Watsonville event honors Japanese-American World War II vets
WATSONVILLE — Veterans Day is a time of reflection for Lawson Sakai. It is a day to pause and pay tribute to his fallen brothers from the 442nd Infantry Regiment.
Sakai was 18 and attending college in Los Angeles when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Sakai tried to enlist in the U.S. military and fight for his country but was rejected because of his Japanese ancestry.
He and his family were faced with anti-Japanese sentiment and sent to an internment camp in Colorado, one of many camps the government put nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack.
In March 1943, Sakai and other Japanese Americans were given an opportunity to serve in a segregated unit known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — an Army unit made up almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese descent.
To Sakai and the 14,000 men who joined the 442nd Regiment, there was no hesitation to serve even while their families were still incarcerated.
Sakai, 89, a resident of Morgan Hill, shared his story at a Veterans Day celebration held Saturday by the Japanese American Citizens League in Watsonville.
A ceremony took place at Pajaro Valley Memorial Park to re-dedicate a plaque in honor of Japanese American soldiers who died in World War II.
The ceremony was followed by a gathering at the Tokushige Kizuka Hall on Blackburn Street, where Sakai spoke and a documentary called “Valor with Honor” was shown with firsthand accounts of the war from Japanese American soldiers.
“I was dying to get into the service,” Sakai said. “I wanted to prove I was an American.”
Sakai spoke to the crowd of nearly 100, telling of the time he was shot by a German teenager while on a mission in Germany on his 21st birthday.
“Somehow he missed me even though I was right in front of him,” Sakai said. “It was either kill or be killed.”
Mas Hashimoto, a Watsonville resident who also served in the Army, said it’s important to salute the seven Japanese American soldiers of Watsonville who were killed in World War II.
He shared stories of Japanese Americans climbing the ranks of the U.S. military and winning great military honors.
“We should remember our veterans who served in many different wars,” Hashimoto said. “They helped save countless lives and helped rebuild Japan into our most trusted ally in Asia.”
Special honors were paid to Henry Sadao Izumizaki, a Watsonville native who died during the Battle of the Lost Battalion in November 1944.
Watsonville resident Victor Kimura, 67, who attended Saturday’s celebration, said he has “great respect” for the Japanese Americans who gave their lives at such a difficult time for the country.
“They did so voluntarily,” Kimura said. “If they hadn’t given their lives, there’s no way we’d be considered equal.”