It is with great sadness that the Japanese American National Museum acknowledges the passing of Lawson Iichiro Sakai, 96. He was a decorated member of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the founder of the Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans (FFNV) group, which organized annual get-togethers in Las Vegas and trips abroad for Japanese American World War II veterans and their families.
Lawson, who grew up in Montebello, volunteered for the U.S. Army during World War II and trained with the 442nd at Camp Shelby with individuals such as Sen. Daniel Inouye. He participated in the 442nd’s most famous battle, the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” in France in 1944. Wounded more than once, Lawson was almost killed in this crucial battle. He eventually recovered and returned to America, where he married Mineko Hirasaki and started his family.
Outwardly outgoing and fun-loving, Lawson acknowledged that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his war experiences. But he remained active with his veterans’ gatherings, rode in this year’s Rose Parade, and was often a spokesperson for the 442nd. He did numerous interviews over the years, some of which were shared by JANM’s Discover Nikkei website.
In 2019, JANM, with the generous support of Japanese American Stories, collaborated with StoryFile and recorded 25 hours of interviews with Lawson in which he answered 800 questions. In the fall, through the use of StoryFile’s artificial intelligence technology, visitors to JANM will be able to engage with an avatar of Lawson and hear his stories in his own voice. Thanks to individuals like Lawson, JANM and the United States have a greater understanding of the experiences of the Japanese American soldiers during World War II.
The leadership, staff and volunteers of JANM wish to convey our deepest condolences to the family of Lawson Sakai and to thank him for his courage and heroism that inspired generations and enriched our community.
In announcing Sakai’s passing, the USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum in Alameda called him “a friend to the ship and her crew and an important figure in the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII. Fair winds and following seas – you will be missed.”
Etienne Pourcher, former mayor of Bruyeres, a French town that was liberated from the Nazis by the 442nd, said, “We have only few chances to meet a hero in our lives. Lawson Iichiro Sakai is one of them. He’s my hero. I had the chance to meet him. American, Japanese Americans, his family, all can be very proud of what he did, with other veterans, specifically in Vosges region.
“What they did, what he did for us, for our liberty, for the peace is unforgettable. They are heroes. He is a hero. Forever. And like real heroes, so modest, so warm … His soul will live in our forests forever. I miss him so much … Go For Broke.”
Mitchell Maki, president and CEO of the Go For Broke National Education Center, said, “Lawson was a giant in my eyes. Not only because he was a Nisei veteran of World War II, but because of all his efforts to tell the Nisei veteran story and keep the legacy alive. He didn’t pull punches or sugarcoat reality — he openly talked about the horrors of war and the physical and psychological scars which he carried with him. And yet, he would do it all over again in a heartbeat because he knew what their service meant for the Japanese American community and for our nation.
“He was a role model, a hero, and most of all, a dear friend.”
Historian and author Michael G Malaghan (“Picture Bride,” “A Question of Loyalty”) said, “Felt so privileged to part of the Vosges tour last summer. Lawson was the sparkplug, the face of valor, and man with the never-ending smile. One of the special people in life who cannot be replaced … but live in the hearts of those who knew him.”
ABC7 Eyewitness News anchor David Ono, who has produced documentaries about Nisei veterans and Japanese American history, posted on Facebook: “I’m torn to bits. Throughout my life I’ve met many wonderful impressive people. And at the top of that list is this man, Lawson Sakai. We lost him this week, finally allowing to rest a man who refused to stop as long as there was a chance to do the greater good.
“In World War II he fought in one of the greatest fighting units in American military history — the 100th/442nd. A segregated unit of Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the mainland. Many of whom were fighting for the very country that locked up their innocent families in concentration camps. Yet they fought bravely, gallantly, with incredible results. This graduate of Montebello High was wounded four times but refused to return home.
“Each time he would heal and rejoin his comrades in battle. Later in life he was one of the few that would talk about what he experienced. Shining a light on the brutality, the prejudice, the real details we don’t teach enough of in our history books. I went to France with him this past summer and visited the storied battlefields where he fought, and the cemetery where his fallen comrades remain.
“In the future I will devote some of my work to Lawson and the incredible lessons he taught me and all of us. He is my hero.”
East Bay Times columnist Martin Snapp this week wrote about his decades-long friendship with Bay Area Nisei veterans, including Sakai. He concluded:
“For the last three decades the Friends and Family have held a memorial service at Oakland’s Roberts Park underneath a redwood sapling they planted 30 years ago that has grown to a towering tree, and Lawson has always been front and center.
“The service was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but we’ll be back next year. But Lawson won’t. He died on June 16 at age 96. Somehow – I can’t tell you why – I always knew in my bones that he would be the last to go.
“I miss them all: John Togashi, Tad Masaoka, Shig Futagaki, and Tsune Takemoto, the bravest man I ever met. But I think I’m going to miss Lawson most of all. I know he had a full life, but I can’t stop wishing he could have lived forever.
“The motto of the 442 was Go For Broke. And they did. God bless their memories. Thank you, Lawson, for everything. Happy July Fourth.”
Sakai is survived by his children Kenneth (Lynda) Sakai, Joanne Sakai (Dallas Foster), Janet (Noriaki) Ito, and Dennis Sakai (Linda Durrin), grandchildren, Kelly (Francesca) Sakai, Nicholas Sakai, Mika Ito (Byron Yamada), Gaku Ito (Aya Ino), Kisa Ito (Erik Fujinami), Stephen Sakai, Kimberlee Sakai (Morad Alvarez), great-granddaughter Mie Yamada, and many other relatives. He is predeceased by his wife Mineko Hirasaki Sakai and by sisters Misako (Perry) Sumida and Mieko Sakai.
Private funeral services were held on June 27 at Gavilan Hills Memorial Park in Gilroy. Pending COVID-19 restrictions, a memorial service will be scheduled later this year.
An online memorial can be found at www.lastingmemories.com.