Honoring a Japanese American who served with U.S. forces in WWII

Kitagawa (left), now 92, with retired Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, who awarded him an Army Bronze Star and a Congressional Gold Medal.
Kitagawa (left), now 92, with retired Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, who awarded him an Army Bronze Star and a Congressional Gold Medal. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 22, 2013

Seventy years ago, Saburo Kitagawa was released from a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans, enlisted in a special "Nisei" unit of the infantry, fought on the battlefields of Europe, and was twice wounded by shrapnel while serving his country.

His combat team in the 100th Infantry Battalion was made up entirely of Japanese Americans. They stormed a German-controlled mountaintop abbey in Italy, rescued a trapped battalion in southern France - risking their lives while also confronting the anti-Japanese attitudes of the era.

This week, a retired Army general undertook his own mission from Hawaii. On Monday, he came in full uniform to Philadelphia to present Kitagawa, now 92, with the Congressional Gold Medal and the Bronze Star.

The unlikely venue: Kitagawa's favorite Chinese restaurant, in a strip mall off City Avenue, before a small but proud group of relatives and friends.

"In World War II, the existence of our country was at stake," Maj. Gen. Robert Lee told the crowd at Chun Hing on Monument Road. Kitagawa and his fellow soldiers, Lee said, "went to war under different circumstances: You didn't come back unless you finished the job."

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a sportcoat pinned with a Purple Heart he earned long ago, Kitagawa was silent and just bowed his head.

The unstinting valor of the 16,000 active-duty troops who, like Kitagawa, served in the all-Japanese units had been recognized two years ago when the Gold Medal was awarded to about 2,500 veterans at a Washington ceremony.

Kitagawa, a retired businessman who lives in Warminster, Bucks County, was unable to attend. Modest to the core, he asked the Army to simply drop his medals in the mail. But that wasn't enough.

"These folks are just so humble," Lee said Monday. The Army, he said, requires that "a combat award of this nature has to be personally presented."

The Bronze Star citation, which Lee read aloud, says Kitagawa "distinguished himself by demonstrating . . . rare courage while participating in heavy combat in the vicinity of Monte Cassino, Italy," the April 1944 storming of the German-occupied abbey.

Assigned to carry heavy weapons, Kitagawa lugged mortars, machine guns, and 55-pound machine-gun tripods. His unit, Lee said, also liberated the French towns of Biffontaine, Belmont, and Bruyeres.

According to his family, Kitagawa never discussed his service. Even with the spotlight on him, he said little Monday.

Humility - enryo in Japanese - is an enduring cultural value that translates as "reserved, deferential, not putting the light on yourself," said Don Nose (pronounced "no-say"), president of the Go for Broke National Education Center, a California nonprofit dedicated to preserving the memory of the Nisei units through recorded oral histories, special curricula for high schools, and other activities.

"Of the 16,000 who saw active duty . . . we believe about 2,500 are alive today," said Nose. "Last year alone we lost 373 of the veterans. With their escalating age, that number is going to continue to increase."

Presentations like the one in Philadelphia, he said, can spark long-suppressed conversations.

"There are a lot of families who, as a result of the Congressional Gold Medal, finally found out what their fathers or grandfathers did in the war," he said.

Kitigawa, born in San Francisco in 1921, and his parents, who were born in Japan, were evacuated from California to Topaz Internment Camp in Utah in 1942.

It was a few months after Pearl Harbor when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 Japanese living on the West Coast to be relocated out of fear they would collaborate with the enemy.

Only later did the Army recognize that these American citizens who also happened to speak Japanese could be U.S. military intelligence assets and should be freed if they agreed to serve. The first enlistees went into intelligence, followed by a wave of infantrymen that included Kitagawa.

"At the beginning, along with losing their rights of citizenship, they were denied the opportunities of citizenship, which at the time meant taking up arms in defense of the country," said Robert Asahina, author of Just Americans, a book about the period published in 2006.

After the war, Kitagawa attended George Washington University on the GI Bill, worked for a lumber company, then moved with his wife, Yori, to Ardmore in 1959, where they raised two daughters and two sons.

Ellen Kitagawa Shapiro of Wyomissing, Berks County, the daughter who organized the restaurant event, said in an interview that her father never spoke of the war and that she only learned about the internment camps as a junior in high school.

Watching his father from across the table as he quietly savored plates of squid and egg foo yong, Kitagawa's youngest son, Ronnie, 53, a house painter in Philadelphia, was almost speechlessly proud.

"His whole generation, they are unbelievably stoic," he said. "You can't even say modest. It's beyond that."


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

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