Piedmont Mayor Margaret Fujioka is off to Washington D.C. next week to accept a special honor from the Smithsonian Institution on behalf of a beloved relative she never met.
On May 12 the Smithsonian's Museum of American History will officially launch its Nisei Soldier Congressional Gold Medal Digital Exhibition, honoring the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the segregated Japanese American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
The exhibition focuses on 12 individual soldiers, and one of them is Fujioka's uncle, Private First Class Teruo "Ted" Fujioka, a member of the 442nd's 1st Antitank Company, who was killed by a German 88 mm. artillery shell on November 6, 1944, in the woods outside the French town of Bruyeres. It was two months after his 19th birthday.
"I never met him, but I've always felt like I knew him," she says. "He was one of twelve children, so there were a lot of aunts and uncles to tell me stories about him as I was growing up. My father was the youngest, and he and Ted were very, very close. He idolized his big brother."
What they told her was that Ted was an intelligent, patriotic, handsome, athletic and kind young man who was a terrific writer and a born leader, and that his dream was to become a lawyer and run for office some day.
"He has been an inspiration to me all my life," she says. "It's no coincidence that I became a lawyer and ran for office myself."
Ted Fujioka was born in 1925. His mother was a gifted artist and haiku poet. His father was a journalist and community leader who was active in promoting friendship and understanding between the United States and Japan in the decade leading up to World War II.
Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Ted's father was one of the first of the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were arrested and imprisoned after Pearl Harbor. The rest of the family was sent to the Heart Mountain detention camp in Montana, where they languished until the end of the war. But Ted's dad was arrested by the FBI and interrogated for months before finally being allowed to join his family at Heart Mountain because of ill health.
The internees created their own school system in the camp, and Ted was elected the first Student Body President of Heart Mountain High School, as well as editor of the student newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel, and president of the Hi-Y Club.
When he turned 18 he volunteered to enlist in the U.S. Army and joined the newly created 442nd Regimental Combat Team, despite the treatment his family and so many others had suffered at the hands of the government.
"The future welfare of all of us who hope to remain in this land rests almost entirely on how the 442nd does in battle," he wrote to his parents explaining his decision. "We've got everything to gain by doing our utmost in battle, nothing to lose. We have a chance to prove to all who doubt our loyalty and sincerity to this nation that we too are Americans and therefore entitled to live as Americans in the truest sense of the word."
He fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including the celebrated Rescue of the Lost Battalion in the Vosges Mountains just a few days before his death.
"The Lost Battalion was a Texas National Guard Unit of about 200 men what was trapped behind German lines," his niece explains. "Other units tried to break through to save them, but they couldn't. But the 442nd did, although they suffered 800 casualties to save those 200 men. For this and many other heroic acts of bravery and loyalty to our country, the 442nd was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011."
Mayor Fujioka attended that ceremony, too, accompanied by her father.
"The emotion he felt to be there to accept an award on behalf of his brother meant a lot to him in the last years of his life," she says. "He died two years later. I wish he could be with me on this one, too. That's one of the reasons for me to go – to honor him, to honor Ted, to make sure this story gets told, and to thank the Smithsonian for doing this."
A year after her father died, she and her family visited France and saw the places where Ted fought and died, including the American Cemetery in Epinal, where so many of the 442's fallen are buried.
"It was a sobering experience gazing upon the hundreds of rows of white crosses; walking down the main street of Bruyeres, which the French have named 'Rue 442;' and breathing the thick, molst air of the Vosges forest where the grateful French built a memorial to the 442nd for liberating Bruyeres," she says. "I will never forget the inscription: "To those whose lives proved that patriotism is not determined by their ethnicity."
Ted's parents received the dreaded telegram from the War Department a week after his death. They were still imprisoned at Heart Mountain. Shortly afterward they received a Purple Heart for the wound that killed him. Many years later a thief stole it from their home. But Mayor Fujioka still has the stubbed end of the pencil he used to write his letters home, as well as many of the letters.
In his last letter, Ted wrote, "Dear Moma, Papa, & all, Don't worry about me. I'm OKAY. Just take care of yourselves. When this war is over, I'll be home again – Heart Mountain, Detroit, Cincinnati, Hollywood, wherever it may be… As ever, Ted. Will write again."
But he never did.
Teruo "Ted" Fujioka, 1925-1944. Rest in peace.