A living testament to Kadena’s heritage

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Quay Drawdy
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs

From living in the barracks and shining shoes at nine years old to having the respect and admiration of nearly a dozen generals. After more than 50 years of service to the U.S. military, Tatsuo “Jimmy” Schwartz has solidified his position as a large part of Kadena’s heritage.

Jimmy has been around the U.S. military since his early childhood and has continually served, and been served by, it.

Jimmy was born in Tokyo after World War II and came to Okinawa shortly afterward. His father took up English and became a translator for the 506th Ammunitions Squadron while also helping to remove unexploded ordnance. He was caught in a UXO accident that killed more than 120 people.

“After my father died, my mother struggled to raise us,” said Jimmy. “She had no job and few skills, so the 313th Division sort of adopted me.”

Jimmy moved on base around nine years old, living in the barracks with the Soldiers and Airmen. He received an allowance for grades until fifth grade, when he learned to shine shoes and began doing other odd jobs for pay.

“It was a new life for me,” said Jimmy. “I’d never been to Kadena and they had me work for my allowance by keeping my grades up. Around fifth grade, a Sgt. Johnson taught me to shine shoes. A few others showed me things like mowing grass, working gardens and picking up litter. Eventually, I started working on landscaping once I was a little older.”

He was adopted by MSgt. Ed Schwartz at 16 years old before moving to the United States with the Schwartz family. Jimmy grew to miss Okinawa and chose to enlist in the Army at 18 to do illustrations and photography.

“I planned on enlisting in the Air Force, but my father asked me to try the Army first,” said Jimmy. “The Army was a two year tour while the Air Force was four. He wanted me to make sure the military was what I wanted. Since I was a child, I always had a talent for drawing. Posters, designing and drafting were all things I was very good at, so I did them in the service.”

He extended his enlistment after his first two years, doing tours in Korea and Vietnam, where he was injured and awarded the Purple Heart. Jimmy eventually landed back in Okinawa, where he met his wife and started a family.

He then chose to leave the service and was contacted by Maj. Gen. Jerry Page, then commander of 18th Wing, Kadena Air Base. Page requested that Jimmy come to work for the Air Force as a Department of Defense civilian.

“I began working as a civilian managing the golf course for nine years,” said Jimmy. “I eventually went to work at civil engineering and worked to increase the number of trees on the installation.”

During his time working with Kadena, Jimmy has donated a total of more than 3,300 trees to the base.

“We have visitors from the prefecture that come on base and see the trees and hear the history behind them,” said Jimmy. “They’re surprised at how well they’re maintained and how many there are.”

When it comes to new buildings and their effect on the trees, Jimmy is the primary person agencies must speak to.

“We will change the building before we cut down trees,” said Jimmy. “Some of them have been here for more than 50 years, so we won’t cut them. Instead, we will rotate a building or move a parking lot before building to keep the trees alive. Whenever anyone wants to mess with the trees, they call Jimmy. Brig. Gen. Barry Cornish respects how I feel about the trees and will have people talk to me before cutting any down.”

At 77 years old, Jimmy has no intention of slowing down his support for the service members of Kadena.

“I’ve said it many times, this base is my life,” said Jimmy. “The Air Force has done so much for me. It taught me skills and helped me pay the living expenses for my mother and brother while he went through school. That’s why I wanted to come back here and do something for the Air Force. All of it, from my time in the Army, the years I worked at the golf course, to the trees and the Kadena Special Olympics, was out of gratitude for the military. So long as I’m still walking, I’m going to do something for Kadena.”