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Q&A: Honoring Japanese-American Veterans Of WWII

Saturday morning Japanese-Americans from around the region will gather in Portland to celebrate a special medal.  It’s the Congressional Gold Medal.  It was awarded in 2011 to recognize a group of Japanese-American veterans who served during World War II in combat and with the Military Intelligence Service. 

For the next month, the medal will be on display at the Oregon Historical Society, part of a nationwide tour through the Smithsonian.

88-year-old Lorry Nakatsu of Portland is one of the veterans honored with that medal.  He grew up in Hawaii, the son of Japanese immigrants.

When he was 16, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At 18, he volunteered with the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, or M.I.S. His job was to interrogate prisoners and translate enemy documents.

When I spoke with Lorry Nakatsu earlier this week I asked him how he felt serving the U.S. government in Asia, knowing that that same government sent an estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps on U.S. soil.

Lorry Nakatsu: I thought it was kind of terrible for people to be judged by their race as to whether they were good Americans or bad Americans.  I wanted to serve because I felt that I want to be a part of what we can do to redeem our name.

Gretchen Kilby:  I understand that you and your fellow soldiers translated maps that identified key Japanese artillery positions.  When you got home from the war, were you able to tell people about what you did?

Lorry Nakatsu: Um, no because for a long while we were not allowed to talk about the experience in the MIS and it was not also some 30 years I guess when the Freedom of Information Act was passed that I could talk about the experiences.

Gretchen Kilby:  How were you treated when you returned?  Did people acknowledge that you had actually fought for the U.S. ?

Lorry Nakatsu: The attitude of some of my friends who were of other ethnic background had changed.  When Pearl Harbor was attacked I was called a “Jap” by one of my classmates, but after Pearl Harbor they all found out what all of the Japanese Nisei veterans had done in terms of they suffered extremely high casualties and yet they gave their all for the United States.  So the attitude after that was quite different.

Gretchen Kilby:  What was your reaction when you heard that you and many of your fellow Japanese-American veterans were to be recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal?

Lorry Nakatsu: I was kind of surprised because it took a long time for the U.S. to acknowledge what we had done, despite the harsh treatment and prejudice that we faced.  Better late than never.

Gretchen Kilby:  You are aware that the gold medal will be in Portland for the next month?

Lorry Nakatsu: Yes, I am aware of that and I also have a replica of the medal because the government couldn’t print all the medals in gold because that would cost a fabulous amount of money.  What they did was printed bronze medals that look exactly like the one and only gold medal that the Smithsonian has in its custody.

Gretchen Kilby:   When people come to view the medal, what do you hope they’ll take away from the experience?

Lorry Nakatsu: You know, uh, to answer your question, we had gone to New Orleans to celebrate the first event sponsored by the Smithsonian. On the plane when we we’re coming back, the hostess, as the plane arrived in Portland, the hostess stood up and told everyone: “We have a World War II veteran on board and,” you know “he’s been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.”  And the whole plane erupted in applause.  And as they went by, because I couldn’t leave immediately because my legs not being what they should be, they shook my hands and everything else.  And that was the most wonderful feeling.  That finally we were being acknowledged for what we did. 

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