A 21st-Century Telling of Nisei Veterans’ WWII Stories

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Go For Broke National Education Center celebrates its monument anniversary Saturday online.

442nd RCT veteran Lawson Sakai traveled to the Rue du 442 in Bruyeres, France, during a hosted tour last July. Making the trip with him were family members (from left) Gaku Ito, Kisa Ito and Janet Ito. (Photos courtesy Kisa Ito)

By ELISE TAKAHAMA, Special to The Rafu Shimpo

It was a Sunday morning, and 19-year-old Toke Yoshihashi was on his way to work.

Yoshihashi helped sell fruits, vegetables and other groceries at a bustling open-air market in Pasadena, where he was born. He usually worked part-time after school or on weekends, but on this particular Sunday, he was dreading the job.

Earlier that day, a Japanese dive bomber, followed by hundreds of Japanese warplanes, had descended on the island of Oahu, targeting a United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.

About 2,400 people — mostly military personnel — were killed in the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, officially drawing the U.S. into World War II.

“I had heard about [the bombing]before I had gone to work on Dec. 7,” Yoshihashi, now 97, said. “It was terrible. We looked just like the enemy.”

Not long after, Yoshihashi and his family — his mother, father, two sisters and brother — were forced to move to an assembly center in Fresno and later to the Gila River incarceration camp in Arizona. About two years later, Yoshihashi was drafted and joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit made up almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans that made U.S. military history as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service.

On Saturday, June 6, the 31-year-old Go For Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC) — named after the unit’s motto, slang that meant risking everything for a big win — will celebrate Yoshihashi and all the Japanese American veterans of World War II with its 21st monument anniversary.

“It feels nice to be celebrated,” he said.

Yoshihashi has never missed this anniversary event, which honors a black granite monument engraved with the names of more than 16,000 Japanese American men and women who served during the war. It was dedicated in L.A. in June 1999, almost 55 years after the war had ended.

But this year will mark GFBNEC’s first virtual anniversary celebration, due to concerns about the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

Mitch Maki, GFBNEC’s president and CEO, said that while the decision to move the event online came in response to the virus, it’s offered his team the opportunity to create a more inclusive celebration.

“In the past 20 years, the monument anniversary has been a local L.A.-focused event,” Maki said. “Now going virtual, we have the opportunity to include vets and organizations from across the country … It just blossomed into something where there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of support from our sister cities.”

In the past, the center’s staff has poured their energy into developing traveling exhibitions, oral histories, archives, and education and training programs. Now, Maki said, a new goal is emerging: creating a more multicultural, inclusive plan for the future.

The live anniversary tribute will be available online for free on Saturday, June 6, at 12 p.m. PST on Facebook, Youtube and the Go For Broke website (www.goforbroke.org).

Kisa Ito with parents Rev. Noriaki and Janet Ito at the Go For Broke Monument anniversary in 2018.

The program will include a keynote address from Kisa Ito — whose grandfather served as a member of the 442nd — and interviews with veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service and the 442nd.

“It resonates so deeply now to see my grandpa and these vets really embody the ‘Go for broke’ spirit,” said Ito, who’s recently become more involved with GFBNEC. “I want to say he’s worked a lot on overcoming the pain associated with it. I’m sure it’s still such a big part of who he is and his identity … But on a personal and family life level, it’s not something he brings up. It makes me understand more that he’s doing it to help bring light to the story and doesn’t necessarily want it to become his everyday life.”

The 40-foot-wide circular Go For Broke Monument sits behind the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo today, reminding visitors of the bravery and unconditional loyalty Nisei soldiers became known for during the war.

The sloping granite represents the “banzai hill” many Nisei soldiers charged and overcame in the 1944 rescue of the “Lost Battalion” from German forces in France, according to the Go For Broke center. It also symbolizes the uphill struggle Japanese Americans were forced to make to prove their loyalty, the center’s website says.

The monument was initially surrounded by Japanese plum trees, signifying rebirth and triumph over adversity, but they were replaced with palm trees in 2015 to honor the many Nisei soldiers from Hawaii, according to the GFBNEC website.

The process of building the monument began about 30 years ago, Maki said.

“Many were motivated by those who didn’t come back,” Maki said. “They wanted that physical structure so that their story would never be forgotten.”

While organizers and veterans faced many hurdles along the way and struggled for about 10 years to locate an appropriate site, fund the project, compile a list of Japanese American soldiers and create a maintenance plan, the Go For Broke center broke ground for the monument in 1998.

“The monument would embody and reflect what they had accomplished,” Maki said. “Not in a boastful way, but that this is a story that cannot be forgotten.”

It’s a sentiment many veterans share.

Ito’s grandfather, 96-year-old Lawson Sakai, still has many memories from his time as a 442nd soldier. Many are “horribly bad,” he said.

“We killed before we were killed,” Sakai wrote in an email. “Not born to do that. Don’t want anyone to have to do what we did in combat.”

While he also admitted he does have fond memories of the camaraderie he shared with his fellow soldiers, he said it’s up to the Go For Broke center to continue reminding the nation of their sacrifices.

“We will soon be gone, but hope the younger [generations]DO NOT FORGET,” Sakai wrote. “We did it for them.”

This article is the first of a two-part series that aims to celebrate the Go For Broke Monument 21st Anniversary Tribute virtual program and the thousands of Nisei World War II veterans.

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