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North Ogden WWII vet goes from unwanted un-American to U.S. hero

Published: Friday, July 4 2014 6:38 p.m. MDT

Casey Kunimura is a skilled silversmith and jewelry maker. He was part of a special unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat team. It was all Japanese-Americans, except for the officers. The unit came out of WWII as the most decorated unit in the history of the United States military.

Eric Betts, Deseret News

NORTH OGDEN — Casey Kunimura, now in the 89th year of a life largely devoted to serving his country, said he has no animosity and no bitterness.

It's hard to see how he avoided bitterness after his World War II experience: He's one of thousands of Japanese-Americans who were considered too un-American to fight and were actually locked up in special internment camps because of widespread fear they would be disloyal.

Later, many went off and fought valiantly for the United States. They are now among the most honored of war heroes of the "greatest generation."

In 1941, Kunimura was a teenager living in California, a native-born American citizen.

"Born here, raised here, went to school here. What else did I know?" Kunimura said, relaxing in his North Ogden living room, recalling events that took place more than 70 years ago.

When the Imperial Navy of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it led to a bitter result for many Japanese-Americans. The government rounded up those living on the West Coast and moved them inland to live in internment camps. Officially, the lockup was ordered to prevent acts of sabotage inside the U.S.

Kunimura suspects a darker motive.

"Racial," he said. "Basically it was, 'Get those (racial slur) out of here!'"

Kunimura, as well as his mother and brother, were sent to an internment camp in Arizona. In 1943, Kunimura was released to take a job in Chicago. Internees were sometimes released if employers agreed to "sponsor" them in locations distant from the West Coast.

During that period of freedom, Kunimura actually attempted to enlist in the Army but was refused. He said the draft board classified him as an "enemy alien" instead of an American citizen.

Recalling his rejection, Kunimura said, "The very fact that you were Japanese, I mean, 'There's the door buddy!'"

Later in the war, though, the U.S. Army formed a special unit known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The troops were all Japanese-Americans, except for the officers.

Suddenly, Kunimura said, the draft board reclassified him and sent a draft notice "which said that, 'Hey, now you're a full-blown American citizen again, eligible to lay down your life if you have to.'"

This time he faced the prospect of being sent to jail if he refused to go into the Army.

"Do I tear this (expletive) thing up?" Kunimura said, recalling his thoughts that day. "You know, 'Let them come and get me.'"

He later calmed down and began to see combat as his patriotic duty. He submitted to the draft and went to war, fighting alongside thousands of other Japanese-Americans.

Most members of the 442nd had family members who were still locked up in internment camps back home. Kunimura said they convinced each other they had something to prove.

"That you're just as American as anybody else, and you can fight for your country as well or better," Kunimura recalled. "We're going to show them. We're going to lay it all on the line. And that's the motto (the 442nd) picked up: 'Go for broke!' If you had to spill your guts out there, so be it. It's all or nothing."

The 442nd waged a brutal, exhausting, bloody campaign against the Nazis in southern France and northern Italy during the phase of World War II following the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

"Our unit came out as the most decorated unit in the history of the United States military," Kunimura recalled.

He went on to serve his country for decades, first in uniform and then as a civilian employee of the Air Force. Kunimura served in two more wars, Korea and Vietnam. It goes without saying he's proud to be an American.

"You bet. As Truman said, you know, (being) American isn't a matter of color or race. It's right here," Kunimura said as he thumped his chest. "That flag, it means something to me. It's not just something that's flying out there. It's more than just a flag."

And the men of the 442nd were more than just Japanese-Americans.

They were American heroes.

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com

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