May 19, 2012

Honor WWII's JA, other heroes in Oakland

By Martin Snapp
     As I mentioned last week, I've been writing this column for 27 years, and in that time I've had the pleasure of meeting more wonderful people than I can count and the honor of telling their stories.
     But if you were to ask me which story is my favorite, it's easy: the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
     Put yourself in their position on Dec. 7, 1941. You're a typical 18-year-old American boy, focused on baseball, cars and girls (not necessarily in that order). You hear the news about Pearl Harbor and immediately march down to the recruiting office to volunteer.
     But they turn you down. Suddenly, you're not an American citizen anymore, even though you were born right here. Overnight, you've been reclassified as 4-C -- "enemy alien." The next thing you know, you and your family have been arrested and shipped off to a Godforsaken hellhole euphemistically called a "relocation camp," leaving your home, your business and all your possessions behind, never to see them again.
     But you still want to defend your country, even though it has treated you so shabbily. You keep volunteering, and you keep getting turned down.
     Finally, by 1943, the Army is so desperate for manpower it creates a segregated all-Japanese American unit called the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
     All the officers are white, of course.   A few of them are decent human beings. But most, especially the general in charge, think of you as nothing better than cannon fodder. So they throw you into the most dangerous battles rather than risk white soldiers' lives. That's partly how you and your buddies got so many medals. A lot of them were purple hearts.
     After the war, you come back, get your parents and your little brothers and sisters out of the camps and begin the process of rebuilding your life. And for the rest of that life, you live in a way that brings honor to the memory of your dead comrades.
     Twenty-five years ago, the veterans of E Company of the 442nd RCT planted a redwood sapling in Oakland's Roberts Park and placed a memorial plaque next to it to honor their buddies who never came back.
     And every year on the third Saturday in May -- Armed Forces Day -- they come back to Roberts Park for a memorial service. Over the years, that service has been broadened to include all the heroes of World War II.
     This year's service will be held May 19. And, as they do every year, the men of Easy Company invite you to join them.


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