San Diego

Cherry Blossoms Expected to Peak in San Diego This Week

Learn more about the back story to how the trees were planted.

The Japanese Friendship Garden's cherry trees were planted 17 years ago, but it took a tremendous amount of effort, kindness and generosity to get the trees flourishing in San Diego. 

The story of how the trees were planted in San Diego starts back in 1951, according to the Japanese Friendship Garden. At the time, the USS Walke struck a mine off the coast of Korea. Twenty-six shipmates were killed and 40 injured.

The Walke, under the command of Commander Marshall Thompson, managed to sail to Sasebo, Japan for repairs.

During that time, the sailors enjoyed the field at a local school and even taught in the classrooms.

Among the students the sailors befriended was 14-year-old Mitoko, an orphan whose mother was presumed dead after the Nagasaki atomic bomb explosion. Her father suffered from radiation exposure and later died. 

Mitoko ended up living in an outbuilding, but was determined to pull herself out of poverty. 

The crew of USS Walke, many of whom fought in the bitter war against the Japanese in WWII, learned about her hardship and determination.

Even though money was tight for the crew, they raised enough to put in a bank account for Mitoko. In the following years, she used the money to put herself through nursing school. Over the years, she lost contact with the sailors and the Commander who helped her out. 

Fast forward 42 years later. The now-Captain Marshall Thompson, living in San Diego, visited the Japanese Friendship Garden and relayed his story to a woman who held tea ceremonies.

His story was so striking that she managed to track down Mitoko, who was working for the Red Cross. She was married with two children. Mitoko and her husband flew to San Diego in 1993 for a reunion with Captain Thompson.

"She had been orphaned and yet, she was always there to cheer up the dispirited officers with a smile and her unstoppable optimism," the commander recalled.

Mitoko and her husband flew to San Diego many times for several more reunions and for Captain Thompson's funeral.

After Thompson's death, Mitoko donated money for the cherry trees in Captain Thompson's memory. His widow did the same.

But it was not as easy as just planting cherry trees. A local Japanese-American nurseryman, Moto Asakawa, worked with plant experts from the San Diego Zoo.

They developed a special grafted hybrid cherry tree, since the flowers do not blossom reliably in the warm San Diego climate.

Once that was accomplished, Asakawa donated generously to purchase and plant the trees, but more funds were needed. 

When funding for the trees fell short, Mitoko stepped up again. With her help, the plants could be purchased, planted and cared for.

Every year, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, those at the Garden are reminded of the resilience and joy people find in each other. 

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