Not long after the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor in 1941, FBI agents came to Shinyei “Rocky” Matayoshi’s home in Hawaii and took his father away, to an internment camp in Santa Fe, NM. Matayoshi was a senior in high school.
A year later, when the Army asked for volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—a segregated, all-Japanese infantry unit—Matayoshi enlisted.
“I volunteered because they took my dad away,” said the 87-year-old Woodridge resident. “I decided if I volunteered and showed that I was a worthy soldier, they would send him home.”
Along with fellow 442nd veteran Enoch Kanaya and translator Allen Meyer, Matayoshi spoke at the on Tuesday during a program held by its Men’s Club.
Men’s Club President Don Packard was inspired to organize the event after he saw a clip on the Rachel Maddow Show about Rocky Matayoshi, who was recently awarded The Distinguished Service Cross.
Proving His Loyalty
Matayoshi grew up on the island of Kauai, where his father emigrated from Japan as a young boy. Both his parents were laborers on a sugar plantation, and his mother took in laundry to make extra money, he said.
“I used to help her scrub the dirty laundry on my hands and knees,” Matayoshi said. “I learned from [a] very young [age] that discipline was very important. My dad always told me that whatever I did, I had to do the very best I could.”
Unlike other soldiers, Matayoshi said, he didn’t play pranks—“and because of that, I was deemed a little square.”
Not long after he enlisted, his lieutenant asked him to be a squad leader.
“I said, ‘No sir, I just want to be a good soldier,’ ” Matayoshi recalled. “He said, ‘You’re it.’”
Matayoshi fought in four military campaigns and was awarded two Silver stars, two Bronze stars, the Purple Heart and the Presidential Unit Citation.
In June, he received the Distinguished Service Cross during a Pentagon ceremony that recognized his extraordinary heroism during a battle on April 7, 1945. That day, he led his platoon up the slopes of Mount Belvedere in Italy to seize nearby forest areas that were under enemy control.
His platoon came under machine gun fire from the front, left and right sides, but still it managed to secure the area. Matayoshi fought back with a machine gun and hand grenades.
“I never felt I did [anything] beyond what I was supposed to do,” he said.
At the end of that April, Matayoshi’s commander sent him home. His father, however, was not released until October. He had been interned for three years, and when he came back—at age 44—his hair had turned white.
“He was never given any trial,” Matayoshi said. “He was pretty bitter.”
Matayoshi said that his father was particularly upset to have witnessed soldiers bullying the Japanese citizens at the camp.
“Seeing how his fellow internees were treated, it made him feel terrible,” he said.
From Internment Camp to Army
Fellow 442nd veteran Enoch Kanaya, a resident of Chicago, was actually interned at a camp in Arizona. He, too, was a senior in high school when the war broke out, but was living in Portland, OR.
“There were politicians and governors, newspaper editorials—they all said that we were not loyal; they could not trust us,” he recalled.
On Feb. 13, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order to evacuate and incarcerate everyone of Japanese ancestry on the Pacific Coast. Along with more than 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, Kanaya’s family had to sell their property and belongings, then report to an assembly center.
Each person was allowed to bring just one suitcase, he said.
“I didn’t have very many clothes, but at least I had my baseball glove,” he said. “Most of the people, they had homes, cars, things like that, and they had to leave it all behind."
Kanaya’s family was initially detained in the Portland Exposition Center while internment camps were being prepared. Some families from Portland were even put in the exposition centers’ horse stalls.
Eventually, the Kanayas were sent to an internment camp in Minidoka, ID, surrounded by barbed wires and guard towers.
“It was just like being in a prison,” he said.
Kanaya turned 18 while he was staying in the camp, and received a letter from the draft board classifying him as “4C”—meaning he was regarded as an enemy alien, despite the fact that his older brother was already serving in the U.S. Army.
He signed up for a work permit, which allowed him to leave the camp and work at nearby farms. Soon afterward, he received another letter from the draft board, this one classifying him as “1A,” meaning he was eligible for service.
Kanaya was sent to join the 442nd in Italy, and fought in major battles in the Rhineland, North Apennines and Po Valley campaigns in Europe. For his service, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, European African Middle Eastern Ribbon, the World War II Victory Ribbon, Combat Infantry Badge and the Presidential Unit Citation.
In July 1946, he was finally sent home.
“When we arrived in New York harbor, they treated us like heroes,” said Kanaya, who traveled with his regiment to Washington, D.C., where President Harry Truman awarded them the Presidential Citation.
“At that ceremony he remarked that we fought not only the enemy but we fought prejudice and we won,” Kanaya recalled. “I thought, "Well, that was a pretty good statement from him.' ”
After his discharge, Kanaya went to Chicago, where his parents had relocated to work as housekeepers.
“I noticed that they were not bitter about the internment,” he said. “They were just grateful that my brother and I came home safely.”
“We finally proved that we were Americans, just like everybody else.”
Allen Meyer, a Chicago native, was taking Japanese language classes during the war and was posted in Tokyo and other locations during his 19 months of service. He too, received a Presidential Unit Citation, awarded in 2000 to members of the military intelligence services who served during World War II.
Meyer first learned of the Nisei—Japanese-American soldiers—while he was studying the language.
“Our information was coming from our Japanese-American instructors, who had brothers and other relatives in the 100th and 442nd and were proud to tell us of their achievements, which went otherwise unheralded due to ongoing prejudices,” he said.
The 100th Infantry Battalion was another fighting force of Japanese-Americans who were later combined into the 442nd during the European campaign.
Now a lawyer, Meyer is active in the national redress movement to right the wrongs of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.
“No one could have predicted on Dec. 8, 1941, how history would develop, how our initial unfounded suspicion led to sacrifice to prove loyalty, and to ultimate recognition of their valued service to this country,” he said of the events after the Pearl Harbor attack.
That recognition will be on full display in six weeks, when Matayoshi and Kanaya, along with other veterans and surviving spouses, will travel to Washington, D.C., in to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a bill awarding the medal to all 13,000 Japanese-American members of the 442nd regiment and other Japanese-American veterans.
“After some 67 years, I continue to be amazed, in awe of their contribution to our nation and proud of having studied, worked and served with the Nisei and having survived to see the ultimate recognition they so justly deserve” Meyer said.