Downey resident gets overdue Congressional Gold Medal for WWII service

DOWNEY - Downey resident Kenji "Ken" Sayama, 96, was one of 772 World War II Japanese-American veterans who received the Congressional Gold Medal in person on Nov. 2 at the U.S. Capitol for their, in the words of retired U.S. Army General, current Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and keynote speaker Eric K. Shinseki, "service and sacrifice during World War II."The honorees last Wednesday belonged to three units-the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), to which Ken was assigned. The 442nd RCT was the renowned "Go For Broke" regiment later dubbed the most decorated combat team in WWII. In all, some 19,000 Japanese-American soldiers served in the honored units. The gold medal recipients who were able to show up at the special ceremony held at Emancipation Hall were in their '80s and '90s. Sharing the spotlight were family members and friends. Accompanying Ken was wife, Hatsuko ("Everybody calls me 'Sue'"). A sentiment long shared by many is that the honor was long overdue. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. authorities viewed Japanese-Americans with suspicion and sent them unceremoniously to internment camps. An estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans, citizens or otherwise, who resided along the Pacific Coast were sent to ten of these "desolate" internment camps. Ken, his younger brother (who has since passed away), and his mother found themselves in a 'relocation center' in Rohwer, Arkansas, some 110 miles southeast of Little Rock. (His father was working in Salt Lake City, where there wasn't much anti-Nisei feeling at the time; his mother and brother would later join him after they were released from camp). If those were trying times, Ken didn't show any outward emotion. Instead, as he would later tell in his 'autobiography'-actually an interview about his life--conducted by Cal's Dan Cheatham, he was "able to accept the order without bitterness." In fact, at the first opportunity, he would (voluntarily) enlist in the Army. He would eventually serve four years in the military. His draft classification was 4C, 'enemy alien'. A bright spot was Cal mailing in his bachelor's (in zoology) diploma to his designated reception center (where mail was processed) in Santa Anita a few months into his incarceration in Arkansas. The 1942 diploma was based on the results of his mid-term exams. After receiving his security clearance, and inducted into the MIS, Ken first attended a 12-month Japanese language class in Minnesota, focusing on learning military terms needed to translate captured documents and to interrogate prisoners. Halfway through the course, the training moved to Fort Snelling, which was about 20 miles closer to Minneapolis. Then it was on to Alabama for basic training. It was upon returning to Fort Snelling afterwards that he met future wife Sue, who had been interned at the Manzanar relocation center in California. After another training stretch, this time at Officers Candidates School at Fort Benning, GA, it was back to Fort Snelling. By this time, the war in Europe and the South Pacific had ended; Ken's commission called for overseas duty with the Occupation Force. Before a two-year tour of duty in Japan was to commence, he and Sue got married in Minneapolis. One of his first assignments upon arrival in Japan was as interpreter for a study of the Japanese police system instigated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He thus had occasion to visit several Japanese police stations in various prefectures. In between he was able to visit his parents' ancestral home in Sendai. He was discharged in 1947. On the GI bill, he earned a master's in 1950 and a PhD in 1953 from Cal, both in zoology. In 1957 he won an appointment as chief laboratory technologist in a lab owned by the Gallatin Medical Group on Paramount Blvd. "I worked there for 39 years," he said. Meanwhile, he and former Cal classmate Leonard Yamasaki studied for and got a Bioanalyst license, required to own and operate a medical laboratory. In 1969, they did just that, forming a partnership, and started the Centro Analytical Medical Laboratory on Telegraph Rd. Ken served as its director of laboratory operations till he retired in 1997. Among Ken's many other prestigious appointments and accomplishments over the years was an appointment, in 1980, to serve as member of the State of California Medical Technologist Advisory Committee; he also sat in on oral examinations required of candidates applying for their Bioanalyst license. In September of 1992, a special convocation was held at Cal to honor the members of the 1942 graduating class. Ken was among the eighteen who wore the traditional cap and gown which they should have worn fifty years before. Looking back over a full, productive, and for a while not-so-smooth life, Ken takes a long perspective in his 'autobiography' which, by the way, is to be found in the Cal Bancroft library archives: "My parents set me in the right direction early in life emphasizing the importance of an education. They gave me the encouragement and financial assistance and left it up to me to make the best of this opportunity. Transferring to Cal Berkeley as a sophomore [he went first to the Los Angeles City College] was a step in the right direction. Here I found an institution that was able to provide me with a broad education that enabled me to evaluate every situation that presented itself objectively and react accordingly. My first big test came when the U.S. Government incarcerated all people of Japanese descent who lived on the Pacific Coast for security reasons. Although I realized that this was a grave injustice that being inflicted on us, I was able to accept the order without bitterness. Letters of encouragement from my former roommates, Bill Rockwell and Walter Shoup, during these dark days certainly helped me keep my perspective and when the first opportunity presented itself to undo this wrong, I seized it and enlisted in the Army. Ultimately I found my goal in life, which proved to be challenging and satisfying." As defined, the Congressional Gold Medal is an "award bestowed by the U. S. Congress and is, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. The decoration is awarded to an individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States. American citizenship is not a requirement." The earliest recipient was George Washington. He has since been joined in the roster by the likes of Thomas A. Edison, Irving Berlin, Robert Frost, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Joe Louis, Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa, Arnold Palmer, and, now, the 'Nisei' units. The Congressional Medal of Honor, on the other hand, is a "military award for extreme bravery in action. Another similarly named decoration is the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, presented by NASA for extraordinary accomplishment to the mission of United States space exploration." He and Sue have three daughters (Kathryn Manell, USC grad and a dental hygienist); Joanne Sakai, (California Institute of the Arts grad and production manager for a graphic advertising/design company; and Dorothy Sayama, UC Irvine grad as well as from the Gemological Institute of America and is now a gemologist), four grandsons, two great grandsons, and one great granddaughter.

********** Published: November 10, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 30