George Okamoto was getting a newspaper in Santa Ana on Dec. 7, 1941, when "I ran into a couple of people who said 'Get the hell out of here, you Jap.' My parents told us after that we have to be very careful." If Okamoto was picking up a Santa Ana Register, he would have had his hands on one of the few newspapers in the country that would go on to oppose the internment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese birth or descent. People like the Okamotos.
Tonight, he is scheduled to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
The 87-year-old related the Santa Ana story for the newspaper in his new hometown of Munster, Indiana.
Despite Okamoto's parents and their eight children being sent from lush Southern California farmland to a concentration camp in the hot Arizona desert, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, served in the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion during World War II and was severely wounded in both legs during a combat mission in northern Italy.
He spent the last two years of his service in military hospitals enduring nearly 20 operations.
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Okamoto sounds quite patriotic today--explaining he never spoke Japanese and got kicked out of a Japanese school as a child because he refused to bow to the emperor--but he concedes in the interview that he initially joined the service after being told his family would be repatriated back to Japan if he didn't.
He is being honored at a Congressional Gold Medal gala dinner ceremony along with other Japanese-American veterans who served. Each will actually receive a bronze replica of the highest civilian award given by the U.S. government. The original medals will be showcased at the Smithsonian.
Okamoto is actually making his third trip to Washington, D.C.
"My first two trips there were horrible," he recalls in the interview. "A group of us (Japanese-American) soldiers went to hotels and were told there was no room. It was all full up. Then a group of Caucasian soldiers went right in and got rooms. I asked one of them if they had reservations. He said, 'Hell no.' That's when I knew then it was racial."