Congress Bestows Highest Honor

Congress to bestow highest honor on Japanese-American soldiers: Award awakens memories for Watsonville World War II veterans (Photo credit: Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel)

by Donna Jones

Ben Umeda & Ichiro Sam Sugidono

WATSONVILLE - A German bullet slammed into Ichiro Sam Sugidono's (Poston 220-10-B) head shortly after he arrived in Italy. Fortunately, Sugidono's steel helmet stopped the shot, leaving him with a concussion and the need for the hearing aid in his left ear.
     Many of his comrades in the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team weren't so lucky. While their families were imprisoned behind barbed wire in camps in the United States, thousands of Japanese-American soldiers fought for their country in some of the fiercest battles of the war. Hundreds were killed in action.
     Wednesday, nearly 70 years after their service, the nation's leaders will pay tribute to the 442nd [RCT], as well as Japanese-Americans soldiers who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and Military Intelligence [Service], with the presentation of a Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
     "We did what we had to do," said Sugidono. "We fought. We fought them pretty good."
     Tasked with pushing the Germans from tough terrain in the mountains of Italy and France, the 442nd and the 100th Infantry Battalion - Japanese-Americans from Hawaii who were the first to fight in Europe and whose decimated ranks were folded into the 442nd - earned seven Distinguished Unit Citations, more than 4,000 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 588 Silver Stars and more than 4,000 Bronze Stars.
     The latest honor, the most prestigious award bestowed by Congress, comes as the numbers of 442nd veterans dwindle. Sugidono, 89, is one of the few left of the more than 70 Japanese-American soldiers from the Watsonville-Santa Cruz area.
     Monday, he sat on the sofa of his Watsonville home with fellow veteran Ben Umeda, who served in military intelligence. The award seemed bittersweet to the men. Both recalled being sent to internment camps after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
     Sugidono, a Watsonville High School graduate, was sent to Poston, Arizona (block 220-10-B), and Umeda, who originally hails from the town of Selma near Fresno, was sent to the Gila River Relocation Camp near Phoenix.  As 18-year-olds, they registered for the draft, they said, but, despite being born and raised in California, they were classified "4C," enemy aliens, unfit to serve.  Later, officials changed their minds and sought volunteers for an all Japanese-American unit. Sugidono's brother, Jiro Sugidono (Poston 220-12-B) , volunteered and also served with the 442nd. Sugidono was drafted shortly thereafter.
     Wearing a ball cap emblazoned with the 442nd's motto, "Go For Broke," Sugidono said sometimes it seemed as if the Army's leadership was trying to get rid of the Japanese-Americans and letting the Germans do the job. He recalled one mission to rescue fellow soldiers pinned down by the Germans. The Germans quickly turned their firepower on the rescuers. With little cover, they hit the dirt. Standing up was a sure way to get killed. Sugidono said it reminded him of a Boardwalk game. "It was like shooting ducks," he said.
     Still, they made it to the trapped soldiers, and he helped carry out a big Hawaiian who didn't make it. Decades later, Sugidono shuddered at the memory of the coldness of the man's arm when it slipped off the stretcher and brushed against him. 
     ............More painful memories awaited their return.........
     Sugidono said he was denied service at restaurants and gas stations in his hometown. Umeda, who served as a translator in the Philippines, occupied Japan and Korea, became a pharmacist after the war and moved to Watsonville.
     He said going through old newspapers at the library, he found a postwar opinion piece signed by more than a dozen residents urging "the Japs" not to return.
     Sugidono and Umeda said they appreciated the award for calling attention to a story that's unknown to many. 
     Sugidono said he watched the documentary, "442: Live with Honor: Die with Dignity," at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz during the recent Pacific Rim Film Festival.
     "It was packed, and after it was over, people shook my hand, hugged me," he said. "I was shocked. I almost cried."

             VIEW ON THE WEB
Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring Japanese American World War II veterans
2-3:30 p.m. Wednesday 


Source: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_19235195

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