Finding My Japanese American Heroes
I was nine years old when Hideo Nomo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was the first public figure that I ever felt like I could own as a Japanese American. He wasn’t a nerd, he was a jock. He was someone I wanted to be associated with. He gave me permission and inspiration to be an athlete.
While I appreciate Nomo’s courage in pioneering baseball for Japanese players, it took me another nine years to discover my true heroes — men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The 442nd were an all Japanese American unit of about 4,000 men formed during WWII, drawn largely from American citizens who, along with their families, had unjustly been imprisoned like animals in internment camps. In spite of this mistreatment, thousands of young Japanese American men left their imprisoned families to fight and die for the very country that had imprisoned them.
Among the United States military, the 442nd are legendary, regarded by many as one of the greatest fighting groups in US history. Statistically, they are the most decorated unit in United States history for their size and length of service. These 14,000 men were arguably America’s most courageous and effective unit of all time.
By the end of the war, they had achieved a record without any real comparison:
21 Medals of Honor
34 French Legion of Honor
9,486 Purple Hearts
8 Presidential Unit Citations (5 in one month)
52 Distinguished Service Cross
1 Distinguished Service Medal
560 Silver Stars (plus 28 Oak Leaf Clusters for second award)
22 Legion of Merit Medals
15 Soldier’s Medals
4,000 Bronze Stars (plus 1,200 Oak Leaf Clusters for second award)
Congressional Gold Medal
George Morihiro and Frank Muramatsu, Nisei Vets
In 2008, I had the honor of interviewing two Nisei veterans as part of my senior thesis at Seattle Pacific University. This is an excerpt from my conversation with George Morihiro, who has since passed away.
I asked George how he could fight for the US when they had imprisoned his family. This was his reply to me, a fourth generation Japanese American:
“That’s simple. Your goal is to get them out of the camp, okay? The other thing, you can trust your government that they’re not gonna hurt em. Uh, physically, okay? And, and you fight because you’re fighting for your country. You never give that up. This is your country, and you fight for it, see?…
…See the bad part of the whole thing was this: this country gave you the right to be a free man. And they took that part away from you. What can you do when that part is taken away from you? Okay? Now, here’s the way I felt. During the war, after I went into battle, I swore to myself, they will never put me into another enclosure without any trial or any hearing…
…And that’s how bad it is, okay? When people ask how bad was it? Well, we can laugh about it, today, but, if you ever get into that position, it’s a different story. Because you know what you are? You’re an animal. They herd you into these barbed wire enclosures. You have nothing to say. They feed you, just like cows and animals. They don’t have no say so in a trial or anything like that…
…Ya know, there’s one thing. It would be hard for me to tell you truthfully all these things so that you could understand it. And the reason is, because the generation gap. You live in a world today that is near perfect, okay?…It’s not the punishment that you get by going into the camp. The punishment is basically what they’ve taken away from inside of you. Okay? And that use to, when I was younger, they used to ask me, what was it like? And I says, well it seemed to me like someone took a knife and cut your heart out. And that didn’t explain too much because they never tried that, ya know?”
At the end of our time, George and his friend, Frank Muramatsu, who was in the Military Intelligence Service, gave me these words of reflection and challenge:
“So, so basically that’s the story. We’re here and I’m so thankful that we’re being accepted as much as we are. It’s a lot easier for guys like you Steve. My kids are doing well. I think the Sanseis and beyond are doing very, very well, and a lot of it is due to what befell us and we went through it. We were able to overcome the negatives that that caused.”
“It’s not because I wanted to make speeches, it’s the fact that we want to spread and keep this legacy going so that your generation could live off of it, see? And this is the whole thing, uh, today, I don’t have to come here and talk to you but uh, but I want to because I’m sure you want to do something with what I telling you, and I can’t spread it anymore, you could, ya know, and carry this on. That legacy must go on, see?
The Japanese can’t be lost in the crowd because in this country the Japanese population is so small now that if you want to find another Japanese it’s a tough job, ya know? So, uh, we want this legacy to go on so that your generation could grow up and um, you could meet other people and they says, you’re Japanese? They says, was your father in the 442nd or something like this, ya know? You could say yes, ya know, I got a lot of relatives that were in 442nd. And this is what we want to carry on, because they know that what we did was a heck of a lot in helping this country, ya know, especially in the loyalty part.
But I think the most important part is, is that if you’re Japanese, you better be damn proud you are Japanese. I think so. You don’t have to brag about it, but just be proud.”
Thank You For Your Sacrifice
My Great Uncle Ken was in the 442nd. Sgt. Kenichi Sakanashi, 3rd Batallion, L Company. Born and raised in Lompoc, California. I’m among many proud sons and daughters who belong to the community of these amazing men.
Today, as we remember the fallen Japanese American soldiers, I am overwhelmed with emotion. I owe my life and freedoms to the courage and sacrifice of my forefathers.
I will never forget. Thank you for your sacrifice.
-Steve Sakanashi, Yonsei
Los Angeles / Seattle / Tokyo