Japanese-American veterans to receive Congressional Gold Medals

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Lawson Sakai didn't talk about fighting in World War II for a long time, partly because he needed to forget. Tom Sakamoto couldn't talk about it publicly for years. What he did was a military secret. And Jim Doi kept his memories to himself until, well, just last week.

"We did our job and that's all," said Doi, who at 87 is slender enough he could fit into his old Army uniform had he not tossed it out a long time ago. "What was I going to keep it for?"

But on Wednesday, the Japanese-Americans from Silicon Valley will sit among hundreds of aging veterans in the nation's capital as they watch Congress award Gold Medals, its highest honor, to their old units -- the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion, and the virtually unknown Military Intelligence Service.

The veterans will get replicas of the Gold Medals, which officially go to the units, but they don't mind that at all. Sakai, Sakamoto and Doi have plenty of medals, battle ribbons and commendations. After all these years, what's another one?

Yet, they will be in Washington to accept the honor as another recognition that Japanese-Americans were as loyal as anyone else at a time when the country was battling a Japanese foe abroad and that their imprisonment during the early years of the was one of the worst abominations in American civil rights history.

But they have their personal reasons for going, too.

Sakai was a junior college student in Southern California when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. When he showed up to enlist in the Navy a few days later, officers told him to go away, because -- "I was an enemy alien."

He was flabbergasted. As a Nisei -- the first generation born to Japanese parents in the United States -- he finally got his chance when the government formed the 442nd under pressure to give the Nisei a chance to prove their loyalty.

He's 88 now, lives in Morgan Hill, and walks so straight it's hard to notice that he took shrapnel in the back from a German shell in France. He carried a heavy Browning Automatic Rifle when the 442nd helped the city of Bruyeres in October 1944. After that they rescued the famous "Lost Battalion," a pinned-down contingent from Texas. And then the 442nd fought for nine straight days, pushing into Germany and losing 800 men.

Like many Nisei veterans, Sakai returned home to start from scratch. His family had lost everything during their internment and migrated to northern California to work on farms. Sakai avoided talking about the war, basically clammed up until the 442nd started having reunions in the 1950s.

"I needed to get out of the Army," he said last week. "Nobody really knew at the time, but it was PTSD,"

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has put a lot of recent veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in military hospitals and out-patient clinics around the country. Some Vietnam War vets still suffer from it. Sakai wasn't too impressed by the invitations to the Gold Medal ceremony.

"I'm going because they twisted my arm," he said with a wide smile and without explaining.

Well, who?

"Oh, mostly my family. They thought it would be the right thing."

Tom Sakamoto was a "kibei," someone who learns to speak Japanese in Japan. In 1934, his family sent him from San Jose, where he was born, to study in Japan. While he was there, a Japanese major offered him a commission to join the Imperial Army, but Sakamoto refused and returned home.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army before Pearl Harbor and volunteered for the new and secret Military Intelligence Service, which had a language school at the Presidio in San Francisco. But Sakamoto found himself teaching Japanese to other MIS recruits and getting bored. He asked for a transfer to battlefield units and soon got his wish, a fierce battle for the Admiralty Islands in 1944.

"That was where I made my greatest contribution," he said.

American soldiers somehow got hold of a Japanese message, written on rice paper, ordering a massive suicide attack that night. Sakamoto read it and alerted his commanders. They ordered a naval bombardment of Japanese positions, and the suicide attack never came.

When he wasn't translating seized messages, Sakamoto interrogated Japanese soldiers, many of whom called him a traitor to the motherland. And he spent a lot of time trying not to get shot by American soldiers who might mistake him for the enemy. He laughs about that now.

Sakamoto's career reads like 20th century, American military history. He was on the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender and among the first Americans to see Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. Sakamoto became a military lifer, serving in the Korean and Vietnam wars and rising to the rank of colonel.

At 93, he lives in a retirement home in Los Gatos and walks with a cane. He might have trouble negotiating the crowd at the Gold Medal ceremony, but he's going anyway. Of the 58 Nisei classmates to start the MIS school, he said, only a handful are still alive.
"I'm going for my colleagues in the secret school," Sakamoto said. "I'm going to receive the medal as an honor to them."

Yakuta "Jim" Doi junked his Army uniform after the war but he has guarded a leather-bound scrapbook filled with photos of his brief years with the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy and France. Simply put, he had movie star looks, could have had mademoiselles falling all over him, but he and his buddies were too square.

"We didn't smoke. We didn't drink, and we didn't gamble," he said at his home in Saratoga. "We were different. We were outcasts."

He's 87 and still fit, except for failing eyesight. Doi was too young and arrived too late to fight in the Nisei's biggest battles in Europe. Even so, he remembers nearly getting killed by friendly fire and shooting at an enemy he could barely see.

"In combat, everybody's shooting everywhere. You didn't know if you hit anyone most of the time. It was chaos," Doi said.

As he talked about his part in the war, even if the details weren't dramatic, his wife Asako, son Howard, and daughter-in-law Sue listened quietly and intensely. Amazingly, after all these years, they were hearing Doi's stories for the first time.

"He just never talked about it," Howard Doi said.

The veteran, who won bronze stars and battle ribbons, tried to explain, "I'm not a hero. I didn't win a Medal of Honor or anything like that."

Doi also never talked about Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. Neither did his parents, who were born and raised in the doomed city and surely lost some relatives in the blast.

After the war, Doi never attended any Nisei veterans reunions, but he did keep in touch with his buddies by letter for decades. Only two of that group of friends are still alive.

Still, he's going to Washington for the medal ceremony.

"OK, I'll tell you why I'm going," he finally said, looking at his wife. "I'm going for ... I'm going for ... what was his first name?"

"Noboru," she answered.

Pvt. Noboru Miyoko was Doi's brother-in-law. Miyoko was killed by a German shell a few days after their squads had crossed paths in France. Another shell on another day could have killed Doi, too, but he brushed off the suggestion.

"I'm going to receive the medal for Noboru Miyoko and all the other guys who died," Doi said. "It's not for me!"

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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