui Japanese Community Association, he entertained visiting dignitaries from Japan. For this reason he was arrested and shuttled between military jails in California, Kansas and Montana before finally being sent to Japan.

“It was rough for us because he was our sole provider,” said Ohata, who picked up a night shift job as a telephone switchboard operator. “We all had to go to work to finish school.”

As a Nisei in Missouri, Ohata said he “was scared to death” of retaliatory attacks because of his Asian face. He told people he was Filipino and wouldn’t leave home unless it was absolutely necessary. Fortunately for him, his roommate was a hulking 6-foot-2-inch, 275-pound football player named David Dwight Oaks, whose father, likewise, was a doctor. Oaks and Ohata became fast friends, and Oaks made sure no one bothered Ohata when they were out.

After graduating from medical school in 1943, Ohata found even greater protection when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

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Dr. Ohata in Chicago in 1945 prior to returning to his home island of Maui, where he chose to live out his life. (Photo courtesy the Ohata family)

Dr. Ohata in Chicago in 1945 prior to returning to his home island of Maui, where he chose to live out his life. (Photo courtesy the Ohata family)

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