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Celebrating Courage Under Fire

Tribute honors second-generation Japanese Americans who served in military.

June 15, 2003|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

To explain loyalty under duress, World War II veteran Ken Akune recalled Saturday an episode that rattled him many years ago, when he was an interpreter for the Army's Military Intelligence Service. It was near the end of the war, and Akune was interrogating prisoners in Burma. He heard the dialect of the part of Japan where his father and two younger brothers lived. Akune's brothers were 18 and 19, prime ages for conscription. What if one of them were brought into the room?

The thought of interrogating a relative disturbed him, but Akune, 79, said he never wavered in his duties. Born and raised in Turlock, Calif., he felt bound to serve his country, regardless of the consequences.

"If we sat back and did nothing, when the war was over they'd say, 'You didn't do anything,' " Akune said. "We had to show the country that we were as good as any other Americans."

Akune shared his memories at a Flag Day gathering Saturday in Little Tokyo, where three generations of Japanese Americans honored the sacrifices and stories of the Nisei veterans -- second-generation Japanese Americans who served in the U.S. military during World War II.

It's been more than 60 years since the Nisei veterans volunteered or were drafted into the Army in the aftermath of the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, when fear and prejudice against all Japanese ran high.

The Nisei veterans enlisted at a time when many of their parents, brothers and sisters languished in the internment camps where 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, were involuntarily held. Some Nisei veterans, like Akune, were themselves drafted out of internment camps.

The distinction with which they served -- earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 559 Silver Stars, 57 Distinguished Service Crosses and 21 Medals of Honor, according to the event's organizers -- helped quell doubts about where the loyalties of Japanese Americans lay.

To celebrate that patriotism and courage, friends, family and admirers of the Nisei veterans held a ceremony in front of a sloped black crescent of granite whose face bears an inscription summarizing their experience.

Named the Go For Broke Monument after the battle cry of the decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the icon captures the scope of the Nisei veterans' commitment with their 16,126 names, engraved row after row on a perimeter wall.

One of those names is Don Seki. Seki, 79, stood alone at the edge of the crowd while speakers queued up under a beaming sun to laud the accomplishments of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd, the Military Intelligence Service, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the 232nd Combat Engineer Company and the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion.

Born in Honolulu, Seki worked in construction projects on military bases after finishing high school in 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was twice escorted by military police at gunpoint from work sites. He found work, about 50 miles outside of Honolulu, building machine gun nests and water tanks, willing but unable to fight for his country.

"We wanted to volunteer but we were barred because we were rated 4-C, enemy aliens," Seki said. "We were men without a country."

Eventually the restrictions were loosened, and Seki enlisted. He saw combat in Salerno, Italy, and the forbidding forests of France's Vosges mountains. On Nov. 4, 1944, near the French town of Biffontaine, Seki was hit in the shoulder by machine gun fire and lost his left arm below the shoulder.

With some prodding, Seki named the medals pinned to his garrison cap: a Purple Heart, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Bronze Star, a European Campaign medal and a Combat Infantry badge. Despite their decorations, many of the veterans are reluctant to talk about their experiences, according to Christine Sato-Yamazaki, executive director of the Go For Broke Educational Foundation, which sponsored the event.

The grandchild of a 442nd veteran, Sato-Yamazaki said she lived with her grandparents for seven years and never heard them talk about their wartime experiences.

"The culture of not bragging or boasting about what they've done is strong," she said.

The foundation is compiling an oral history project where Nisei veterans are interviewed, and Sato-Yamazaki said that the veterans, with an average age of 80, are becoming more involved in telling their stories, often to their grandchildren.

"I think they know that if they don't speak out now, people might not ever hear their stories," Sato-Yamazaki said.

Along with having personally experienced the internments, for which Congress formally apologized in 1988, many Nisei veterans were sent for basic training to Army bases in Southern states, where they witnessed Jim Crow segregation against African Americans.

Young Oak Kim, a Korean American retired Army colonel who was drafted in 1941, said he was assigned to a Japanese American unit because his superiors at officer-candidate school in Fort Benning, Ga., "didn't know the difference between Korean, Japanese and Chinese."

When he reported to duty in Mississippi, Kim, 84, said his commanding officer questioned Kim's ability to lead Japanese American troops because the commander thought Japanese and Koreans didn't get along.

"I told him, 'We're going to get along fine because I'm American and they're American, and we're all going to fight for America,' " Kim said.

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