By Sgt. 1st Class Alejandro Sias, 5th Armored Brigade, First Army Division WestMay 31, 2011
5th Armored Brigade, “Daggers,” hosted the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance at the Centennial Club here May 26 featuring a highly decorated World War II Asian American veteran.
World War II veteran guest speaker Mr. Lawson Iichiro Sakai, 87, delivered an incredible and moving speech to a large group of Soldiers, civilians and Family members just days before Memorial Day.
Sgt. 1st Class David McLain, 5th Armored Brigade’s Equal Opportunity Advisor coordinated the event and placed special emphasis on the themes “Diverse Leadership for a Diverse Workforce” and “Remembering the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.” He also gave special thanks to the Fort Bliss Installation team of EOAs for their help.
Sakai, a Japanese-American, also labeled Nisei, a Japanese term used for second generation Japanese-Americans, was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit comprised of Japanese-Americans. He fought in World War II and is the recipient of two Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts and the Combat Infantry Badge.
During this period, many of the Japanese-American Soldiers put their lives on the line for their country while their families were confined to internment camps in the U.S.
“The evacuation order…stated that all of the Japanese people living in the west coast would be evacuated out of their homes and into concentration camps,” said Sakai. “They were only given two weeks … and the buses lined up. This was a shock.”
Sakai talked about his World War II experience and reflected on many isolated moments he endured, including a mission he went on where they encountered heavy enemy fire from the Germans who had the higher ground.
“How I wish we had RPGs,” he joked.
He also shared his close call with life and death.
“We were leading another charge out there and all of a sudden a German popped up and shot me point blank … I’m dead [he thought]; but nothing happened.”
In remembering the 442nd RCT, he mentioned the 100th Battalion which was with the 442nd team and how “they were called the purple heart battalion because they were losing a lot of Soldiers.”
The 442nd RCT was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service, in the entire history of the U.S. military. The motto of the 442nd RCT was “Go for Broke.” It’s a gambling term that means risking everything on one great effort to win big.
In less than two years of combat, the 442nd RCT earned more than 18,000 individual decorations including one Medal of Honor, 53 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars, 5,200 Bronze Star Medals, 9,486 Purple Hearts, and eight Presidential Unit Citations (the nation's top award for combat units).
In June 2000, President Clinton awarded an additional 20 Medals of Honor to members of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team. There had been a re-examination of the dozens of files belonging to many Japanese-American Soldiers to see if any of them might have been denied awards because of possible prejudice. One of these recipients, Hawaii's U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, had his right arm shattered by a grenade while successfully destroying three German machine gun nests.
The troops of the 442nd Regiment fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, including the battles at Belmont, Bruyeres and Biffontaine. At Biffontaine, the unit fought the famous battle, the "Rescue of the Lost Battalion." The 442nd lost more than 800 troops to rescue members of the Texan 1st Battalion, 141st Regiment, 36th Division.
“In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a letter of apology, sent out to each of us,” said Sakai, in closing. “An apology from the United States Government for what they did in 1941 and 1942. Ladies and gentlemen, it takes a great country to apologize for its mistakes, and the United States is the greatest country on this earth; God Bless.”
The speech left no doubt about the contributions Asian Americans have made for our nation’s freedom.
As an expression of gratitude for his visit and speaking at the event, Col. William J. Schafer, 5th Armored Brigade commander, presented a framed historical image of the 442nd RCT with an engraved message to Sakai.
Maj. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard, commanding general, 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, presented Sakai with the 1st Armored Division coin, making it historical and official as the first coin to be presented since the Division moved from Germany to Fort Bliss.
“It was very inspiring,” said Pittard, in regards to Sakai’s speech.
The event closed with a short video presentation about the 100th Battalion’s and 442nd RCT’s great accomplishments in World War II and with attendees sampling various Asian food items.