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Here's how Japanese Americans who fought for the U.S. in World War II are being honored

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 5/31/2021 Darrell Smith and Paul Kitagaki Jr., The Sacramento Bee

May 31—His eyes meet yours in the printed image, a helmeted soldier dressed for battle. Not the dogface GI of Hollywood lore, but the face of the more than 30,000 Japanese American soldiers who fought and served in World War II.

Together, the thousands of military men and women would come to be known collectively as the Go For Broke soldiers, the name taken from the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was the all-Japanese American World War II fighting unit that became the most decorated in U.S. military history.

Today, the image of that soldier — U.S. Army Private First Class Shiroku "Whitey" Yamamoto of Hawaii — graces a new commemorative postage stamp that honors the Go For Broke soldiers. The U.S. Postal Service will issue the first stamps Thursday in Los Angeles, the city where the Stamp Our Story campaign's 15-year journey was born.

On June 5, Sacramento's California Museum will host a virtual stamp release dedication ceremony to celebrate its release and the Japanese American men and women who served and sacrificed during WWII. U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who was born in an internment camp, is among the scheduled speakers.

More than 30,000 men and women of Japanese descent served in World War II. They were Nisei — second-generation Japanese Americans born to parents from Japan. They suffered withering racism and prejudice after Japan's devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the day that vaulted the United States into WWII.

Many were forced to leave their homes with little more than their suitcases, their freedom and livelihoods stripped away. They and their families were branded as "enemy aliens" and imprisoned in isolated internment camps under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066. The Nisei soldiers fought for their country even as it imprisoned their loved ones.

Fusako Takahashi's late husband, Kazuo Takahashi, was one. He was drafted into the U.S. Army out of a Utah internment camp in 1943 and served in military intelligence. Fusako and her family were confined to a camp in Colorado during the war.

Kazuo Takahashi rarely spoke about the war, but decades after the fighting and deep into her 70s, Fusako Takahashi would become a voice for this generation of forgotten heroes.

"I wanted them to know that Japanese Americans, their patriotism is because of their heritage. To show that whatever your plans are, whatever you're asked to do, you give it your best," the 94-year-old Granite Bay woman said of the journey to the Go For Broke stamp. "Now, more people will know about their uncommon courage."

Starting the campaign

Takahashi, along with the late Chiz Ohira of Gardena, whose late husband Ted Ohira served in the 442nd, and Aiko King of Camarillo began their campaign in 2005 after touring an exhibit on Japanese American soldiers at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. A fourth, Wayne Osako, whose parents were forced into internment during the war, would become a campaign co-chair.

"That's when we started this campaign," Takahashi said. "We really thought about having a stamp. We didn't think we'd get it, but even the publicity of getting a stamp would help."

They organized signature and letter-writing campaigns while lobbying lawmakers including Daniel Inouye, a longtime Hawaii senator and decorated war hero who fought in the 442nd and lost his right arm in combat. Inouye, who died in 2012, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in battle.

"The beauty of the stamp is that some Americans never, ever thought about what happened in World War II and the incarceration," said David Inada, whose father, 100-year-old Tom Inada of Sacramento, was interned during the war and was later drafted into military intelligence as an interpreter.

"They might wonder what about this soldier here? Why does he look Asian? And they might start to ask questions about it and, that way, maybe start to educate themselves about the atrocity that really happened here when — in many cases — Americans here who had done nothing wrong, got sent (away), their property taken away and put in concentration camps."

They were infantrymen and engineers. They were interrogators and translators, such as Inada, working in military intelligence on the ground and behind the scenes in the Pacific.

They were combat medics like George Hamai of Sacramento. They were WACs — women who served in the Women's Army Corps, the Army Nurse Corps and Cadet Nurse Corps.

The more than 800 Japanese American soldiers who gave their lives in the war are remembered this Memorial Day.

"I lost quite a few friends," said Hamai, 100. "Some are still buried out there — quite a few that's buried over there."

Hamai was born in 1920 on a farm in Penryn. He and his family were ordered to the desolate detention camp at Tule Lake as war raged in the Pacific. Soon after, Hamai was drafted as a combat medic into the legendary 442nd tending to the troops on battlefields in Italy and France and participating in what was the 442nd's finest hour, their rescue of the "Lost Battalion," nearly 300 infantry troops from surrounding German soldiers just inside the French border in October 1944.

Hamai's bravery in battle would earn him the Bronze Star. But he talked little about the war in a recent interview with The Sacramento Bee.

"I'm 100 now, so I don't remember much," he said with a small chuckle. "I was in the Army for two years. A lot of the guys in the 4-4-2 came out of the camps. I was a medic — first aid. I didn't carry a 13-pound rifle, I just carried a five-pound medical aid bag.

"I'm glad they have something," Hamai said later of his comrades and the upcoming stamp. "It's a good idea."

'I think it honors them to have a stamp made'

Tom Inada was 21 when war struck. He was studying art at Sacramento City College with plans to go to art school in Los Angeles, "But plans ... got changed."

Inada's father owned a fish market. Inada went to Sacramento High School and lived in the family home on P Street before the order that sent the Inadas, like so many Japanese American families from Sacramento, to Tule Lake.

Inada was later drafted into the Army as an interpreter, translating documents first in the Philippines, then later in Japan. He was assigned to the 442nd before he was transferred to military intelligence.

The fateful decision haunts him still.

"I was supposed to go with them. Quite a few, they got killed," Inada said. "I feel like somebody's looking out for me because I was supposed to go with a certain group, but for some reason or another, I got pulled out and the group that I was supposed to go with got killed on landings or something like that.

"I think it honors them to have a stamp made."

Like Hamai, Inada spoke little of his World War II experience. But daughter-in-law Ellen Inada told him the stamp is a powerful statement.

"You know, the stamp, it really brings tears to my eyes," she said. "I think of all those people who died. You talk about your friends in the 4-4-2, how a lot of them didn't come back. You were part of that in the beginning before you got transferred. It makes me feel really proud of what you did. It's, 'Hey, we were out there, doing stuff.'"

Many of the veterans Takahashi tried to contact during the stamp campaign have since died, "But I think they would be very proud of it," she said. "It was hard to believe that it would happen. In the early 1990s, there was a stamp issued to honor soldiers of World War II and there were no Asian faces, and that got to me, too. They were kind of forgotten."

That could change with the new stamp, said Tom Okubo of Sacramento. Now 95, he served as a supply sergeant during WWII and sees the stamp as a tool to educate a new generation of an important chapter in American history.

"The younger people, they don't know what happened," Okubo said. Maybe now, he said, "They'll know what it was all about."

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