Honoring AAPI History: Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during WWII

There is a generation of people preserving the memory of men and women who fought for the United States despite being rounded up and considered the enemy. 

It's the story of Japanese Americans here in the United States, a dark part of the country's history, when during World War II the U.S. government forced the incarceration of more than 125,000 Americans of Japanese descent, considering them the enemy.

Despite losing everything, men and women who were in internment camps joined the U.S. military to prove their allegiance. 

As time goes on, the effort to hold onto their stories is becoming even more important.

"There are not many of us left now, the youngest guys are 96 years old," said WWII veteran Ed Nakamura. 

Having lived almost 98 years, Nakamura recalls what it was like during WWII as a Japanese American forced into an internment camp after the U.S. considered citizens of Japanese descent the enemy. 

"We went through turmoil that ordinary Americans did not," Nakamura said.

But despite the discrimination, at 18 years old, he signed up to fight for the U.S. military.

"When I think back to the evacuation, we were sent to camp and asked to join the Army, it is kind of galling for the government to ask all that. We wanted to show we were loyal Americans that we appreciate life in America better than anywhere in the world," Nakamura said.

Thousands of Japanese American men and women served the U.S. military just like Nakamura, making up the country's most decorated unit. The 442 Regimental Combat Team was comprised almost entirely of Japanese American men.

Dozens of those heroes are laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights with the statue of soldier Sadao Munemori, a medal of honor recipient who threw his body over a grenade to save the lives of his comrades. 

"So much of what they did defined American rights in the United States and so it's a story we have to keep telling, it doesn't mean it's not going to happen again," said Lindsey Sugimoto, granddaughter of a WWII veteran.

That's why Sugimoto, whose late grandfather was part of the 442, makes sure to honor his legacy by cleaning up the headstones of these heroes. 

It's an effort led by the Go For Broke National Education Center, passing on the stories of the past, to generations who have benefited. 

"He had to do it for his family, he had to do it for future generations and he had to do it for America," Sugimoto said of her grandfather.

Kathleen Nishimoto volunteers to clean the headstones as well. 

"Fighting to prove themselves, that's been such a part of my own journey and there are so many people who can identify with that story in that fighting to prove who you are and where you belong, ‘who am I trying to prove that to?’" Nishimoto said. 

 "What the Japanese American soldiers did during WWII is not just a Japanese story, it's an American story, it's a story of the sons of immigrants that upheld Americans promise in our nation. Nobody is supposed to be judged by the color of their skin or origin or faith that they choose to keep. Those values are as important today as in 1943," said Mitchell Maki, President and CEO for the Go For Broke National Education Center.

They're values Nakamura said was worth fighting for. 

"I want to leave a legacy. I'm satisfied with what I did, accomplished," Nakamura said.

The values of inclusion and equality are what these war heroes say they want to pass on. 

The Go For Broke Foundation works to preserve and honor the history of these veterans and volunteers year-round to make sure their headstones are cleaned so people can pay their respects. 

They say it's the least they can do to honor their sacrifice. 

To learn more about the Go For Broke Foundation, tap or click here.