Editor’s Note: When we covered a photo shoot at the Wilber-Bartlett American Legion Post #315 last month by photographer April Messer, we were surprised when one of the WW II veterans posing in front of the American flag turned out to have served in the Japanese Navy. We knew there was a story, as Kinuko (Kitty) DeVee posed for what we believe to be an iconic photo that says as much about how far our nation has come as well as where it has come from. This is her story.
By Matt Schepeler
Kinuko (Kitty) Devee was born on September 18, 1928, in Kyoto City, Japan, the fourth child of five. Kitty’s father died when she was just 3 years old, leaving her mother, Kinue, a single mother in a time of great national strife.
Kitty went to school with her other siblings until the sixth grade. In those days in Japan, students could continue with more formal education or go to a homemaker school. Kitty’s mother chose to send her to homemaker school where she was taught to sew and cook, skills that served her well later in life.
World War II started when Kitty was only 13-years-old.
“I remember my mother asking, ‘Where is America?’ said Kitty when trying to explain how she felt about Americans. She remembers her oldest brother pointing out America on a map and comparing the size to the small island nation of Japan. “We are going to fight that big country?” her mother asked.
Fight they did, and at 15, Kitty joined the Japanese Navy. She became a nurse and worked at a local hospital throughout the war. When the war was over, the hospital was turned into a veterans’ hospital by the United States, and Kitty continued working there, though she did do a tour of duty in Hiroshima. “It was either go to Hiroshima or Okinawa,” she said, noting that very few of the medical staff that went to Okinawa survived. While in Hiroshima, she treated patients suffering from the atomic bomb blast and fallout that happened on August 6, 1945, just before she arrived.
It was after the war in the veterans’ hospital where she met her soon-to-be husband, Kenneth DeVee. Ken worked as an ambulatory service driver and would deliver new patients. Ken asked Kitty out on a date, and the couple soon fell in love. They dated for six months before being married when Kitty turned 18. “I carried a book [with English words and phrases] in my pocket at first until I learned the language,” said Kitty.
From the start, life as a Japanese war bride was difficult. “It was very hard,” said Kitty. At the time, many Americans hated the Japanese due to their part in the war, and the Japanese were just as distrustful of Americans. Some relatives disapproved of her decision to marry an American, she noted, and when she and Ken eventually came back to America, she continued to feel the burning sting of prejudice…but, she said, she knew that was coming and was determined not to let it affect her family. Her daughter, Neita Gerweck, noted that her mother has a strong independent streak. Kitty readily agrees.
“When I grew up in Japan, the woman had to walk behind the husband, and she had to open doors for him, and the wife was supposed to go to bed before the men,” said Kitty. “And she had to get up before the men. I didn’t want that. I never did like that.” Kitty dreamed of a life where she and her husband were true partners and she was treated like a lady, and America, she thought, would be a good place to do that.
Two of their four children were born in Japan before they made the decision to move to the United States. Kitty and Ken have one daughter (Neita) and three sons (Ken, David and Nolen) together.
The couple ended up in Michigan, as Ken was a native of Milan. That is where he and Kitty purchased a small lot to start their lives in America.
But the going was tough financially. Ken worked odd jobs and built a small home with what money they had saved. Kitty worked midnights at a nursing home at first, which was overwhelming while raising four children, but eventually found work as a private nurse during the day for one client.
When her client died, Kitty made the decision to stay at home and make crafts. She would make dolls and their clothes, while Ken would use his woodworking skills to make furniture for the dolls. They sold them at festivals all over Michigan. Eventually, Kitty and Ken purchased a motor home and began to travel all over the United States selling her crafts. They traveled to all 48 states in the RV. They were arranging a trip to Alaska when Ken got sick. He stayed in a V.A. hospital for eight months before his passing. The two were married for 59 years.
Kitty began making blankets for the other patients when her husband was in the hospital. She has made hundreds of blankets and donated them to the veterans at the V.A. hospital. She also made hats for newborn babies as well.
When asked whether she would do it all over again and come to America, Kitty doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Yes. I am very happy. I have a wonderful family who loves me.”
Kitty now lives at the Brooklyn Living Center. The move brought her closer to her growing family. She is a grandmother to four children, a great-grandmother to 13, and a great-great-grandmother to the newest baby.