Medicine by day, writing by night: In new novel, Dr. Andrew Lam looks at Japanese-Americans in WWII

  • Andrew Lam, a Springfield eye surgeon, also has three books to his credit. His newest novel, “Repentance,” examines the experience and legacy of Japanese-American soldiers in WWII. Image courtesy Andrew Lam

  • Andrew Lam’s newest novel, “Repentance,” examines the experience and legacy of Japanese-American solidiers in WWII. Image courtesy Andrew Lam

  • Men from the 442nd Regiment, the decorated WWII army unit made up of Japanese-American soldiers — all volunteers — slogs through rough terrain in eastern France in late 1944. Image by U.S. Army/public domain

  • The late Dr. Susumu Ito, a Japanese-American soldier and friend of Andrew Lam who served in the 442nd Regiment as a forward artillery observer. Image courtesy Andrew Lam

  • At right, Lam with the late Dr. Susumu Ito, a veteran of the 442nd Regiment who later became a professor of biology at Harvard University. He was a key source for Lam’s new novel.

  • Susumu Ito during World War Two, when he visited family members at a Japanese-American internment camp in Arkansas. Image courtesy Andrew Lam

Staff Writer
Published: 5/8/2019 4:36:50 PM

You might think an eye surgeon wouldn’t have time to write books — and if he somehow did, he’d be writing about medicine.

But Andrew Lam pretty much confounds those assumptions.

Lam, a retinal surgeon, ophthalmologist and ophthalmology professor in Springfield, is also the author of three books, all published within the last six years. His debut work, “Saving Sight,” offered both a first-person account of his work and profiles of several modern doctors who made early advances in eye surgery and treating ocular diseases. But more recently, Lam has turned to something different: novels that plumb less well-known aspects of World War II.

In a way, it’s not a surprise. Lam, who lives in Longmeadow, majored in history at Yale University as an undergraduate, concentrating on Chinese history, U.S.-East Asian relations and military history. He once contemplated going on to study history at the graduate and doctorate level before opting instead to attend medical school — a decision, he says, that was partly inspired by his father’s career as a cardiologist.

But his passion for history, which he says dates to the days when he read history books and biographies in the children’s section of the library in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, never went away.

“I look at the world and it’s fascinating to me to try and understand and inquire about why it is the way it is,” Lam, 42, said during a recent interview at the Gazette. “I want to share my love of [history] with people, especially stories that are not well known but that deserve to be.”

His first novel, “Two Sons of China,” explored China’s epic fight with Japan in WWII, following the Japanese invasion and occupation of large sections of eastern China in 1937, and then China’s descent into civil war. In the book, an American officer, raised in China by missionary parents, becomes a U.S. liaison to Chinese communist forces led by Mao Zedong, and he builds a tight bond with one communist leader in particular — a bond that is tested as America takes sides in China’s civil war.

“A lot of people don’t know that tens of thousands of Americans served in China during the war,” said Lam, “or that 15 to 20 million Chinese died in the war, second only to Russia’s losses.”

In his newest book, “Repentance,” Lam revisits the story of the U.S. 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-volunteer WWII army unit made up almost exclusively of Japanese-American (Nisei) men, many from Hawaii and others originally from the continental U.S., including the Pacific Coast states. The latter group, in one of the most disgraceful chapters of U.S. history, had been deemed security threats following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and sent to internment camps with their families (some other Japanese-American men from Hawaii were already in the Army at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked and served with a unit that landed at Salerno in September 1943 when the Allies invaded Italy).

Lam, who will discuss his new novel this Saturday at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, notes that the 442nd regiment, which fought in Italy and France, became the most decorated combat unit in U.S. history. The 14,000 men who served in the unit at some point received nearly 9,500 Purple Hearts, a reflection of the bravery and aggressive tactics of the Nisei soldiers, he says. The unit’s motto was “Go for Broke.”

