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George Aki: Great grandfather, minister, volunteer

George Aki, former US Army chaplain, retired minister, and longtime Claremont resident died July 4. He was 103 years old.

Mr. Aki was born in Livingston, California on September 11, 1914 and was raised in Fresno. He became the first non-white civil servant in that city and later attended Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno). After graduation, he enrolled at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

On February 19, 1942, responding to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, paving the way for the eventual evacuation and internment of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from the west coast. Roughly two-thirds were American-born citizens.

Mr. Aki met Misaki Iijima at the Berkeley seminary. They were married on April 10, 1942, one month prior to the evacuation. Family members were unable to attend due to executive order travel restrictions.

Two days before his seminary graduation, the Akis were among 6,000 people moved to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. A former seminary classmate, Ward Stephenson, presented Mr. Aki with his seminary diploma inside the center.   

The neighboring Congregational churches quickly gathered to form as an ecclesiastical council to examine and ordain Mr. Aki. More than 500 gathered for this service around a mess hall.

“We are here for a noble adventure of faith,” said the council members. “The church reaches through the fences and past the sentries to take hold of the hands of your people. This handclasp, as the fact that the Christian Church, reaching out to across racial, national, and cultural barriers right in the midst of war, holds the world together.”

After four months, the Tanforan evacuees were transferred by train to the Topaz Internment Camp, a hastily assembled square mile of barracks in the Utah desert. After four months, the Akis transferred to the Jerome Interment Camp in Arkansas to be with Mr. Aki’s family. There the Aki’s first child was stillborn.

A couple of months later, Mr. Aki answered the call for volunteers in the US Army, a very unpopular decision among his fellow detainees. He told Misaki, “My primary reason is not to fight for America, but to be with the volunteers which will be my church, and wherever they are sent, I want to be with them.”

Mr. Aki became one of three Japanese-American chaplains in the US Army’s 100th Infantry Battalion/442 Regimental Combat Team. The nearly all Japanese-American fighting force became the most highly decorated US military unit of its size.

He served for 30 months and was honorably discharged as a major. During this time, he continued his mission of “being at one with all exiles.” When he wasn’t serving his own men, he gave assistance to African Americans and others fraught with discrimination.

He served three Japanese-American churches, in Fresno, Chicago and Los Angeles before becoming the first Japanese-American minister to serve a primarily Caucasian church in San Luis Obispo, California.

In 1966, the Pacific School of Religion conferred Mr. Aki the honorary doctor of divinity degree. In 2011, he was named distinguished alumni from the same institution.

After retiring in 1979, the Akis spent a year in Japan teaching English as volunteer missionaries.

Throughout his life Mr. Aki devoted countless hours to volunteer and fundraising efforts. He served on numerous committees, most notably the Martin Luther King Scholarship Committee in San Luis Obispo. During his early retirement he regularly washed, waxed, and detailed cars to raise money for various charitable organizations. In 1990, he raised more than $8,000 for Habitat for Humanity’s walk to Tijuana.

Mr. Aki was a resident of Pilgrim Place retirement community in Claremont since 1980, where he also served on many committees.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 61 years, Misaki, in 2003.

He is survived by his daughter, Joanne Gabel, and her husband David; sons Galen and Jim, and their wives Cynthia and Anna, respectively; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 18 at Pilgrim Place’s Decker Hall, 625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in Mr. Aki’s name be made to Habitat for Humanity at habitat.org, or Pilgrim Place at pilgrimplace.org.