This week I had the privilege of joining the Pleasanton Men's Club to hear Tom Takahashi, 93, talk about his experiences in World War II with the Army's 442 Regimental Combat Team.
The unit was formed of Japanese-American men who largely came from men who were confined in the detention (Tom called them concentration) camps where about 120,000 Americans from the West Coast were held during the war.
When the war broke out, Tom was making great money as a fisherman on a boat out of San Diego. He and other Japanese-Americans were removed from the boat and eventually he was sent to an Indian reservation in Poston, Arizona where one of the camps had been constructed. He and his brother, George, got out of the camp by volunteering to pick sugar beets in Nebraska.
From there they went to Denver where he met his wife and married her. That led to an immediate change in his draft status and he was eventually sent to the 442. He fought in both Italy and France with the regiment which became the most decorated single unit in U.S. Army history.
Tom was wounded in the battle to rescue the Lost Battalion in France that was surrounded by the Germans in a dense forest. They were successful and decades after the fact President Obama awarded the entire unit the Congressional Medal of Honor. Individually, Tom was awarded two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.
He offered an interesting view on why the government thought it was necessary (and legal) to confine all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. He asked rhetorically why would a couple living in the mid-west or east send their 18-year-old son to fight and die on some tiny island in Pacific? The public needed an identifiable enemy to rally against to make the war worth the sacrifice.
After recovering, Tom returned to the states and went to work for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM as a photographer and then moved into the design of technical equipment used in nuclear testing.
In 1961, he transferred to Sandia Livermore where he continued to work with the nuclear testing groups with equipment to record results.
When club member and engineer Ted Fairfield was able to tour the sprawling Nevada Test Site with the Valley Study Group, it was Tom who was pointing to huge depressions where previous underground tests had been conducted.
The irony, as Ted pointed out, was Tom's parents' homeland had been bombed with two nuclear weapons that resulted in Japan's unconditional surrender and, when he returned to his homeland, he spent his professional career working in the nuclear weapons industry that was a critical deterrent against the Soviet Union.
For those of us who have lived long enough, do you remember the nuclear weapon drills of ducking under your school desks or the radiation fallout shelters that lab employees and others built in and around Livermore? That's how real the threat of nuclear war was in the 1960s.
When asked if the racial discrimination that was prevalent before the war changed soon after, Tom said no. It was the same. But, he was not bitter about the camps.
The discrimination and experiences did not stop him from living a long and productive life, but the memories of the war are still readily at mind when he is asked.
His son-in-law is John Ferreri of Pleasanton whose son, Tony, is a commercial real estate broker in town.