(Above: Lawson Sakai and me at last year's ceremony.)
They say the French hate Americans, but I know one group of Americans they definitely don't hate. Au contraire, mon ami, they love these guys, and with good reason.
The date was Oct 18, 1944. The town of Bruyeres – population about 3,500 – was facing a bloodbath of catastrophic proportions. The German commandant in the area, Klaus Barbie, aka "the Butcher of Lyon," had scheduled a mass execution of hundreds of resistance fighters in the town square that afternoon.
But that morning, the 442nd Regimental Combat team, a segregated Japanese American U.S. Army unit, spoiled his party by liberating the town. And those resistance fighters were saved, including a 16-year-old boy named Francois Mitterrand, who grew up to become President of France.
He never forgot, and neither did the people of Bruyeres, as I discovered in 1994 when I accompanied some 442 veterans on a sentimental journey back to the city.
As our bus pulled into town, I spotted huge banners overhanging the street. I expected them to read, "Bienvenue a nos libérateurs" – welcome to our liberators. But instead, they read, "Bienvienue a nos sauvers " - welcome to our saviors!
The next day was Bastille Day, and the parade featured the 442nd vets marching down the main street – which the French named Rue du 442 after the war – behind the local high school band.
Never have I seen such joy. Old grandmothers leaned out their windows and tossed roses at them as they passed by. Young mothers, who were born decades after the war, ran alongside, holding up their babies for them to kiss.
One of the citizens who greeted us was Serge Carlesso, who was an 11-year-oldboy on the day the 442nd liberated his town. Serge's right leg was blow off by a German shell, but the 442nd medics saved his life. With him was his grandson, Laurent, who was the same age Serge had been on that day.
Also there was Pierre Moulin, a man who made it his life's work to honor the 442nd and keep their memory alive, writing books and articles and leading tours of the battlefields.
Serge died several years ago, and Pierre died just last month. And many of the 442nd veterans who took that trip with me are gone, too. But Laurent is still around to keep the story alive. And so am I, and so are the next two generations of Japanese Americans, the sansei and the yonsei.
Next Saturday, May 20 - Armed Forces Day – the men of the 442nd, plus their family and friends, conduct a memorial ceremony for their lost comrades in Oakland's Roberts Park, and they cordially invite you to join them. It won't take long – only about a half hour – and the scouts from Troop 21 in Berkeley will present the colors.
Roberts Park is on Skyline Boulevard. Just follow the signs for the Chabot Space & Science Center and take the Roberts Park turnoff a mile and a half before you get to the Center. Just say the magic words "442" to the guard at the gate, they'll tell you where to park. The service starts at Noon.
And no matter how nice the weather is, bring a sweater. We're going to be in a redwood grove, and it has its own micro-climate.