Japanese American Soldiers Meet Tuskegee Airmen
United historically by courage and loyalty in the face of societal discrimination, ultimately prevailing as true American heroes.
By Carol Akiyama, Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans
Morgan Hill, Calif.—The Feb. 16, 2008 Membership Meeting of Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans (FFNV), held at Morgan Hill’s Buddhist Community Center, was a resounding success, attended by more than 150 who were treated to an elaborate buffet-lunch by FFNV and Center volunteers. Tuskegee Captain Leon “Woodie” Spears spoke eloquently before a rapt audience that included many curious “outsiders,” intrigued to attend by a heartwarming article about this event in the local San Jose Mercury News.
If not the first, this certainly was an historic union of like-minded World War II (WWII) Heroes, who persevered with remarkable courage and endurance in the face of “blind” societal and peer-discrimination, based solely on “color” — African-American Heroes (represented by Spears) and WWII Japanese-American Heroes (represented by Lawson Sakai, FFNV President), both serving in segregated units. Also in attendance were several of Sakai’s fellow Japanese-American WWII Heroes who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and Military Intelligence Service (MIS).
“This is the greatest Nation on this Earth … And I’m a strong Patriot.” So said this valiant Tuskegee warrior of wars past, with proud conviction. Spears fascinated the audience with accounts of his “Great Depression” era youth, brightened with his omnipresent obsession with flying — becoming a pilot, in spite of “color” barriers. Never daunted by these artificial-barriers, Spears went on to graduate to coveted “Pilot” status from the Tuskegee Institute on June 24, 1944.
Nicknamed the “Red Tail Angels” for their P-51 Mustangs with red painted-tails, the Tuskegee Airmen collectively-flew 200 bomber escort-missions, shot-down 400 German planes and safely-escorted 15,000 American bombing-missions.
Spears’ presentation was mesmerizing, tinged with endearing humor, when describing heartbreaking-discrimination while training at Tuskegee. Spears flew 51 missions over Europe in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, until being shot-down over Berlin on March 24, 1945 after which he was treated surprisingly well as a prisoner-of-war by the Germans. However, days later, when Russian soldiers invaded, Spears was not as fortunate, enduring three months of ill-treatment, followed by his eventual sea-journey home with other Allied pilots.
A quarter-century after the end of WWII, Spears was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, for remarkable heroism in battle that saved American pilots in a crippled B-24 bomber. Additionally, in March 2007 at our Nation’s Capitol, in the presence of President Bush, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to Spears and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen.
Spears was introduced by Sakai, himself a highly-decorated WWII Veteran who served in the famed 442nd RCT, participating in many campaigns, including the liberation of Bruyeres (France), followed by the remarkable rescue of “The Lost Battalion” (courageous American soldiers of the Texas Battalion, hopelessly-trapped in France’s Vosges Mountains), during which the 442nd RCT suffered insurmountable casualties, while saving some 211 “Lost Battalion” soldiers. Following this harrowing rescue, Sakai and his fellow 442nd RCT went on to break-through the previously-impenetrable “Gothic Line” (Apennines Mountain Range, bordering Italy). And the 442nd RCT’s 522nd Field-Artillery Battalion liberated the Dachau concentration camp. Still other Japanese-American soldiers covertly and loyally-served on the Pacific Front in the MIS, providing vital intelligence via their bilingual-skills. The MIS was credited with shortening the War by at least two years. All this, while the families of stateside Japanese-American soldiers were incarcerated in America’s camps. The 442nd RCT became one of the most highly-decorated units in American military-history.
The WWII Japanese-American Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen shared (and still share) a compassionate-understanding of those who unfairly-discriminated against them, by responding with grace and loyalty. As Spears so graciously opined, “I can’t fault these people … Each one of us is a product of our upbringing … That’s the way things were … But changes are coming about“. Collectively, these WWII Japanese-American Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen represent America’s “National Treasures”, who humbly-promulgated a legacy of honor, courage, fortitude and loyalty.
On behalf of FFNV, Sakai presented respectful tributes to Spears, which included a generous monetary-donation to Spears’ Tuskegee organization which mentors “at-risk” youth; a 442nd RCT shirt and 442nd RCT cap; “The War” hardback by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns; and chocolate-delicacies.
Of his presentation and reception, Spears said, “It was one of the most memorable in my entire career.” It certainly was for all those who attended.