Marine’s racial harassment case a modern-day tale of David vs. Goliath

Robert Shimabukuro February 15, 1994 0

San Francisco—Bruce Yamashita listened carefully to a young admirer, offered her advice (“hang in there, don’t ever give up”), then autographed her conference folder. He had just finished delivering a polished and inspiring keynote address at the Miyako Hotel to the Japanese American Citizens League Youth Conference. He clearly savored the moment.

Quite a difference from the last five years. Yamashita, discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Officer Candidate School (OCS) for “leadership failure” in 1989, has since been fighting a legal battle with the USMC to regain his dignity and pride, charging that he had been denied his commission on racial grounds. In late December 1993, he learned that he had won, being notified that he would be commissioned as a Captain in the USMC Reserves this month.

Yamashita’s charges (and substantiation of racial discrimination and harassment by the Marines OCS also forced the USMC to address racial and gender inequalities in OCS policies and resulted in the U.S. Congress passing legislation requiring all branches of military service to publish and enforce equal opportunity policies at their respective officer candidate schools. “Right makes might,” Yamashita told the youthful audience. “How do I know? Because David has slain Goliath.”

This is a story made for television. The hero has leadership stamped all over him. High school president (University High in Honolulu). Good grades. Interscholastic League of Honolulu all-star running back. Spends a year studying in Japan. Attends University of Hawaii, gets bachelor’s in political science. While a student, is elected delegate to Hawaii Constitutional Convention. Law degree and master’s in foreign service from Georgetown University. Decides to be a lawyer in USMC. Admitted to OCS. Is kicked out for leadership failure two days before graduation. Petitions Marine Corps. Wins legal battle. Media hero. Asian American hero. Only catch, no love interest (but Hollywood has a way of fabricating that part.) Joked Yamashita, “When I entered OCS, I was a young stud. Now, I’m an old man.”

Yamashita began his ordeal Feb. 6, 1989, in Quantico, Va., home of the Marines’ Officer Candidate School. On the very first day, the verbal abuse began. “We don’t want your kind around here. Go back to Japan.” Hey, Yamashita, you speak English?” “You know, during World War II, we whipped your Japanese ass.”

Throughout the 10-week training, Yamashita endured verbal and physical abuse. “Humiliating,” he says of the treatment. “I felt I had no choice but to accept it.” When he was “disenrolled,” he was devastated.

For Yamashita, born and raised in Hawaii, this treatment was an eye-opener. “I had always assumed that I was an American. I went to OCS just an American. You know, just one of the guys. (The slurs and resulting discharge) went to the very heart of my identity, of who I was.”

Of the five that were discharged that day, four were men of color: an African American, a Hispanic American, a Filipino American, and a Japanese American. He didn’t think much about it at the time. Yamashita was thinking mostly about what had happened to himself. “I was filled with self-doubt,” he said. “You know, I was raised to accept my failures. Maybe the Marine Corps knew me better than I knew myself.”

Back home in Hawaii, Yamashita began asking questions. He learned the Army and Navy had strict policies against making racial remarks. According to Yamashita, even the Marine recruiting officer in Hawaii was appalled by his story.

His self-doubt and humiliation turned to anger with the way he was treated. That anger and the sacrifices of our preceding generations, said Yamashita, gave him the moral legitimacy to rise up, take a stand and fight back. So in 1990, he wrote to then-Marine Commandant Alfred Gray, explaining the situation, concluding that he was entitled to an officer commission. The resulting investigation report, said Yamashita, “concluded that nothing happened and implied that I was a liar and I was making it all up.”

Friends and family told him to get on with his life. They said that’s just how it is with minorities. “But just when I was about to give up. Bill Kaneko, president of the Honolulu JACL, offered to provide resources,” recalled Yamashita. Attorneys Clayton Ikei and Ernie Kimoto, former CBS producer Steve Okino and Kaneko planned a legal, political and media onslaught. A legal petition was filed with the U.S. Naval Discharge Review Board. National JACL, 442nd Regimental Combat Team Vets Club, 100th Battalion Vets Club, National Asian Pacific Bar Association, Hawaii State Legislature, Hawaii’s Congressional delegation and California Representatives Norman Mineta and Bob Matsui all offered their support.

USMC reopened the case and a second Inspector General’s investigation substantiated the racial harassment, attacks and unfair treatment incidents, but also concluded that Yamashita would have failed the program anyway. So in 1991, Yamashita was offered a chance to go back to Quantico and re-compete for an officer’s commission. “We refused,” explained Yamashita, “because the Marine Corps broke the law. The burden rested with them. They had to provide an immediate commission that accounted for the years that had passed since I was released in 1989.”

In 1992, Yamashita presented his case to the Naval Review Discharge Board. By then his legal team was armed with expert witnesses and reports which showed a recurrent pattern of discrimination in recruitment and retention at the OCS. Major media jumped on the story. Politicians became interested. Training manuals were revised.

In early 1993, the Marine Corps offered Yamashita a commission as a second lieutenant. Again Yamashita refused, explaining that he would have been a captain by then.

Then, in October, on a CBS 60 Minutes segment on institutional racism in the Marines, Commandant General Carl Mundy told correspondent Lesley Stahl and millions of viewers that minority Marines do poorly. “We find that minority officers do not shoot as well as non-minorities. They don’t swim as well. And when you give them a compass and send them across the terrain at night in a land navigation exercise, they don’t do as well at that sort of thing.”

While Marine officials scrambled to explain away Mudy’s remarks, it coalesced support for Yamashita. Organizations jumped on the bandwagon after that, Yamashita said. Organization of Chinese Americans, Council of La Raza, State University of New York Asian Student Union, and a host of others saw that Yamashita’s case was not just his case, it was a case of institutional bias against all minorities. It had been from the very beginning. Only now, it was out in the open.

Soon, after, Yamashita began negotiating a settlement with Assistant Secretary of Navy for Manpower and Reserved Affairs Frederick Pang, who then recommended to Navy Secretary John Dalton that Yamashita be commissioned a captain.

Yamashita formally accepted Dalton’s offer December 31, 1993, saying that it would help in his appeals he plans to make to the Navy administrative boards for back pay

Why did he take on Goliath? Why continue? Says Yamashita, “I was brought up to believe, if you start something, you have to finish it. Whether it’s college whether it’s officer candidate school, whether it’s a lawsuit. Make it, fine. Fail, that’s okay.”

Since television stories are made about “ordinary” White Americans who struggle (and generally win) over extraordinary obstacles, we probably won’t be seeing Yamashita’s story on TV. Not unless drastic changes are made. “I went to OCS just an American. There, I became an Asian American,” he said. “Society just didn’t let me be anything.

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