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Veterans in focus: Brothers fighting brothers

  • Story Highlights
  • Two Akune brothers fought for U.S., two for Japan in World War II
  • U.S. brothers had been in internment camp; served as interpreters
  • Japanese brothers drafted as teens; one was spotter for kamikaze pilots
  • Brothers reunited after end of war; all ended up living in U.S.
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By John Torigoe
CNN
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- World War II didn't just divide the world. It also divided four brothers.

Ken (left) and Harry Akune served in the U.S. military during World War II.

Ken (left) and Harry Akune served in the U.S. military during World War II.

Not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Harry and Ken Akune were sent to live in an internment camp in Amache, Colorado. When the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Service came to their camp to recruit Japanese-speaking volunteers as interpreters, they joined so they could prove their loyalty to their country.

Across the world in Japan, their father Ichiro was raising the rest of his large family -- which had returned to his home country after the death of his wife -- in a fishing village, Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu. The youngest brothers, Saburo and Shiro, were just teenagers when they were drafted into the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The brothers, four of the Akunes' nine children, had all been born or raised in the United States; Ichiro Akune owned a grocery business before moving back to Japan. Harry and Ken had been sent back to America to work and earn money for the family. Video Watch how brother fought brother during the war »

Harry and Ken graduated from language school in 1942 and were dispatched to the Pacific Theater. Ken served in Burma at the Office of War Information. His job was trying to create propaganda to persuade the Japanese to surrender rather than sacrifice their lives on the battlefield. Harry served in New Guinea and the Philippines.

His ethnicity didn't endear him to some of his colleagues.

"I had an intelligence officer who disliked me," Harry recalled. Before a parachute jump onto the island of Corregidor with the 503rd Paratroopers late in the war, the officer stripped Harry of all of his gear, including his weapon. "I got onto the airplane with only my parachute. A soldier took pity on me and helped find a rifle and one clip," he said.

He survived, but many of his fellow soldiers did not. Twenty percent of them lost their lives just on the jump because of the jagged terrain and enemy fire. iReport.com: What did you do in the war?

His work was heroic. Harry's interrogation of prisoners and translation of captured documents revealed a Japanese occupation force of over 5,000, which vastly outnumbered the American forces. "My information helped reduce casualties," he said.

Most of the Japanese soldiers chose death over what they perceived as dishonor. Harry says only 22 were captured, with the rest dying in combat or suicide attacks -- and they often weren't satisfied with dying alone. At one point, with Harry's back turned, a prisoner jumped him and tried to kill him. Harry recalls the incident vividly.

"My guard beat him with his gun. It seemed like this prisoner was clinging to me for dear life," he said. "That feeling I have never lost. Even though he was the enemy, to see him die the way he did, affected me."

The Japan-based Akune brothers saw death from the other perspective, as part of the war effort. Saburo became a spotter for kamikazes, known for their suicide dive-bomb missions on Allied ships. Shiro, just 15, served at Sasebo, a naval base, helping to orient new recruits. He remembers American Grumman torpedo planes flying into the harbor.

"Bap, bap, bap ... ships going down ... we just watching! We cannot do anything!" he remembered.

After the war, the Akune brothers discovered they served against each other, leading to ill feelings on both sides. Harry and Ken, now in Japan as members of the Allied Prisoner of War Recovery Team, joined Saburo and Shiro at a family reunion in Kagoshima.

"When we first met, the topic of the war came up. Both sides were saying their side was right," Ken said. "Saburo and Shiro got really hot and stood up, they wanted to fight us."

"The propaganda situation in Japan was very extreme," Shiro said. "The elders told you what you should do is revere the emperor like a god, and if you didn't abide by it, you were physically harmed."

It took the intercession of their father to stop the familial battle. "Shut up," the elder Akune said. "The war is over."

All four brothers ended up in the United States, with Shiro -- ironically -- serving as an American GI in Korea. Saburo died several years ago, but Shiro, Harry and Ken continue to live in Southern California. Ken still volunteers full time with the "Go For Broke" National Education Center, which preserves the memory of Japanese-American soldiers who served the United States in World War II.

Harry says his military service helped him identify as an American. "The benefit of going to war for the United States helped me manage myself not as a Japanese-American, but more like an American. I feel very happy I was able to do that," he said.

But he holds nothing against the two brothers who fought for the other side.

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"They were in Japan, educated there. It's only right to be loyal to the Japanese force," he said.

"I feel like they were like any other Japanese and we were like any other American. Two sides had their ideas, and there was a clash," he said. "Everything worked out. All four of us were able to survive without having to be casualties of the war."

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