Japanese-American soldiers get overdue honor

SEATTLE- "I think you had to prove yourself first and let them know this is our country - we're loyal," George Iwasaki tells CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

Iwasaki never lost faith in America, even when America had no faith in him.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government ordered 120,000 Japanese, more than half of them American citizens, to internment camps.

"I didn't believe it," Iwasaki said. "I was an American - I thought."

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He was 16, in high school in a Seattle suburb. He spent two years in three different camps. The day he turned 18, he volunteered to go to war. "I figured that's just what I got to do because this is still your country," he said. "Because you still think you're an American."

Jimmie Kanaya was already in the Army. "People would be looking at us because we wore the uniform of our country yet we looked like the enemy."

Kanaya and Iwasaki joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of thousands of Japanese-Americans. They were sent to Europe to fight the Germans. Kanaya was captured and spent 18 months as a prisoner of war.

The 442nd won freedom for strangers while their own families were locked up back home. "We had to go forward to prove ourselves so that we will be free when we get back," Kanaya said.

But the battle wasn't over when they returned. Iwasaki tried selling flowers in Seattle. "I walked in there and the guy says, 'Nope.' I says what's wrong? 'They're grown by the wrong type of people,'" Iwasaki said. "I said I'm really not that bad of a guy. And I said I'll leave now but you give me one answer. I said if you were in my shoes now what would you do?"

The 442nd became one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history. On Wednesday they received one of America's highest civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal. In all, about 19,000 Japanese-Americans served in the units honored at the ceremony: the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.On Wednesday they received one of America's highest civilian honors, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Kanaya and Iwasaki were there for their fellow soldiers who could not be.

"There are a lot of them that got killed and a lot of them that passed on since," Iwasaki said. "You come to my house, my flag is out there all the time. Not because of me, it's because of all the other guys."

It's an enduring sign of his loyalty even though he has nothing left to prove.

After the war ended, the U.S. government gave the Japanese-Americans who'd been interned $25 and a train ticket home. More than four decades would pass before they got an official apology, from President Reagan.

As for the 33,000 Japanese-Americans who served in the war, estimates are that only a few thousand are alive today.

  • Ben Tracy

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