“Both groups of men, in the camps and in Hawaii, had experienced severe anti-Japanese prejudice and hysteria,” he said. “But they wanted to prove their patriotism, and they felt guilty … that people from the land of their ancestors had attacked the U.S.” (The late Daniel Inouye, the former U.S. senator from Hawaii, was a decorated 442nd veteran who lost an arm in combat.)

Lam, who is of Chinese descent, first became interested in the story of the 442nd when he met some of its veterans during a medical internship in Hawaii in the early 2000s. He has also studied the history of prejudice and exclusionary laws Asian-Americans have previously faced in the U.S., such as the internment of Japanese-Americans, and that served as inspiration for the story as well.

“As a member of a racial minority, I know what it’s like to be and feel different,” he said. “What would it be like if America one day went to war with China? How would that make me feel, and how would people look at me? Our friends and neighbors and our coworkers — would they shun us?

“If that happened, I would do everything to prove my loyalty,” Lam added. “So I can understand a bit about the choices these guys [Nisei soldiers] made.”

The shadow of the past

The crisply written “Repentance” is set partly in the late 1990s, with several flashbacks to World War II and some intense battles that 442nd soldiers fought, in wretched weather, against German troops in fall 1944 in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. The book’s central character, Daniel Tokunaga, is a highly esteemed Japanese-American cardiac surgeon in Philadelphia who’s consumed by his work — to the detriment of his marriage. He and his wife, Beth, have drifted apart, and now that their twin daughter and son have just gone off to college, the couple are facing more difficulties.

Then Daniel’s elderly mother, Keiko, ends up in a hospital in Los Angeles after a car crash. To help out, Daniel returns to his old home, where he’s forced to deal with his father, Ray, from whom he’s been estranged for years. Ray, a 442nd veteran, is a hard man who always seemed to find fault with Daniel, but now he’s acting strange. He seems scared: The U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to contact him about a medal he won in WWII, and Ray wants nothing to do with it.

Though it risks further strain to his marriage, Daniel wants to learn more about Ray’s WWII service, especially when he senses both his father and mother are holding back information from him. In a story that examines PTSD, memory and honor, the tensions between work and home, and the secrets family members keep from one another, “Repentance” will eventually see Daniel traveling to the distant hills of eastern France to try and discover what happened to his father — and how that may have shaped their troubled relationship.

Lam says he relied on various sources to put together his new novel: histories of the 442nd, diaries and memoirs of veterans (and interviews with some vets), histories of the Japanese-American internment camps, maps and photos of the Vosges Mountains, and studies of small-unit actions in WWII. He revisits the strange moments when the residents of French towns in the Vosges discover just who has liberated them from the Germans.

“They come out of their cellars and say ‘Wow — these are American soldiers?!’ ” said Lam.

Lam also drew on his medical training and experience for the book, though with a laugh, he says the work-consumed, wife-neglecting Dr. Tokunaga is not based on him.

“I love what I do to help people, though being a retinal surgeon can be very intense, and you sometimes take things home with you,” he said. “But it still leaves me more time [than other doctors have] to do other things.”

In fact, Lam and his wife, Christina, have four children, ages 8 to 15, and he’s involved with a number of other things, like town government in Longmeadow and a project to restore an historic building, the Brewer-Young Mansion, in town center. He says he makes it a point to spend as much time as possible with his family: “Being a husband and father is very important to me.”

He’s been encouraged by initial feedback about his new novel, recently published by Tiny Fox Press of Florida, that he’s gotten from 442nd veterans and their family members, who he says have been posting about the book on Facebook sites. “It means everything to me to have them say that I’ve gotten the details right,” he said.

Lam is hoping to write additional books, though he’s keeping his ideas close to the vest for the moment. But he’s confident he’ll do it again.

“You find time to do something if you’re passionate about it,” he said. “Everyone has passions — this is mine.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

Andrew Lam will talk about his new novel on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley and on July 15 at Forbes Library in Northampton. His website is






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