Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Go For Broke
Shig Doi and Lawson Sakai are no heroes. Just ask them, and they'll insist, "I was only doing my job."
The U.S. Army, however, disagrees. It awarded Doi, who lives in Richmond, two Bronze Stars for "heroic and meritorious service" in World War II.
Sakai, who lives in Morgan Hill, was awarded one Bronze Star and four Purple Hearts. He was actually wounded a fifth time, but he refused to let his name put up for another medal because he didn't think his wound was serious enough.
Both men are veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American World War II unit whose members were awarded more medals, man for man, than any other unit in American history.
But the most impressive thing of all is that they did this while their own families were imprisoned behind barbed wire back at home in forlorn hellholes euphemistically named "relocation camps." Doi's family was sent to Camp Amache in Colorado; Sakai's sister was sent to Camp Poston in Arizona.
In addition to their individual decorations, the entire 442 was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal on Nov. 2. It's only the second time an entire military unit has been given this honor. (The first was the Tuskegee airmen.)
The Congressional Gold Medal is different from the Medal of Honor. Several 442 veterans have that one, too, including Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who lost his right arm while leading an assault on a heavily-defended ridge near San Terenzo in Tuscany.
Doi and Sakai were among the hundreds of surviving veterans of the regiment who flew to Washington, DC, for the ceremony, which was held in the U.S. Capitol's Emancipation Hall.
President Obama wasn't invited because this was a congressional event, not a presidential one. But all the party leaders from both the House and Senate made speeches.
"I thought Nancy Pelosi gave a good speech, and so did Mitch McConnell," says Sakai. "But the amazing thing is that there were eight to 10 politicians, and they all stayed within their time limit!"
The climax of the ceremony was the awarding of the gold medal, which Sen. Inouye accepted on behalf of the regiment.
"Danny looked great," says Sakai, a good friend since they served together in the war. "He's dyed his hair, so he looks younger. The rest of us have white hair."
The next day, the veterans were wined and dined at a gala banquet in the main ballroom of the Washington Hilton, featuring speeches by Inouye, Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), Veterans Affairs chief Gen. Eric Shinseki, and "Today" show anchor Ann Curry.
"After the banquet we had our own private celebration," says Sakai. "We drank a LOT of Scotch. I think we drained the hotel's supply."
There are two reasons why the 442 earned so many medals. One is that some - but not all - of their Caucasian officers were racists who considered them mere cannon fodder and had no hesitation about sacrificing their lives to get bigger headlines.
But the other reason is that they were simply better soldiers. They could do things that other units couldn't do, such as rescuing the Lost Battalion, a Texas National Guard unit that was trapped behind German lines; or breaking the Gothic Line in northern Italy, which had stymied the entire U.S. Army for six months. They broke through in less than 24 hours.
Both these deeds were accomplished with great loss of life, of course. Doi's company was the spearhead of the assault that rescued the Lost Battalion.
"There were 130 of us when we attacked," he says. "Only eight of us walked out."
The Congressional Gold Medal will go on permanent display at the Smithsonian, and all the veterans received duplicates made from a baser metal.
One of those duplicates will become part of the exhibit honoring the 442 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the floating maritime museum docked at Alameda Point. It is the only display honoring an Army unit aboard a Navy ship. Sakai will formally present the medal to the Hornet at a ceremony on Friday at 11 a.m.
"My father always said that something good will come out of all this," says Doi. "After 67 years, it's too late for the guys who are no longer here. But they finally acknowledged us, and things are all changed for my children."