MUNSTER | Like millions of other Americans, George Okamoto served in the U.S. military during World War II.
Wounded severely in both legs during an Army combat mission in northern Italy, the decorated soldier spent the last two years of his service in military hospitals enduring nearly 20 operations. After his discharge in 1945, he returned to Chicago, worked as an illustrator, married and raised a family.
Today the 87-year old California native and Munster resident will be honored in Washington, D.C., at a Congressional Gold Medal gala dinner ceremony along with other Japanese-American veterans who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.
Okamoto will receive this highest civilian award given by the U.S. government while his daughter, Erin Okamoto Protsman and granddaughter, Bridget Protsman, both of St. John, watch. Each veteran of Japanese descent will be presented with a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal. The original medals will be showcased at the Smithsonian.
"We're going to an expensive dinner there," Okamoto said of the honor. "If it weren't for Erin, I wouldn't be going."
Okamoto and other Japanese-Americans remained loyal to a government that turned against them after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, said Protsman, who produced a documentary "Without Due Process" that chronicles her father's experiences.
Okamoto recalls walking into Santa Ana, Calif., on Dec. 7, 1941, to get a newspaper.
"I ran into a couple of people who said ‘Get the hell out of here, you Jap,' " Okamoto said. "My parents told us after that we have to be very careful."
In early 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered more than 120,000 people of Japanese birth or descent rounded up in Washington state, Oregon and California and herded into internment camps.
Okamoto's parents, who emigrated from Japan in the early part of the 20th century, and their eight children were forced to live in a detention camp in the middle of the Arizona desert, far away from their home in California, throughout the war. The youngest Okamoto son was born in that camp.
Many, such as George Okamoto and his seven siblings, were American citizens and never had been to Japan.
"I didn't speak Japanese," Okamoto said. "As a kid, I'd gone to Japanese school on Saturdays. I ran afoul of the teacher because I wouldn't bow to a picture of the emperor of Japan. I said, ‘I'm all American. He's not my emperor.' "
Those were dark, frightening days, he said.
Those of Japanese heritage couldn't leave their homes, and unannounced searches and seizures were common.
"My family was descended from Samurai, and we had ceremonial knives that were given to my family. The sheriff's department came in and took all our ceremonial knives and our cameras in case we might take pictures of the defenses," he said.
Given 10 days to sell or give away all their possessions, the Okamoto family was allowed to take only what it could carry. The family was put aboard buses for a 10-hour ride into a barbed wire-enclosed camp in Poston, Ariz.
After the lush farmland of southern California, the Arizona desert was a shock for the 20,000 people incarcerated in the camp, Okamoto said.
"It was lousy, so hot. The barracks had double roofs and still couldn't cool it," said Okamoto, who was 18 when the family arrived. The barracks were hastily built of green wood that shrank in the heat, causing large cracks that allowed in sand.
"We lost our privacy," he said. "There were no bathrooms inside and no kitchens. My mother couldn't cook."
Okamoto was able to leave the camp by telling authorities he was going to college in Chicago, he said.
"They didn't care where you moved inland, as long as you didn't go to the West Coast," he said. "I found a job as an illustrator in Chicago."
In 1943, the oldest son, Thomas Okamoto, was drafted by the Army.
"We were told that if we didn't go into the service, our families would be repatriated back to Japan. At one time, we thought that might happen," George Okamoto said.
While in Chicago, Okamoto decided to enlist. First he tried the Marine Corps.
"I was told my front teeth were too big," he said, referring to propaganda posters depicting the Japanese enemy with large buck teeth.
"Then I tried the Navy and was told ‘We don't take Japs in the Navy.' Finally I went to the recruiting office on West Van Buren and enlisted in the Army," he said.
He served with the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe.
Today's ceremony in Washington marks Okamoto's third trip to the nation's capital.
"My first two trips there were horrible. 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."