Japanese American Soldiers will receive Congressional gold medal

By Rob McIlvaineNovember 4, 2011

Japanese American Soldiers to receive Congressional gold medal
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 6, 2011) -- More than 1,500 Japanese American representatives, including Soldiers, widows and family members associated with the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442d Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service, collectively known as "Go for Broke," will descend upon the nation's capital this November to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

The three-day event, with speeches and presentations at the World War II Memorial, U.S. Capitol Emancipation Hall, and the Washington Hilton, will recognize many whose families spent years in prison as a result of political persecution.


On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment, allowing local military commanders to designate military areas as exclusion zones from which "any and all persons may be excluded."

As a result, about 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese were relocated to War Relocation Camps, though the policy was applied unequally.

The power was used to declare all people of Japanese ancestry excluded from the entire Pacific coast -- including all of California and most of Oregon and Washington. In Hawaii, however, where more than 150,000 Japanese-Americans made up over one-third of the territory's population, only about 1,500 were interned.


"I just turned 21 in 1940," said Sus Ito, who was born on July 27, 1919, and raised in Stockton, Calif.

"About the second draft call in October or November, my number came up. About five of us in Stockton were drafted and our families showed up at the train station.

"They were so proud of us, even before we were inducted. We had to take a train from Stockton to Sacramento where the physicals were conducted. I had flat feet but the Army took me and sent me to Quartermaster school where I repaired trucks at Camp Haan near Riverside, Calif.," Ito said.

Born in a farming community, Ito's parents were sharecroppers where he grew up in an unpainted shack with no running water and a latrine outside they had to dig themselves.

But after Pearl Harbor happened, things changed.

"They took the rifle I had away, and they didn't know what to do with us. The Army wanted me to go to MIS -- intelligence -- to learn Japanese which I said was limited. But on Dec. 7, some Japanese in the area were rounded up and I was told to help interview them. I refused because I was never keen on the type of war the intelligence did," Ito said.

He ended up at Fort Sill, Okla., but he said he was bored with the civilian-like activities.

"I was a mechanic in the motor pool and about the only time we all got together was at 6 a.m. at reveille, where we had to have our heads counted. The rest of the day was not at all like the Army," Ito said.

Then, in 1943, after about a year there, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed.

"They chose a number of us to become cadre as a basis of forming a combat team, and I was among those selected and very happy about that to get out of the boring civilian job," he said.

He was sent to Camp Shelby, Miss., not far from Fort Sill, where he thought he'd end up in the infantry.

"But they put me in artillery and I don't know, maybe they had a record of my flat feet, but I could walk with the rest of them. And again I had a very boring job of being a motor sergeant in charge of trucks. I wished for a more active environment," Ito said.

Always open for new assignments, Ito heard that a staff sergeant, the same rank as he was in a gun battery learning how to direct artillery fire and reconnaissance, and was about to resign his position.

"So I went and volunteered and got accepted. It was almost like being inducted in the Army again. I was so happy about this," Ito said.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, though, his whole community was interned.

"I got to visit them once, but I was not there when they were taken off to camp. We kept in touch by mail and my mother wrote at least once a week. I recall vividly in those letters, she was proud I was in the Army, as most Japanese were, because they respected Soldiers as much as teachers," Ito said.

"But she always wrote saying, 'don't expose yourself or volunteer for any hazardous duty.' I never told her what I did until I got back in December 1945," Ito said.

Despite all of the hazardous duties and experience he had, Ito said he never had the fear or thought that he would not come back.

"I suppose now I'd be scared out of my pants but I wasn't even wounded. And throughout the war, I don't recall any incident when there was anyone who was really afraid of becoming a casualty," Ito said.

Throughout the war, Ito carried three cherished items: a bible, "which I didn't read too much;" a little Argus 35mm camera, with which he took more than 70-some odd rolls of photos he gave to the Japanese American National Museum in L.A., Calif.; and a senninbari -- a thousand-stitch belt his mother made for him.

"When she was in Rowher (War Relocation Center) Camp in Arkansas, my mother made me this nice looking belt she made out of a bleached flour sack with about a thousand red French knots and a picture of a tiger painted on it, but I never wore it. It was such a nice looking thing that I wrapped it up in cellophane and carried it in a waterproof packet the whole time. I was ashamed to have a Japanese Soldier's item with me, so I never told anyone," he said. "I think in retrospect, that probably brought me back."


The 442nd fought in Italy, southern France and Germany, becoming the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States armed forces for its size and length of service. More than 18,000 individual decorations were awarded for bravery, 9,500 Purple Hearts and seven Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations, including 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, there were 5,000 Japanese Americans in the U.S. armed forces. Many were discharged when Pearl Harbor was attacked and those of draft age were classified as 4-C, "enemy aliens," despite being U.S. citizens.

In Hawaii, however, a battalion of Nisei (first generation born in America) volunteers was formed in May 1942. As the 100th Infantry Battalion, they were sent to North Africa in June of 1943 where they joined the 34th Division in combat.

By September 1943, they were sent to Italy where they saw fierce combat and came to be known as the "Purple Heart Battalion" due to their high casualty rate.

Then in January 1943, the War Department announced the formation of the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team made up of Nisei volunteers from Hawaii and the mainland. In June of 1944, the 442nd joined forces with the 100th Infantry Battalion in Europe and incorporated the 100th into the 442nd.

