FORT WORTH -- Ken Cooper's friendship with Shigeru Mukai started out of necessity.
It was the spring of 1942, and Cooper was in charge of trying to feed several hundred Army troops on the island of Hawaii, without much of a supply chain. Mukai, a Japanese-American, had a substantial produce garden, and Cooper bought as many potatoes, bunches of carrots, heads of lettuce and pounds of pineapple as he could from him.
Out of that vegetable swapping grew a friendship, a rather unlikely one considering the heated passions against Japanese people in the months after the Pearl Harbor attack. The war eventually sent Cooper on to other Pacific islands to feed troops, but Mukai never forgot him.
The proof arrived in the mail Thursday -- a box of tropical flowers from the Mukai family. It is the 66th consecutive year that flowers have come to Cooper's door during the Christmas season, a tradition now carried on by Mukai's daughter.
"After my parents died, I thought the best way to honor them was to carry on the traditions they started," said Laura Ota, who lives on Hawaii. "My mother talked about Mr. Cooper the day before she died. She said, 'We will always be grateful to Mr. Cooper.'"
The gesture from the Mukai family never fails to astonish Cooper, now 94, that he would be remembered for so many years.
"I was telling my physical therapist about it, and she got teared up," he said.
Drafted into the Army in March 1941 from his hometown of Corsica, S.D., Cooper was sent to Fort Wolters outside Mineral Wells, where the Army pegged him as a mess sergeant.
"They found out that I'd worked as a short-order cook at a cafe," he said.
Cooper's arrival in Hawaii, just three months after Pearl Harbor, meant he had to scramble for food to feed the doctors, nurses and orderlies of the 156th Station Hospital. Mukai saved his rear.
"He helped me quite a bit," Cooper said. "He would take me out to eat practically every time I came to town. I drove his tractor. We became good friends."
By 1943, Cooper was gone from Hawaii, and he stopped communicating with Mukai. But when he mustered out of the Army in November 1945 and moved to Fort Worth to reunite with a Texas girl and attend college, Mukai sent him flowers that Christmas.
And every Christmas thereafter.
Sometimes they were orchids, sometimes birds of paradise. This year they were blood-red anthuriums.
Mukai died in 1985 at the age of 72. His wife, Toyoko, died in 2003. Their daughter honors their wishes today, even though the tradition started before she was even born. She can only guess at the exact reasons for the tradition since her parents never spoke much of it.
"I suspect that one of the greatest reasons he felt gratitude to Mr. Cooper was because he befriended my parents when the Japanese were so hated because they started the war," Ota said. "The fact that Mr. Cooper would cross that line for them ... I can see why my parents were so indebted to him."
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547