Brother Against Brother: The Akune Brothers in World War II

Family History
11 May 2020
by Randal A. Burd Jr.

The Akune family had 4 brothers who fought in World War II.

But it wasn’t until the war was over that the incredible story, as detailed in records, surfaced.

Though they had all fought in the same war, they had not fought on the same side. Two had fought for the U.S. and two for Japan.

The American Dream, Then Tragedy

In 1918, many immigrants were coming to the United States in search of the American Dream. Among these immigrants were Ichiro and Yukiye Akune, who came to California.

They opened a grocery store, building a life for themselves and the nine children they soon brought into the world.

Tragedy took the life of Yukiye in 1933, after which the children were sent to Japan to live with relatives, followed shortly after by Ichiro.

Harry (Masami) and his brother Ken (Kenjiro) returned to California to find work once they were old enough to do so. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The USS California sinking at Pearl Harbor.
The USS California sinking in Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Harry and Ken found the country in which they were born and to which they returned was becoming increasingly hostile to citizens of Japanese heritage.

Harry and Ken Enlist in the U.S. Army

In 1942, Harry and Ken were among the approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans forcibly relocated to internment camps despite their U.S. citizenship.

The brothers were sent to a camp in Colorado, where they were actively recruited by the U.S. Army, which was seeking volunteers who could speak Japanese.

And enlist they did, as shown in World War II enlistment records.

Kenjiro Akune's WWII enlistment record.
Kenjiro Akune’s World War II enlistment record

In an environment rife with hostility even from fellow U.S. soldiers, the brothers played a vital role in the war effort.

They used their proficiency in the Japanese language to provide translations, question Japanese soldiers, and create propaganda used to encourage opposing forces to surrender.

A propaganda leaflet encouraging Japanese troops to surrender.
A propaganda leaflet aimed at Japanese troops.

As explained by Harry Akune,

“Before the war, I didn’t have the full freedoms that other Americans had…But I still felt very free. When we lost that freedom, I was in shock…We felt that somebody had to stand up and say we are Americans too. And when they gave us an opportunity to prove that, we did and volunteered for military service.”

Surprise: Brothers Saburo and Shiro Fought for Japan

Unbeknownst to Harry and Ken, their younger brothers, Saburo and Shiro, were fighting diligently in the war as well—for the Japanese.

But it wasn’t until a family reunion in Japan that the brothers all realized that they had fought on opposing sides of the war.

Japanese soldiers on a train at the end of WWII.
Discharged Japanese soldiers going home at the end of the war

Ichiro, their father, quickly brokered a peace among his sons, and all four of the veterans returned to California and later fought on the same side (for the U.S.) in the Korean War.

Few families have such a unique World War II story. But we all have family narratives that might well surprise us.

What amazing family stories might you discover? Log in or try Ancestry 14 days free starting today.