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Japanese-American WWII vets from Utah receiving Congressional Gold Medal

Published: Monday, Oct. 31 2011 5:29 p.m. MDT

Nelson Akagi was just 19 when he volunteered to serve in the Army during World War II, after President Roosevelt allowed Japanese-Americans to do so in 1943.

Matt Powers, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of 11 World War II veterans from Utah will join several hundred others in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to receive one of the nation's highest honors.

They were members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a huge U.S. Army unit that served all over the world. The Utahns to be presented the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award, were members of an all-Japanese-American combat unit.

The 1940s were a very turbulent time for Japanese-Americans. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, ethnic Japanese in the United States were considered a security threat and herded into internment camps. Still, those who were U.S. citizens were subject to the draft.

Taira Fukushima, of Salt Lake, spent two years with his family in the Manzanar Japanese internment camp in California. They were released just as he graduated from high school. "As we were graduating I received a note from Selective Service saying, don't leave camp, because I'm going to be drafted," he said.

Fukushima, who will also receive a Bronze Star on Tuesday, would soon find himself in Europe as a soldier in the U.S. Army.

Nelson Akagi was just 19 when he volunteered for the Army, after President Roosevelt allowed Japanese-Americans to do so in 1943. Akagi's first stop was Italy.

"I can still remember the day that I set up my machine gun, and that was June 26, 1944, the day before my 21st birthday," he said.

Akagi and Fukushima were part of the 442nd Cegimental Combat Team, the nation's all-Japanese-American combat unit. During the war years, the group became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.

On Oct. 5, 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation to grant the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition to those in the unit.

Akagi spent time in Italy, France and Germany. He helped to liberate many areas, including the Dachau concentration camp.

"We had a chance to rescue the Jewish prisoners that were still alive. But they were all skin and bones. I'm not sure many survived," Akagi said.

Fukushima saw his share of action as well as a battlefield medic in Europe. Both men are honored to be receiving the award next week, but both say it's not really about them.

"As I think it over," Akagi said, "It's not for myself; it's for the future generation. They've got to know what we did. This helps to preserve what the Japanese-Americans did during World War II."

Fukushima said he was just doing what he was taught. "My father always said, you obey the law. So if the law says, I'm going into the Army, OK."

The 11 Utahns being honored Wednesday are: Nelson Akagi, Masao Akiyama, Hiroshi Aramaki, Taira Fukushima, Masami Hayashi, Casey Kunimura, Nobou Iwamoto, Noel Okamoto, Ray Ogura, Ted Shimizu and Roy Tsuya.

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