Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

WWII Veteran Fought To Cast His Last Vote

Frank Tanabe votes via absentee ballot with the help of his daughter, Barbara (left) and wife, Setsuko, in Honolulu on Oct. 17. He died the following week.
Irene Tanabe
Frank Tanabe votes via absentee ballot with the help of his daughter, Barbara (left) and wife, Setsuko, in Honolulu on Oct. 17. He died the following week.

This is the time of a long election season when voters can begin to feel weary. You can't watch the World Series without seeing ads so scolding and snarling you may want to shoo away your children. The ads can make voting seem like a nasty chore.

When 93-year-old Frank Tanabe of Honolulu moved into the home of his daughter, Barbara, earlier this year, he had liver cancer and knew he was going to die. But his family said he was determined to hold on long enough to vote.

Frank Tanabe grew up in Washington state. He was 22 years old and a college man when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A Japanese-American, he was sent to an internment camp.

He volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Service, where he interrogated Japanese prisoners in India and China.

"I wanted to do my part to prove that I was not an enemy alien," he said years later in a documentary film. "And if we ever got the chance, we would do our best to serve our country. And we did."

Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal last year to all who served in the MIS and other Japanese-American units. Frank Tanabe was able to come to Washington, D.C., stand tall, and have the medal draped around his neck.

As his illness made inroads, his family said Frank Tanabe made living long enough to vote his last goal. He used a magnifying glass to read the newspaper each day and exercised in his bed.

Barbara Tanabe said, "I would let him know, 'Hey, the ballots are coming next week. Just hang in there.' "

Frank Tanabe's absentee ballot arrived last week, and Barbara said she hurried into his room to say, 'OK, I'm going to read you the names and you just nod yes or no.'"

She says the family did not all vote the same way.

"There were some that were OK, but there were others where I said, 'Dad, are you sure?' "

A family member posted a picture of Frank Tanabe, the staunch old soldier listening intently to the names on the ballot from his bed, and it went around the world.

He died this week, just as there were news reports that both presidential campaigns will raise $2 billion together and spend about $5 on each voter, trying to win support with ads and appeals. I wonder how many voters might have preferred to get a gallon and a half of gas or a sandwich.

But as Barbara Tanabe said this week of her father, "He saw people die fighting for their country. The foundation of our country is the ability to be able to vote and affect policies that change society."

Frank Tanabe once fought for Americans to have the right to vote. And he fought to live long enough to cast his own last ballot.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.