Bigger Than Barriers

Tom Morimoto reflects on lessons learned over a lifetime of winning battles, from landing at Juno Beach to earning a university education

Jen Jensen - 19 December 2015

Tom Morimoto only made it into the Army thanks to a small bribe and a particular pair of shoes.

It was 1940 and Morimoto, in his 20s, was living in northern Canada and was eager to join the army. He had two things going against him: his height (five-foot-two) and his slim build (116 pounds). What he did have going for him was a friend who was a highly respected lieutenant with clout, and Morimoto soon found himself in Calgary getting sized up.

"There was a corporal doing the weighing and measuring," he says. "My friend said he would give him a buck if he added an inch to my height."

The corporal took the dollar and told Morimoto to keep his shoes on. He'd worn his pair with the thickest heels and they did the trick, adding the extra two inches he needed to qualify. Even with them on, he was still well more than a dozen pounds too light, but the medical officers figured he just wasn't getting enough to eat up North and gave him a pass.

By the time he joined the Armed Forces, Morimoto was highly experienced in finding his way around obstacles. Or, in some cases, through obstacles. A second-generation Japanese-Canadian, Morimoto grew up in Fort McMurray, Alta., during the Depression. As the only residents of Asian descent, Morimoto's family stood out among the frontier town's population mix of white, First Nations and Métis. He taught himself how to box to stop schoolyard bullies from calling him "Jap." (It worked.)

As a young man, he worshipped the strength and daring of local riverboat captains and airplane pilots and yearned to be just like them. So at 16, he struck out on his own, working his way across the North - first as a muskrat fur trader on the Athabasca Delta, then as a radio operator, kitchen helper, gold prospector, and miner.

Morimoto parlayed his background in radio operation into a position as a signalman with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals during the Second World War. By June 6, 1944, he was recognized as one of the best Morse code operators in the division and had achieved the rank of corporal. He is believed to be the only Japanese-Canadian soldier to take part in the D-Day invasions, landing on Juno Beach. "We were all scared, but you always figured you wouldn't get hit. You just think the other guy is gonna get it." Morimoto says the loss of so many friends during the war years taught him resiliency.

Tom Morimoto

Morimoto's years in the military changed him, but the world around him was still very much the same. During an exit interview with a lieutenant, Morimoto mentioned that he intended to go to university. The lieutenant scoffed. Morimoto was 27 - far too old to study. Plus, he was Japanese. What university would accept him? "I had discovered during my time in the service that you can say almost anything to an officer as long as you follow it up with 'sir.' So I replied, 'I don't give a damn what you say, sir. I intend to go to university,' " Morimoto recalls in his memoir, Breaking Trail, published in 2007.

The University of Alberta, as it turns out, welcomed Morimoto. He enrolled in chemical engineering as part of a special class to accommodate returning veterans. Just before his classes began, Morimoto met Kim Iriye - U of A alumna and the woman who would become his wife of 67 years and counting. It was love at first sight. "Well, for me at least," he chuckles.

Morimoto would become one of the best gas plant engineers in the energy industry, and enjoyed a successful 40-year career that at times took him as far away as the oilfields of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He will tell you it was his early life - leading other men in the military, his studies at the U of A - that prepared him for this success. But there's also success in what he overcame to make all of those things happen.

He felt it was important to reinvest in the university that opened up possibilities to a kid from the North, and now Morimoto is helping others overcome barriers through a scholarship aimed at students from northern areas. "When I was growing up in Fort McMurray, some of the First Nations and Métis kids only came to school for two or three months of the year because they had to go trapping with their parents during the winter months, and many of them never learned to read or write," he says. Times have changed, of course, but Morimoto recognizes the challenges for Aboriginal kids pursuing an education today. The scholarship he established - the Dana Morimoto Memorial Entrance Leadership Scholarship, named in honour of his son - is a bridge to success for young people who might not otherwise have that opportunity. "I really do think that a lot of my success has been because of the education I got at the U of A. I'd like to help them in getting an education, too."