The American War Bride Experience

GI Brides of World War II

Published 2:15 am PDT Saturday, June 11, 2005

Japanese war bride's life is story of pain, privilege -
and hunt for meaning

By Bob Sylva -- Bee Columnist
Hideko Juchnik, her keen mind tumbling with numbers, formulas, the dark affliction of "x," sits on a bench at Sacramento City College. Students, most a fraction of her age, stroll by in carefree oblivion.

Juchnik is 76 years old. She is a student here, too, pursuing an education. On the advice of a philosophy professor, Juchnik is taking a summer course in algebra. She thinks it will provide her mental discipline, a daily calisthenics of logic. Now, after class one morning this week, she sits in dappled shade and speaks of her life. She is a small, slight woman with a cloud of silver hair, a humble manner, a dulcet, almost girlish voice. Deep shadows of sadness line her face. Don't be deceived. She's a blend of silk and steel, calm and determination.

She is a history lesson. She was born in Japan. She endured the sufferings, the humiliation, of World War II. Courting scandal, in defiance of the norm, she married an American GI. The couple returned to Sacramento, where they experienced bias, chill, a belated armistice. For a time, she pumped gas at a Texaco station.

"My life is interesting," she says, not hiding her smile of pleasure. "Better than fiction!"

But sad, too. After 43 years of marriage, her husband, Bill Juchnik, died of cancer in 1998, leaving her alone in a country, in a Western culture, which continues to both baffle and beguile her. She tends his memory like a shrine. She is studying to find meaning.

"I want to go to school," she says, proud of her sudden independence. "I want to learn to communicate. The importance of language and culture. I was born in Japan. That forged my fate and character, the 300 years of my family's history. So, it was difficult for me to assimilate into American life."

Hideko Juchnik is from Fukushima, in Fukushima Prefecture, a city several hundred miles north of Tokyo. Her samurai-descended family lived in a centuries-old compound and ran a profitable silkworm factory. "I was sheltered," she says of her orchid upbringing.

The war changed everything. She recalls two radio broadcasts clearly - the first, on Dec. 8, 1941, while gathered inside her high school auditorium, the declaration of war. The second, on Aug. 15, 1945, her country in ruins. She heard the emperor's mortal voice for the first time. It trembled in surrender.

During the war, she worked at the Fukushima rail depot, ushering evacuees fleeing bombed cities. After the war, fluent in English, she got a job with the occupation forces as a translator. That's how she met a sergeant from Allentown, Pa. "He was sincere," she says of Bill Juchnik. "I thought he was very honest."

On Sept. 1, 1955, the couple were married at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, on the anniversary of the 1923 earthquake that leveled much of the capital.

"It was a big earthquake for me, too!" she cries of the day.

The couple settled in Sacramento in 1957. Bill Juchnik thought his wife would find peace in the city's large Japanese American community struggling to restart their own lives. Hideko Juchnik faced a double jeopardy. Some blamed her for the war; others accused her husband of sleeping with the enemy.

But they stuck it out. They bought a house off Sutterville Road. Bill Juchnik opened a series of gas stations, and then a coin shop. Hideko, called "Heidi" by her American friends, operated Heidi's Hair Styling. The years passed, and Hideko Juchnik became a U.S. citizen.

Though stranded by her husband's death, she is intent on carrying on alone. "I have to fend for myself," she says. "That's why I came to school. I need to stand up. My grandfather instilled in me the idea that right would prevail. I still believe that."

Thinking more of her life and her fate, she declares, in an avowal that sounds expressly Western, "No one can dictate to you. No one can tell you what to do. No, I think you have to make your own destiny."

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