Larry Oshima was 20 years old when he and his family were forcibly removed from the farmlands of Stockton and placed in an Arkansas concentration camp for "enemy aliens." It didn't matter that Oshima was born in California, or that he and his siblings had been raised tilling the fields of the Golden State alongside their father.
What mattered to the American government was that the Oshimas were of Japanese descent, at a time when the country was at war with Japan.
"Our civil rights were being violated and we were forced to be incarcerated just because of the way we looked," said Oshima, now 86 and living in Covina.
But the experience didn't stop Oshima and 20,000 other American-born Japanese citizens from fighting for their homeland against the Japanese Imperial Army.
Now the Nisei's selfless patriotism may finally be recognized at the national level. Last week the California Legislature unanimously passed a resolution urging a committee of the U.S. Postal Service to approve the issuance of a stamp commemorating the Nisei's service in World War II.
Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-El Monte, who sponsored the resolution, said the matter had a personal resonance for him.
"I grew up in Hawaii where a lot of students I went to school with were children of the 442nd (Nisei Regiment), and I always grew up with heroic stories about them," said Eng.
Eng said many Nisei draftees had to sneak out of the internment camps at midnight, under cover of darkness.
"Fights would break out because people would say, `How can you serve a country that has stripped you of your property, your rights,' " he said.
But many of the Nisei had their own agenda in being drafted into the military, said Oshima.
"We had to prove our loyalty," said Oshima, who served as a Japanese interpreter for the military intelligence service but did not see active duty because the war ended before his training was finished. "We were the only ethnic group in this country that had to prove our loyalty, which the nation wasn't quite ready to accept."
But prove it they did. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team became one of the most decorated units in American history, fighting in Monte Cassino and Anzio on the Italian front, liberating German-occupied French towns from Bruyeres to Biffontaine and even freeing Holocaust victims from the Dachau concentration camp. Because of their exploits, they became known as the "Go For Broke" regiment.
The regiment received more than 20 Medals of Honor, and many of its members died proving their loyalty on the battlefield, including several of Oshima childhood friends.
"I am sure they would have liked some kind of recognition, and the stamp would be one of the better mediums to do this nationally," said Oshima, who along with his wife raised four daughters first in Chicago, where he settled after the war, and later in Covina where he has lived for 35 years. "They should be remembered by the American people, particularly under the circumstances. Their parents were incarcerated and still these boys went out and gave their lives for their country."
Eng hopes his resolution encourages the Postal Service's Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee to recommend creation of the stamp. He said if a recommendation is issued by this summer, design can begin and the stamps could be issued by September 2009.
"Time is of the essence because 1,000 of our World War II veterans are dying every day," said Eng. "It is heartbreaking to realize that many of these people that have done so much for us will not be alive to see their efforts recognized."
Among those waiting to see the stamp become a reality are the 1,000 families of the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center.
"Postage stamps usually commemorate the American story, and the Japanese-American experience is part of that story," said Robert Fumio Leong, a board member for the center, which counts 22 Nisei veterans among its members. "The Nisei fought bravely in World War II as part of the Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw called them, and it is a proud chapter for us that may not be known by many in the United States."
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