Sacramento Gold Medal Ceremony Honors WWII Veterans
By Andy Noguchi—SACRAMENTO—Soaring six stories high in the courtyard, the California State Museum’s Constitution Wall proclaimed in huge words “rights,” “redress,” “without discrimination” and “liberty” to the some 300 well-wishers of the Japanese American World War II veterans honored on May 26.
This was the striking backdrop as Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) presented almost 30 surviving veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 100th Battalion and Military Intelligence Service (MIS) with the Congressional Gold Medal at the ceremony in Sacramento.
It is a “very special day for all of us — and all Americans … All our veterans served and sacrificed much, but these men also suffered discrimination in our own country.” After being imprisoned during World War II, many “no longer felt they had a country they could call their own,” remarked Matsui.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the nation’s highest civilian award for performing outstanding service to the United States. The veterans join honorees including George Washington, the Navajo Code Talkers and the Tuskegee Airmen.
The suspicions and racism against Japanese Americans were fueled by Japan’s 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, which led to the rapid incarceration of more than 110,000 persons of Japanese descent in United States concentration camps. Not until 1943 did the government allow segregated Japanese American units, most coming out of those camps and Hawai‘i, to fight the worldwide Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and militarist Japan.
The written program explained how the 100th Battalion and the 442nd soon proved themselves in European battles, becoming the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history for its length of service and size. The MIS, comprised of Nisei and Kibei (those Japanese Americans who were educated in Japan, but returned to the U.S.) linguists served as translators, interrogators and code-breakers in the Pacific against Japan.
Dr. Isao Fujimoto of University of California, Davis whose efforts led to the creation of one of the nation’s first Asian American studies programs at the university, related how he later met Charles Willoughby, Gen. Douglas McArthur’s chief of intelligence during World War II. Willoughby is said to have credited the Japanese American linguists with shortening the Pacific War by two years and saving a million lives.
Nisei soldiers helped to “demolish all suspicions of the minority population,” he said. “For bringing honor to Japanese Americans everywhere … thank you very much.”
He pointed to the Nisei veterans’ service, sacrifice and selflessness. He said the immigrant Issei parents guided the American-born Nisei with three principles: ”Give it all you’ve got,” “Whatever you do, do it in a way that brings honor to your family and community” and “Don’t brag.”
Exemplifying the humility of many Nisei, Percy Fukushima, an MIS veteran from Sacramento’s Florin community, said, “We all served our country. We just happened to be Japanese Americans.”
When asked what the ceremony meant to him, Shig Yokote, a 442nd veteran and well-known community photographer, shared a few thoughts. “Well, I’m 95 years old now. This ceremony comes at a much-appreciated time, and I’ve looked forward to it. We appreciate the organizations doing this.”
Roy Sato, who served in the 100th Battalion and is active with veteran activities, praised the local ceremony, since many veterans couldn’t attend the national ceremony in Washington, D.C. last fall. Sato noted that his grandchildren have interviewed him about his military service for school projects, and that it’s important that the younger generation understand the sacrifices of the older generation.
George Morita, formerly of the MIS, was looking to the future. He commented that many of his family were able to join him at the Sacramento ceremony. His daughter, Priscilla Ouchida, was in Washington, D.C., where she serves as the new national director of the Japanese American Citizens League.
Sharon Ito, master of ceremonies and long-time newscaster, summed up the crowd’s feeling well. “We say thank you to our veterans of World War II, our husbands, fathers, uncles and grandfathers. They were our heroes when we were growing up.”
Rev. Peter Inokoji-Kim, a veteran himself, led a moment of silence for those many veterans who had already passed away. He urged the crowd to remember that “each day of life is not to be taken for granted but is a true gift.”
Kendyl Ito, a C. K. McClatchy High School student, performed the “Star-Spangled Banner,” with Boy Scout Troops 50 and 250 leading the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Sacramento and Florin chapters of the JACL, and the Asian Community Center of Sacramento co-sponsored the ceremony.