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Placer County remembers a painful time for Japanese-Americans with a tribute to courage

Memorial bricks still available as Roseville event draws near
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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How to help

To buy a memorial brick, or to make a general donation to the monument fund, visit placerjacl.org/it.

The Japanese word ‘Gaman’ means to suffer in silence, and that’s what many Placer County men and women of Japanese descent did throughout a scarred chapter of American history — even as their sons left an enduring legacy of heroics on battlefields across the sea.

Now, local members of the Japanese American Citizens League are just months away from making sure the social sins and unforgettable sacrifices are remembered forever.

The public still has time to help them.

Japanese-Americans were an integral part of Placer County’s communities when war suddenly broke out in 1942. Despite their flourishing farming and business interests, these citizens were forced from their homes, joining Japanese-Americans from across California and the western U.S. in “relocation camps” guarded by the military. It was a staggering uproot that would cost thousands of families their property and livelihoods. It has since become known as the Japanese-American internment.

According to the Placer County chapter of the JACL, the unjust treatment at the hands of their government did not stop 75 percent of Japanese-American men of fighting age from volunteering for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — what would come to be one of the most admired Army units in all of World War II.

The 442nd Regiment engaged in fierce melees in Italy and Germany before immortalizing themselves at the Battle of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. It was there a Texas Army regiment known as “the lost battalion” was fatally sounded by Nazi forces. The 442nd Regiment broke through the German lines, losing nearly half its numbers as it pulled off an inconceivable rescue of the Lost Battalion. The surviving Japanese-American troops eventually returned home to find their families financially decimated after the war by the government’s interment. They were compelled to rebuild their lives all over again.

“It was something my family talked very little about,” said Ken Tokutomi, a Placer County resident and member of the JACL. Tokutomi’s parents and grandparents were forced from their home in Newcastle, into a relocation camp at Tule Lake during the war. “The Japanese had the ‘Gaman,’ which basically means, suffer in silence,” he recalled. “And that’s what they did. The only time my father ever really discussed it with me was in 1977, when the U.S. government was doing reparations for those who had lost everything. Other than that one time, it’s wasn’t something that ever came up. I think a lot of them felt ashamed to have been incarcerated and treated like criminals, when they hadn’t done anything.”

Even though the Tokutomi family was being held in custody, Tokutomi’s uncle volunteered for the U.S. Military Intelligence Service, or MIS, helping break codes from the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific theater. This was the story of countless Japanese-American families during the war, some sons working in MIS while other volunteered for the 442nd regiment: It was this type of red, white and blue loyalty that the JACP wanted to honor when it began working on its memorial to World War II-era Nikkei, or Americans of Japanese ancestry.

Stewart Feldman, who has been involved with Placer’s chapter of the JACL for years, helped recruit Applegate sculpture artist France Borka for the project. Borka is also a karate instructor in Auburn and has sculpted a number of statues inspired by the Japanese culture. Working with Placer County and the city of Roseville, the JACL commissioned Borka to create what would eventually become a 2,000-pound bronze statue entitled “The Lost Battalion,” to be mounted on a sleek granite slab at the Bill Santucci Justice Center. The mournfully reliant figures portray a Japanese-American soldier from the 442nd Regiment carrying a wounded Texas troop toward safety.

Placer County and the city of Roseville made sizable donations to the site, as did the Placer Buddhist Church. There remains one unfinished detail before the memorial has its official dedication on June 2 at 2 p.m.

“Placer County had 148 veterans who fought with the 442nd Regiment,” Feldman said. “Their names will be engraved on black granite on the memorial. However, we knew we also wanted a way to have other individuals from the era remembered. So, we’re adding 200 memorial bricks to the site that will be inscribed to honor Nikkei family members, men who served in MIS, other American veterans and various organizations from the community.”

Each brick costs $300, with the proceeds going to help finish commemorative elements of the memorial. The JACP is hoping to sell the 70 memorial bricks it has left by March 31.

“Creating it has been a labor of love,” Tokutomi said. “This is really going to be a first-class monument that honors what happened.”  

Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at scotta@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at ScottA_RsvPT