An MI Legacy
of Service


He was forcibly evacuated to an internment camp, then joined the U.S. Army as an interrogator, interpreter and translator to prove his loyalty

By Jeanette D. Lau

     On March 29, 1997, Ben T. Obata, retired Army intelligence officer and federal civil service employee, passed away at Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., of cardiac arrest. He was 79 years old. A Vacaville, Calif. native, Obata had lived in the Washington, D.C. area 25 years and was a resident of Springfield, Va.
     Obata leaves behind a legacy of service to country beginning in the early days of World War II. Working in Sacramento, Calif., in December 1941, he was forcibly evacuated with other Americans of Japanese descent to an internment camp in Gila River, Ariz.—one of many such camps created to contain Japanese Americans during the war. He quickly volunteered for the U.S. Army, responding to the urgent need for people with Japanese language skills.
     "He believed that it (volunteering for the U.S. Army) was his contribution to prove that they (Japanese Americans) were loyal," said Joanne Obata, Ben’s wife of 50 years.
     Following training at Fort Snelling, Minn., 2nd Lt. Obata was sent to the Pacific. Serving in Australia and the Philippines, he interrogated Japanese prisoners of war and worked undercover. Immediately following the war, he served with the U.S. Forces in Occupied Japan. While there, he searched for his relatives now separated from their American family by history. He found them, starving, and helped them rebuild their lives.
     Remaining in the Army after the war, he was attached to the Signal Corps as an interpreter/translator for about 10 months. He transferred to the Counter Intelligence Corps, with headquarters located at Fort Holabird, Md. Assignments with the Counter Intelligence Corps included Okinawa, Tokyo and stateside locations.
     Retiring from the military in 1963 at the rank of lieutenant colonel, Obata accepted a civilian position with the U.S. Army, continuing the same type of work. His responsibilities took him to Europe and back to Japan. He retired from the Military Intelligence Civilian Excepted Career Program in 1983, completing more than 40 years of service.
     
"He loved his work," Joanne Obata said of her husband. "He made a point of going to all the Counter Intelligence Corps reunions—whether his health was good or not. There were 13 reunions; he went to all but one."
     Obata remained very active during retirement, focusing his energies on delivering meals to shut-ins, teaching young people at vacation bible school and supporting the Japanese American Citizens League.
     Friends are quick to remember his bright smile and caring nature. "Ben loved people," said Joanne Obata. "He had a real sensitivity to people—especially ‘underdogs’."
     He is survived by his wife, son, daughter and two sisters. Grave-side services were conducted at Arlington National Cemetery.

     Jeanette D. Lau is the chief of public affairs, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.

 


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   Last Updated: May 29, 1997