Even in his 80s, Sam Ozaki could walk into a room and command it, looking more than a little like the young soldier who charged up the hills of France in World War II as part of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“We besieged the U.S government to let us serve and prove our loyalty,” Mr. Ozaki told the Chicago Sun-Times in its book “100 Years, 100 Voices.”
The 442nd earned a staggering reputation for valor. It became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history, based on its size and length of service. Its long list of honors was capped in 2011 when Congress awarded the entire 442nd the Congressional Gold Medal.
A Purple Heart recipient who became Chicago’s first Asian-American school principal, Mr. Ozaki turned his internment into a mission. He joined a federal lawsuit demanding justice for the detainees, which helped propel a drive for redress. Congress later approved the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, awarding camp residents $20,000 each.
Mr. Ozaki also spoke at countless schools to warn against the racial profiling of Middle Eastern and Muslim people in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, said William Yoshino of the Japanese American Service League. ”The main focus” of his talks “was just because you look different, you shouldn’t be taken into camps,” said his daughter, Nancy.
He didn’t mince words. He called the internment centers “concentration camps.” When first rounded up, he and his family were housed in the stables at Santa Anita racetrack, where Seabiscuit, he said, was treated better than detainees. The food was so bad, he told student listeners, the internees called it “slop suey.” His father was separated from his wife and children for a year and held in New Mexico, while they were confined at Arkansas’ Jerome Relocation Center.
All because “we had the face of the enemy,” he said in a Veterans History Project interview.
Mr. Ozaki, who lived on the North Side, died Sept. 23. He was 90.
He was a senior at Los Angeles’ Banning High School, largely unfamiliar with Japanese culture, when America entered the war. “We knew hamburgers, [band leaders] Glenn Miller, Harry James — this was the only thing we knew,” he said in an interview with the University of Arkansas’ Center for Arkansas History and Culture.
After an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Ozakis and an estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans were removed from the West and interned in barren camps in the central part of the country.
About a month after Pearl Harbor, “I remember three big, white, strong FBI agents coming to our house, questioning us, searching our house, and then taking my father away,” Mr. Ozaki said in the Arkansas interview.
When the Ozakis were ordered to leave, he said, “You could only take clothes that you could carry.”
He volunteered for the military and became a Browning Automatic Rifleman and interpreter for the Military Intelligence Service. A brother, Yoji, also served in the 442nd.
His platoon leader was the “outstanding” future U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, he told the Veterans History Project. “And I still remember the day when we were ambushed and he almost single-handedly knocked out two or three German machinegun nests, and in the process, of course, he lost his right arm.”
Mr. Ozaki recalled the confusion in Europe when other fighters saw their faces. “Actually not only the Europeans, but even the Germans thought that . . . maybe Japan had turned around and become their enemy,” he said.
At great cost, the 442nd freed the “Lost Battalion” in Vosges, France. “They had tried on several occasions and had failed, and so they told our outfit, the 442, to break through the enemy lines and rescue the Lost Battalion. And of course, our motto is ‘Go for broke, shoot the works,’ and so we broke through and rescued the Lost Battalion,” he told the Veterans History Project. “And we rescued 211 white Texas 36th Division members. At the same time, we suffered over 800 casualties, including 187 killed in action.”
When he told his stories several years ago at St. Athanasius grade school in Evanston, he smiled to hear a group of boys refer to him with a then-popular term of admiration. “He’s a beast,” they said.
After the war, Mr. Ozaki used the GI bill to attend Roosevelt and Loyola universities. He worked at Harrison and Lake View high schools before retiring from Taft in 1989.
He is survived by his children, Edward, Stephen and Nancy; his sisters, Lily Teraji and June Nomura; and four grandchildren. His wife of 57 years, Harue, died before him. Services are at 11 a.m. Saturday at West Ridge Methodist Church, 2301 W. Lunt.