Sumie Sameshima was never one to complain, so her family could only guess how hard it was for her to follow her husband back to the U.S. from Japan in 1951 and raise three children in largely white states like Ohio and Michigan as her husband’s military career moved the family across the U.S. Her husband, Ko Sameshima, was American of Japanese descent. But at least he sounded American. Sumie not only had to learn the language; she had to learn a whole new culture and way of life—the culture of the country that was occupying her homeland following World War II. In fact, that was how Ko and Sumie had met. Between deployments to Korea during the war there, Ko was assigned to an Air Force Base near Tokyo where he worked for a unit that flew Mosquitos analyzing maps and guiding pilots where to bomb. Sumie worked for the BX, the Base Exchange store. Their wedding in 1951 was so low key that Ko’s friends didn’t even realize he’d married until they spotted the wedding photos being used as an advertisement for the photographer in a local storefront. Sumie was 22. It was a typically understated moment for the simply raised Japanese girl.
Sumie Otani was born in Fukushima, Japan on Aug. 24, 1929. Her father worked on the railroad and Sumie remembers very cold winters as a child, made fun by ice-skating. The family, including her two brothers and sister, spent much of World War II in Manchuria, China—a difficult time, Sumie recalls. Ko’s family also had a difficult time during the war. Ko was the oldest of three children and was a student at CalTech when the war broke out. His parents, who’d emigrated in the early 1920’s to California, and younger brother and sister were sent to a Japanese internment camp, dubbed Camp Amache, near Grenada, Colorado. Ko got an educational deferment and ended up at the University of Texas. He graduated in June 1944. Knowing he’d likely get drafted, in the interim he joined his family at Camp Amache, teaching kids in the camp Spanish. As predicted, Ko was drafted in December 1944, though as an American of Japanese descent he was banned from becoming a pilot. Ironically, though, Ko found he liked the military. Receiving a field officer’s commission he rose through the ranks. By the time he married Sumie he was a captain and he retired after 33 years of service as the first Japanese American to achieve the rank of colonel.
Ko liked that in the military everyone had the same rank, same chance of advancing. There was no racism, and soldiers—and their families—who’d lived abroad, were more open-minded than many civilians. Perhaps this made things easier for simple Sumie, who’d blossomed into a woman who loved to get dressed up and go out dancing to the Officer’s Club with Ko in his dashing uniform. They would dance the jitterbug, a dance Ko would teach his daughter Sarita. Sumie learned English; her sons teased her about how, like her children, she spent much of her time studying. She also studied American history and civics in preparation for her naturalization exam. But she was never ashamed of her Japanese heritage: one local Ohio paper even profiled her sukiyaki making skills, a traditional Japanese beef and vegetable dish. The couple had three children, two sons and a daughter. Ohio was where the family ultimately settled after a few years in Ann Arbor, Michigan while Ko did postgraduate work at the Air Force Institute at the University of Michigan (two of the first seven astronauts were his classmates, Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper). “We grew up in Ohio which was lily white and I personally don’t remember any body treating us poorly as a kid,” the daughter says. “But we grew up in a strictly English-speaking household.” Sumie was very good at math and played bridge skillfully. She and Ko loved to entertain. And Sumie was very involved in the base wives’ club. She also adored cats. In addition to the family’s two cats, she collected an assortment of ceramic cats. Ko and Sumie shared a love of college football, perhaps a legacy from Ko’s time in Texas. They never made it back to Japan, though at the Holidays they’d speak by phone to Sumie’s family. But their own growing family was their main focus in life.
Sumie and Ko retired to San Jose, California. After Ko passed in 2013, Sumie moved to Virginia to be near her daughter and two of her six grandchidren. What began as a hard life got easier and easier as the years went by, leaving Sumie little to complain about—even if she’d been the type to complain.