BELLINGHAM — In 1942, James Okubo was a sophomore at what was then Western Washington College of Education.
The Bellingham resident, who had been born in Ancortes, was a popular student with a quick sense of humor. He was a member of the college’s ski club and an aspiring dentist.
By spring of 1942 — mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — Okubo and 33 other Whatcom County residents of Japanese descent had been taken from their homes and forced into internment camps in states such as California, Colorado and New Mexico.
Despite having just earned the best grades of his college career, Okubo never returned to earn his degree.
But on Saturday, what is now Western Washington University awarded Okubo a diploma, something Western President Sabah Randhawa said was “long overdue.”
“Today we come together to honor the life of James Okubo, to give him the degree that rightfully should have been his nearly 80 years ago,” Randhawa said.
Anne Okubo and Bill Okubo accepted the degree on their father’s behalf. James Okubo died at the age of 46 in a car accident during a family ski trip in 1967.
“I think he would have been extremely honored,” Anne Okubo said.
Until recently, Bill and Anne Okubo didn’t know their father had been forced to leave Western. They barely knew of his life in the internment camps or his subsequent service in the Army in World War II, and knew little of their Japanese culture.
“I didn’t want to be Asian, I wanted to be blonde and have blue eyes like all of our neighbors,” Anne Okubo said. “We knew we were Japanese, but we didn’t want to be Japanese. Our parents’ generation paid a very high price for being Japanese.”
Other than a small scar on their father’s hand, nothing would have told the Okubo children that their father had served in the military — let alone that he was a war hero.
After being forced from Bellingham, James Okubo was sent to the Tule Lake internment camp in California, according to the university.
While there, he enlisted in the Army and, because of the anatomy classes he had taken at Western, was assigned as a medic to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of Japanese-Americans that would go on to be one of the most highly decorated units in military history, the university said.
While serving in France in 1944, Okubo crawled 150 yards through heavy fire to help rescue soldiers who had been wounded behind enemy lines, treating 17 of them.
Days later, he ran through gunfire to pull a fellow soldier from a burning tank and save his life, according to the university.
“Like these other (veterans), he would probably feel that he was just doing his job,” Bill Okubo said of his father. “(That) there was nothing special that he did.”
For his heroism, James Okubo was nominated for the Medal of Honor — the military’s highest award — but because of a belief that medics were ineligible for the award Okubo received the Silver Star.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded James Okubo the Medal of Honor. Two military buildings, including one at Joint Base Lewis McChord, are named after him.
Bill Okubo learned of his father’s connection to Western after being invited to the dedication of the Veterans Memorial Plaza at the new Anacortes High School in 2016, he said.
“Every time there’s been a celebration around my dad’s Medal of Honor award it’s been an opportunity to learn more about him,” said Bill Okubo, who was 7 when his father died.
James Okubo is one of two veterans from Anacortes to have received the Medal of Honor and be honored at the high school.
“This memorial looks like it could be in Washington, D.C., it’s so nice,” Bill Okubo said. “It was really a special acknowledgement in my mind and it felt like he was at peace.”
For Anne Okubo, the awarding of the honorary college degree has a different meaning than her father’s military honors, she said.
“This is an acknowledgement of his personal achievement,” she said.
It was important to her that Western honored her father, not just for their family but for the future, she said.
“The lesson that I see of all this and why you talk about things in the past is so you don’t repeat the mistakes of history,” she said.