Boomer Grandpa: A new country, a new name and undying pride
Sometimes remarkable experiences and stories are right before you.
My Aunt Linda lives in Modesto, Calif. She is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She is 85 years old.
I recently called Linda on the phone. She was surprised. She agreed to share her story with me.
She reflects that she has been very lucky. She has loved the United States of America. She remembers being accepted and loved. Her given name is not Linda, it is Hisako Kuge. She was born and raised in Japan.
Her childhood was difficult, as her mom contracted tuberculosis and spent eight years in a sanitorium. Linda — Hisako — was not allowed to visit her mother. She was 13 when her mom died. She told me she “never knew a mother’s love.”
Around that same time World War II ended and the American occupation of Japan began. Linda recalled that many American GIs were nice and generous.
Her father owned a moving company. As she grew up, her dad took her along with him on many jobs. This was a good memory.
‘Where did you find him?’
In 1952 Hisako was 19 years old and working on Tachikawa Air Base. The base was in the western part of Tokyo. American forces controlled the former Japanese air base.
Aunt Linda remembers that she noticed a particular Air Force GI around the base. Soon they were introduced. This guy was my uncle Vern; my mom’s baby brother.
I asked her what was special about my uncle. She told me in a reflective and loving voice, “I could tell that he was kind.” When they began dating Linda said her friends would ask her, “Where did you find him?”
Aunt Linda said they fell in love and soon decided to get married. They found out they would have to jump through a number of hoops to receive the OK.
Linda had to go through a background investigation. Authorities had to be satisfied that she was not a communist and that there was nothing in her history that was of concern to the U.S. government.
She was medically evaluated and they both had to meet with a chaplain. Approval was eventually given, but my aunt said a little wrench was thrown into the process. My uncle Vern was born in Canada, and even though he was an American soldier he was still a Canadian citizen.
Linda said it was all got worked out and they were married in 1952 at the American Embassy in Tokyo. Two GIs who were my uncle’s buddies were witnesses. Linda was 20 and my uncle Vern was 23.
It is estimated that during the occupation of Japan (1945-1952) more than 50,000 Japanese women came to America as brides of American military men.
Growing up, I never had a clue that my Aunt Linda had a different given name or what her story was. I did not see my Uncle Vern or Aunt Linda very often. When I did see them, I thought their relationship was extraordinary.
It had to be difficult for Linda to leave her home, her country and her family. Linda had five brothers and two sisters. She remembers that when she left for America, her father wept.
As a father of a daughter myself, I can only imagine his anguish and sadness. Over her lifetime, she told me she was able to fly home to Japan on six occasions. She wishes she could have gone home more.
Shortly after getting married, Linda and Vern sailed to America together on a Navy ship. She laughed when she told me they both were seasick most of the voyage. They arrived in Seattle, Wash., and Vern had one month of leave before he had to report to a base in New Jersey.
They bought a used car and drove cross-country, stopping in Kansas where his mom and dad lived. Linda remarked to me how she couldn’t believe how big our country was. She felt welcomed by Vern’s family and soon the two of them headed to New Jersey to begin their life together.
What’s in a name
She knew she had to change her name because people in America would have trouble pronouncing her name. She was fond of the name Linda because she liked American actresses Linda Darnell and Linda Christian. So Hisako Kuge became Linda Hisako Conger.
Linda immediately went to work to become an American citizen. After New Jersey they also lived in Kansas for a few years before they headed to California, where they raised their three boys.
There, a job awaited my uncle. My uncle was trained as a watchmaker and worked at this craft until his retirement.
Eventually Linda found herself doing seasonal work in a cannery. She would work there for 45 years. She loved working at the cannery but it closed this year. At 85 she still wants to go to work. Linda misses her co-workers and friends.
What courage and love my aunt must have had to leave Japan and come to America. Her bravery and devotion persisted. She has lived a good life.
She is still proud to be an American.
Dedication: This column is written in memory of my uncle Vern Conger, who left us on March 1, 2006.