After being interned in a WWII camp, a veteran gives back to his fellow veterans – Orange County Register

Sam Higa’s life began in a Japanese internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

“My whole family was interned there and in Arizona,” said Higa, whose relatives came from traveling farming communities in Southern California.

Higa has no memory of the camp because the family was released when he was about 3 and his relatives refused to talk about their experiences there, he said.

Hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were rounded up during World War II and sent to internment camps established across the western United States in the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese forces in December 1941. The stated intention was to prevent espionage on American soil. .

Decades later, Higa would join the U.S. Army, and decades later still, he would honor veterans of World War II and other conflicts as a volunteer with the Honor Flight Network.

Higa’s family, migrant farmers who followed the crops, traveled seasonally between California, Utah, Washington and Arizona before settling in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles.

“My uncle attended 17 schools, but I only attended four elementary schools and graduated from Baldwin Park High School,” said Higa, who has resided in Laguna Woods for 12 years.

After a brief stint at UCLA, he decided to follow the example of four of his uncles and joined the army. He and a friend enlisted in the Navy.

It was the Cold War era, and they were lured by the promise that their electronics training would earn them a place on the new Polaris nuclear submarines.

They ended up “constantly working on the black and blue crew” of diesel-powered submarines, Higa said with a laugh.

He then qualified for the class which allowed him to operate a different type of nuclear-powered submarine.

“It was exciting,” he said. “We traveled around the world, but never stopped,” he added, noting that nuclear submarines were not welcome in many ports.

Its longest mission lasted 69 days, collecting Cold War intelligence as the crew tracked Soviet submarines. They ended up at Pearl Harbor, only surfacing when they ran out of food for the 90 submariners on board, he said.

In addition to operating submarines, Higa taught satellite navigation to other sailors in New London, Connecticut.

After the Vietnam War ended, Higa retired after 13 years in the Navy and went to work for civil defense contractors building electronic systems for a new class of submarines.

He became a technician at GTE Sylvania, creating cutting-edge systems to thwart Soviet radar tracking.

“I worked with some really smart engineers,” he said. “It was like going to college.”

Since retiring and moving to Laguna Woods, Higa has been active at American Legion Post 257. In September, he was asked to be the “guardian” of Korean War veteran Ralph Bloch, also a village resident, on an honor flight to Washington, DC.

The Honor Flight Network is a national, volunteer-run, nonprofit organization that recognizes and thanks veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Each veteran is assigned a guardian to help them through this experience and ensure their safety and care.

Higa was in the rare position of being not only a guard but also a veteran himself, one of only three in that category in the group of 100 that left San Diego in September. The group included five World War II veterans and three women who had served as military nurses.

Flying to Baltimore for dinner and speeches, the entourage was bused the next day with a motorcycle escort to Washington, where they visited the war memorials.

“Most special to me was the plaque dedicated to the submariners, who were very active after Pearl Harbor,” Higa said.

Himself 81 years old, he pushed the wheelchair of Bloch, who is about 10 years older.

“All veterinarians use wheelchairs, whether they need one or not,” Higa said. “I must have walked about three miles that day.”

Dinners, speeches and certificates of recognition were part of the celebration. Letters from schoolchildren and other grateful community members were distributed to veterinarians.

Higa’s most treasured memories of the Honor Flight experience involve meeting other veterans and hearing their stories.

“A veteran had served in all three wars and his guardian was his daughter,” Higa said.

Those whose guardians were family members particularly impressed him.

“The ability to take a parent or grandparent on this journey was very emotional,” he said.

Higa also met and conversed with other submariners, with whom he shared a special camaraderie.

“For veterans, this is a unique opportunity, one that many veterans are unaware of,” Higa said. “Especially for Vietnam veterans who haven’t been welcomed home and may still be suffering from PTSD, this could make a difference.”

When the group returned to San Diego, a festive welcome awaited them at home.

Back in Laguna Woods, American Legion Post 257 is looking for new members so they can expand the community service activities they have done in the past.

Veterans from any branch of the service, even if they have only served one day, are welcome, Higa said. For more information, contact the post commander at

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