WASHINGTON — In the days following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Lawson Sakai learned how much the world had changed for Japanese-Americans in 1941. Sakai and some of his buddies drove to the local Navy recruiting station and tried to enlist. While his white friends were quickly accepted, Sakai was told he was considered an "enemy alien" and could not join.
Sakai then watched as the FBI rounded up some of the leading Japanese-American men in Los Angeles. When the federal government authorized the relocation of people with Japanese ancestry, a sister and some of his friends were sent to internment camps.
"We were blackballed," Sakai said. "Basically, they took away our citizenship."
Sakai's story is similar to thousands of other "Nisei," or second-generation Japanese-Americans. Eventually, they ended up serving as part of three distinct military units during World War II.
Nearly 70 years later, lawmakers voted to award those veterans the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress. A ceremony marking the occasion will take place Wednesday at the Capitol.
In all, about 19,000 Japanese-Americans served in the three units being honored: the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.
Sakai served in the 442nd, which consisted of volunteers, about two-thirds from Hawaii and the rest from the mainland. The 442nd experienced some of the most horrific fighting in Europe and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. In just 10 months of combat, more than 700 were killed or listed as missing in action.
Sakai, 88, was wounded on four different occasions and would receive a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He said the years following the war were difficult and that he often drank to deal with the brutality of the war. Now, he said, he's able to take pride in his peers' accomplishments and the subsequent congressional recognition.
"We certainly deserved the record that we produced. It was done by shedding a lot of blood. As far as I know, we didn't give up an inch of blood. We were always attacking and the Germans were always on the higher ground," he said.
The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany. One of the units attached to the 442nd was the 100th Infantry Battalion, which was comprised exclusively of Japanese-Americans from Hawaii who had been drafted prior to Pearl Harbor. After the attack, they guarded Hawaii from a possible land invasion. They subsequently underwent training on the mainland and hit the beaches of Salerno, Italy, in September 1943. They received the nickname the Purple Heart Battalion because of the tremendous number of casualties they endured.
Even as they fought in Europe, many Japanese-American troops had family members who would spend much of the war in U.S. internment camps. American officials, citing concerns that those of Japanese ancestry could be security risks during war with Japan, sent men, women and children to camps around the country.
While undergoing training, Susumu Ito would visit his parents and two sisters 200 miles away at the Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas. Despite the injustice of being forced to relocate from Stockton, Calif., Ito said, his parents took great pride in their son fighting for the U.S. military. However, he ignored his mother's request in her weekly letters to avoid hazardous duty. He said he wanted to be on the front lines, as did his peers. The motto of the 442nd was "go for broke."
Ito said that mentality reflected the mindset of Japanese-Americans in general.
"This spirit of overcoming any objection was ingrained in mind," Ito said.
About 6,000 Japanese-Americans served in the Military Intelligence Service, on the front lines and behind the scenes, translating cables and interviewing prisoners of war. Many also served during the postwar occupation of Japan, providing a bridge between Japanese and American officials.
President Harry Truman welcomed home many of the Japanese-American soldiers in 1946: "You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice, and you have won."
George Washington was the first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, in 1776. In recent years, Congress has honored athletes, astronauts and civil rights trailblazers. They've also granted the award to the Tuskegee Airmen and to Native American code talkers who transmitted secret messages sent during World War II.
Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Adam Schiff, both Democratic lawmakers from California, were the original co-sponsors of the legislation honoring the Japanese-American soldiers. The legislation was signed into law last year, and Wednesday's event is the award ceremony.
Last week, the House approved legislation to honor the first black Marines and the Senate is expected to take up a similar bill.