Reporting from Washington — Nearly 69 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans to internment camps, President Obama signed legislation Tuesday awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Japanese American World War II veterans.
A handful of Japanese American veterans and lawmakers joined Obama in the Oval Office, where he signed the legislation awarding the medal to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, both known for their motto "Go for Broke," as well as the 6,000 Japanese Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Services during the war.
"It is the greatest thing in my life," 91-year-old Grant Ichikawa said after the ceremony.
In 1942, Ichikawa and his family were ordered to an internment camp in Arizona. Ichikawa, a graduate of UC Berkeley, said he left the camp and his parents to enroll in a six-month language school for the intelligence services, after which he served as a translator in Australia and the Philippines.
"I would never expect something like this," Ichikawa said. "It's the highest 'thank you' that the government can give us for what we went through."
About 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast were ordered to internment camps, said Christine Sato-Yamazaki, chairwoman of the National Veterans Network, a coalition of Japanese American veteran services and civil organizations.
About 33,000 Japanese Americans served in World War II, and 13,000 of them were in the 442nd and the 100th. Some enlisted, others were drafted from the camps.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D- Burbank), who championed the legislation with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), attended the ceremony. Schiff said the president recalled hearing legends about the men of the "Go for Broke" units during his childhood in Hawaii.
"These are incredible heroes who fought for the United States in World War II when many of them had family members interned," Schiff said.
Members of the 442nd were among the most highly decorated combat veterans of the war.
Jimmie Kanaya enlisted and served as a first sergeant in the medical detachment for the 442nd. He was captured in France by German forces and taken to a prison camp in Poland. Kanaya also attended the ceremony at the White House.
"The only regret I have is that we lost over 800 men who gave their all so that those of us who are surviving can receive recognition on their behalf, and they're the ones that deserve all the recognition," Kanaya said after the ceremony. "It just doesn't seem fair."
There are more than 9,000 Japanese American veterans of World War II still living.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the nation's highest civilian honor. Recipients include Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Walt Disney.
"These men were American heroes. They believed in America, they believed in democracy, they fought for this country and now they're standing here," Sato-Yamazaki said after the ceremony. "I think this moment today allows us to remember all of them, past and living — to remember what they've done for this country."
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a Medal of Honor recipient who lost his right arm fighting with the 442nd in Italy, also was present.
"Though we appeared to be in a happy, jovial mood, I am certain that all of us recognized the emotional caliber of the moment," he said. "We knew that the recognition we were receiving was the result of lost lives and bloodshed. We were humbled, proud and pleased that the contributions and sacrifices we made in defense of our great nation were recognized."