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A Gathering of Heroes : The irony was thick. While their families were locked up, Japanese American soldiersliberated a Nazi death camp. Now, they reunite with honor.

April 05, 1995|TRACY JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I was so mad," Tokuda recalls. "I was a soldier fighting for my country and they separated my dad from his family."

Some families who lived farther inland had time to move to the Rockies or the Midwest, where they could live in freedom. Minabi Hirasaki's mother and siblings had six weeks to arrange a move to Colorado before his father was taken to a camp. Hirasaki joined the Army and the 522nd at age 19. Everyone he knew was in the service, he says. "I thought it was my duty to volunteer."

When the war ended in 1945, many of the returning 522nd soldiers had nowhere to go. First Sgt. Takeo Suzuki, who had lived in Ventura before the war, settled in Los Angeles. His family had moved back to Japan before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Suzuki enrolled at UCLA to study geology. After graduation, he interviewed with oil companies.

"They all said they would hire me," Suzuki recalls, "but couldn't because their employees wouldn't want to work with me because I was Japanese."

When Suzuki told his UCLA colleagues about his situation, they created a position. He went on to get his doctorate and worked as professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences until retiring in 1988.

In that same year, President Ronald Reagan signed a congressional act acknowledging the injustice of the relocation camps. Many internees received an apology and $20,000 in restitution.

These days, Suzuki stays busy keeping the 522nd legacy alive. The West Los Angeles home he shares with son Mark is covered with war memorabilia. Scrapbooks rest on the coffee table, a photo of Dachau on the piano. Glass-enclosed shelves hold more than 20 berets and combat helmets. Two complete uniforms hang in the closet.

Mark Suzuki displays patches, flags and medals in 20 portable cases that he takes to churches and community associations. As the group's self-appointed historian and as a member of a local chapter of the Hawaii-based Sons and Daughters of the 442nd, he vows not to let America forget the Nisei.

"This unit played a major role during the war," he says. "It's important that we let people know the unit existed. They made it possible for their sons and daughters to have the rights we have today."

'I was so mad. I was a soldier fighting for my country and they separated my dad from his family (in internment camps).'

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