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Local Japanese-American WWII vets enjoy overdue thank-you

George T. Ito poses for a photograph with his copy of the Congressional Gold Medal at his home Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2011, in Chicago. Ito served in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service during WWII. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

The Japanese call it “gaman” – a national virtue that roughly translates as “patience” or “endurance.”

“Whatever comes your way, you do the best you can,” is how 86-year-old Army veteran Enoch Kanaya puts it.

It is a quality that Kanaya and his generation of Japanese-Americans have long relied upon.

Deeply distrusted and subjected to heartbreaking abuse by their fellow citizens following the outbreak of World War II, they were rounded up and imprisoned in internment camps by the government only to volunteer and be drafted in the thousands to fight in some of the war’s fiercest battles.

Now the nation has finally given them an overdue thank-you by awarding them the United States’ highest civilian honor.

“It’s been a long time,” said Kanaya, a retired TV engineer who has lived and raised his family on Chicago’s Northwest Side since the war, as he proudly held the Congressional Gold Medal. He and 1,250 80- and 90-something Japanese-American veterans were presented with the medal at a Washington, D.C., ceremony last week.

In all, about 19,000 Japanese-Americans served in the three units honored at a ceremony at the Capitol: the 100th Infantry Battalion, the Military Intelligence Service and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Kanaya, who was born and raised in Portland, Ore., served with the 442nd in France and Italy. It had a casualty rate of 93 percent and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.

His story is similar to thousands of other “Nisei,” or second-generation Japanese-Americans. Even as they fought in Europe, many had family members among the 110,000 who would spend much of the war in U.S. internment camps.

Though Kanaya’s older brother, Jimmy, had volunteered for the U.S. Army before the outbreak of war – and would eventually rise to the rank of colonel – Kanaya, his father, Masaichi, mother, Fumiko and sister Ruby were all considered security risks and held 600 miles from their home at a camp in Minidoka, Idaho, following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“We were behind barbed wire,” Kanaya said. “I was born in America and wanted to fight for my country.”

He was initially ruled an ineligible enemy alien and forced to work as a potato picker. The doubts of his fellow Americans only made him keener to prove his patriotism, he said.

Eventually drafted in 1944, he won the Bronze Star for his efforts as a bazooka man in bloody battles with the Germans, including his role in the brutal battle to seize the Gothic Line in Northern Italy in April 1945.

Others, like 87-year-old North Sider George Ito, served in the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific, where their Japanese language skills could be put to use.

Ito, who was born in Hawaii and lived just a mile from Pearl Harbor, was 17 years old and playing a game of tennis when the Japanese attacked on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

“We stood on a neighbor’s roof and watched in disbelief like it was a show,” Ito remembers. Later that day, a teacher called him in to volunteer at his high school, which had been commandeered as a makeshift military field hospital.

“When they started bringing in the casualties, I comprehended that this was real,” he said.

Ito’s parents were first-generation immigrants with traditional Japanese values, and they expected him to do his duty – as an American. Like most in Hawaii, they were spared internment.

“The most important thing to them in our culture was that I not bring shame on the family,” Ito said.

Ito, who trained as a paratrooper and in military Japanese, did not let them down. He was awarded the Bronze Star for fighting and serving as an interrogator in the battle of Luzon in the Philippines.

Unlike American GIs, who were trained to give only their name, rank and number, Japanese soldiers were expected to fight to the death and were unprepared for capture, Ito said.

“They were always surprised to see me in an American uniform!,” he laughed.

His first interrogation – of a badly burnt and heavily sedated Japanese pilot – was unproductive, he said, adding, “I think I was almost as scared as him.”

But Ito soon learned that by “treating prisoners as human beings and not assuming a hierarchical relationship with them,” he could get results.

His lifelong smoking habit began when he found that “there was no better way to bond with a prisoner than to share a cigarette.”

In one case, the friendly approach persuaded a Japanese sergeant to reveal the locations of several hidden artillery positions, he said.

In the years that followed the war, Ito used the GI bill to earn an MBA and came to work for IBM in Chicago, where he raised his three daughters, just as his friend Kanaya raised his four daughters.

Though others faced racism upon their return, Ito suffered only one disrespectful encounter, he said. In 1946, a Seattle landlady told him, “I won’t have no Japs living here!”

“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” he said. “I’m proud to be an American.”

Contributing: AP