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Japanese-American WWII Vets To Receive Long Overdue Honor

MORGAN HILL (CBS 5) -- Almost 70 years after serving in World War II, 88 year-old Lawson Sakai will be bestowed with America's highest civilian honor. The Morgan Hill resident is among hundreds of Japanese-American veterans nationwide who will receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

"The recognition by the government is a big thing," Sakai said. "They put you up there with George Washington, who was I think the first recipient."

In all, 20,000 Japanese-American soldiers served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion and Military Intelligence Service in World War II.

They fought for the same country that locked up over 120,000 of their family members in internment camps.

"We became the enemy," said Sakai, "even though we were American citizens."

Sakai's attempts were to join Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were blocked due to new laws.

"They refused to take me," said Sakai. "They said, 'Sorry you're Japanese. Now you're 4C: enemy alien.'"

KCBS' Matt Bigler Reports:

But two years later when the U.S. called for an all-Japanese American volunteer combat team, 19 year-old Sakai enlisted. His 442 nd "Go for Broke" unit became one of the most highly decorated of the war.

"We were fighting to the finish," explained Sakai. "It was either we would be annihilated or we would accomplish our mission, which was to get our freedom. Get out citizenship rights back."

In its bloodiest battle, the Japanese American unit freed a Texas battalion the Nazis trapped in northeastern France. The 442nd suffered more than 800 casualties, while rescuing just over 200 men.

"The artillery shell would hit the top of the mountain, through treetops and fly all over like an umbrella," remembered Sakai. "That's how I got hit. I got hit in the back and it hurt so bad I thought I was dead."

After the war, Sakai left the service and got married. But, he still wasn't welcome in stores in restaurants.

"It was another war," Sakai said, "A different kind of war."

For years, many Japanese American soldiers buried their stories of courage. So it's taken time for Congress to honor them all.

"They're not boastful, so it takes awhile for them to talk about their experiences," said Rosalyn Tonai, a member of the National Japanese American Historical Society. "You realize when they tell their stories, it's an incredible feat what they achieved."

Sakai himself has organized several veterans' reunion trips back to eastern France. Two years ago, the aging veterans were honored in Bruyeres, the city they had liberated 65 years before.

"We're on our way out," said Sakai. "So it's good to say we did something in our life."

Decades later, they've earned America's highest praise.

The Congressional Gold medal will be presented Wednesday at Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol Visitors' Center.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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