WWII Veteran Gets Medals In The Mail

November 13, 2011 by staff 

WWII Veteran Gets Medals In The Mail, Downey resident Kenji “Ken” Sayama, 96, was one of 772 World War II Japanese-American veterans who received the Congressional Gold Medal in person on Nov. 2 at the U.S. Capitol for their, in the words of retired U.S. Army General, current Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and keynote speaker Eric K. Shinseki, “service and sacrifice during World War II.”

The honorees last Wednesday belonged to three units—the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), to which Ken was assigned. The 442nd RCT was the renowned “Go For Broke” regiment later dubbed the most decorated combat team in WWII.

In all, some 19,000 Japanese-American soldiers served in the honored units.

The gold medal recipients who were able to show up at the special ceremony held at Emancipation Hall were in their ‘80s and ‘90s. Sharing the spotlight were family members and friends. Accompanying Ken was wife, Hatsuko (“Everybody calls me ‘Sue’”).

A sentiment long shared by many is that the honor was long overdue. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. authorities viewed Japanese-Americans with suspicion and sent them unceremoniously to internment camps. An estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans, citizens or otherwise, who resided along the Pacific Coast were sent to ten of these “desolate” internment camps. Ken, his younger brother (who has since passed away), and his mother found themselves in a ‘relocation center’ in Rohwer, Arkansas, some 110 miles southeast of Little Rock. (His father was working in Salt Lake City, where there wasn’t much anti-Nisei feeling at the time; his mother and brother would later join him after they were released from camp).

If those were trying times, Ken didn’t show any outward emotion. Instead, as he would later tell in his ‘autobiography’—actually an interview about his life–conducted by Cal’s Dan Cheatham, he was “able to accept the order without bitterness.” In fact, at the first opportunity, he would (voluntarily) enlist in the Army. He would eventually serve four years in the military. His draft classification was 4C, ‘enemy alien’.

A bright spot was Cal mailing in his bachelor’s (in zoology) diploma to his designated reception center (where mail was processed) in Santa Anita a few months into his incarceration in Arkansas. The 1942 diploma was based on the results of his mid-term exams.

After receiving his security clearance, and inducted into the MIS, Ken first attended a 12-month Japanese language class in Minnesota, focusing on learning military terms needed to translate captured documents and to interrogate prisoners. Halfway through the course, the training moved to Fort Snelling, which was about 20 miles closer to Minneapolis. Then it was on to Alabama for basic training.

It was upon returning to Fort Snelling afterwards that he met future wife Sue, who had been interned at the Manzanar relocation center in California.

After another training stretch, this time at Officers Candidates School at Fort Benning, GA, it was back to Fort Snelling. By this time, the war in Europe and the South Pacific had ended; Ken’s commission called for overseas duty with the Occupation Force. Before a two-year tour of duty in Japan was to commence, he and Sue got married in Minneapolis.

One of his first assignments upon arrival in Japan was as interpreter for a study of the Japanese police system instigated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He thus had occasion to visit several Japanese police stations in various prefectures. In between he was able to visit his parents’ ancestral home in Sendai. He was discharged in 1947.

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