Because of the success of Nisei in combat, the draft was re-instated in January 1944 for Nisei in the detention camps. The effort was meant to bolster the ranks of the 442nd. Eventually, the 442nd RCT consisted of the 2nd, 3rd, and 100th Battalions; the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion; the 232nd Engineering Company; the 206th Army Band; Anti-Tank Company; Cannon Company; and Service Company.


For Lawson Sakai, it was a little different growing up in Los Angeles, Calif., thanks to certain circumstances.

"We were not interned. In 1941, I was attending Compton Junior College and of course with the evacuation I had to leave school, so then we were able to leave on our own and go to Colorado. I was 19 and living in Grand Junction and attending Mesa College from the fall of 1942 to the spring of 1943," he said.

When he tried to enlist in the military, he was rejected based on his enemy alien government classification. In Hawaii, he remembered, 10,000 boys signed up immediately because they weren't in prison.

He said in the beginning of 1942, the government split the west coast states by drawing a line, north and south. Those on the east of the line were safe and those on the west, the ocean side, had to evacuate.

"We were on the ocean side where we lived in L.A., so we moved to the east side of the line and thought we'd be safe. But then a few weeks later, they said everybody in California had to be evacuated," Sakai said.

Thanks to a Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Colorado, the FBI sent his family a post card saying they could drive out, because the church was sponsoring them.

"Somehow we were picked, so we decided on the way we would stop at Manzanar (War Relocation Center in California) to visit friends," he said.

They drove through the gate to the main headquarters of the camp and were told to "look around at the barbed wire fences, machine gun towers, Soldiers with weapons," so get out while they can.

"We decided not to see our friends, so we got in the car and drove back to the fence and the same guard let us out. We were there 30 minutes," Sakai said.

When enlistment opportunities opened up for Japanese Americans to serve in a segregated unit, recruiters ran into trouble, remembered Sakai.

"On the mainland, most of the Japanese population was in prison camps, so the recruiters had to go to each camp and try to talk the prisoners into volunteering and for the most part they said, 'go to hell. Give us our freedom and we'll go to war,' so the recruiters had a very tough time. For the rest of us not in prison, we had it a little easier," Sakai said.

In 1943, though, he immediately volunteered for the 442nd RCT.

"In the Army, we were treated just like any other GI. But when we were training in Camp Shelby, Miss., Gen. Dwight Eisenhower didn't want us, so we continued training for a whole year," Sakai said.

Things changed for the 442nd when in September 1943, the 100th Battalion from Hawaii was shipped to North Africa to join the 34th Division where they became known as the Purple Heart Battalion because of their fierceness in battle in Italy, Sicily, Enzio and up into Rome.

They were so highly regarded that Gen. Mark Clark of the 5th Army told his senior leaders that he wanted more Japanese.

"So that's why the 442nd finally, in May of 1944, got shipped from the mainland to Italy to join the 5th Army," he said.

For a year and a half, Sakai served in all of the 442nd campaigns in Italy and France, including the liberation of Bruyeres, France and the rescue of the Lost Battalion where he was seriously injured. For his actions, he received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman Badge.


Sus Ito got out of the Army and "used every bit of the GI Bill" to receive a PhD in biology and embryology. He taught at Cornell Medical School in New York City and then joined the Harvard Medical School in Boston where he became a tenured professor in 1967, and stayed until his retirement in 1990.

At 92, he still goes into work for the fun of it.

After leaving the service in December 1945, Lawson Sakai attended Pepperdine College and operated a travel agency in San Jose, Calif.

Recently, he led a group of 53 to Bruyeres, France, for the 60th anniversary of the liberation. He also hosted a group from Bruyeres when they stopped in San Francisco before leaving to visit their sister city in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Even though he has a bad back at 88, he reports he's still able to walk upright.


In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation said that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." The U.S. eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.

This year, Soldiers and their families, many of whom were interned during that "failure of political leadership," who fought and died for their country, will be presented with a Congressional Gold Medal by one of their own, Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Inouye fought with the 442nd RCT and later won the Distinguished Service Cross which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton, alongside 19 other Nisei servicemen who served with him.


For Sus Ito and his fellow Nisei veterans, to serve in the military was in itself an honor, he said, as well as a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate their dedicated patriotism.

"We tried to accomplish this by living up to the tradition of "Go for Broke" or going all out for everything asked of us," Ito said. "Having the Congressional Gold Medal bestowed on the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and the MIS will be a most cherished award that must be dedicated to those among of us who lost their lives in WWII, to the many veterans no longer with us, and to those who cannot be here for the medal presentation. We who are still able to be here accept the Congressional Gold Medal with pride and humility."

Lawson Sakai said he doesn't care about the honor of the Gold Medal.

"But I think it's great. We did what we did and we got our freedom back," he said, remembering those years of internment.

"It was just one of the bad times when politics and military took over and there was no common sense. But this recognition, it's nice because it's the highest honor that the government can give, so it's nice," Sakai said.

Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization created solely to honor America's veterans for all their sacrifices, is transporting the 427 veterans of the 442nd to attend the Congressional Gold Medal ceremonies in Washington, D.C.

Related Links:

Army.mil: Asian Pacific Americans in the U.S. Army

Army.mil: Inside the Army News

STAND-TO!: Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Army.mil: Stories of Valor

Go For Broke National Education Center