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Shawn Vestal: Honoring a really, really good man

World War II veteran George Minata and four other Spokane residents are going to Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. They are former members of the renowned, highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. (Colin Mulvany)

George Minata was born in Troy, Mont. He moved with his family to Bonners Ferry, where his dad ran a restaurant and owned a half-block downtown, leasing to several businesses. He played football and basketball, graduating from high school and earning a football scholarship to the University of Idaho.

He was an all-American boy.

Right up until he became an “enemy alien.”

Minata, a first-generation Japanese American, found himself swept up in one of the most shameful chapters of American race relations: the anti-Japanese fever that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the internment of American citizens in camps or forced removal from coastal areas. Minata’s family lost their land and businesses after community boycotts; he was prevented from playing road games on the coast with the Vandals.

“I could play the home games in Moscow,” Minata said. “It was just hysteria. I had to even fight with my own teammates.”

And so, when the country came calling in 1943, asking Japanese-Americans to help fight the Germans in World War II, you’d think Minata would have had a quick, dismissive answer. But he, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, enlisted. Their segregated unit – the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – became the most decorated of the war for its length of service.

All for the privilege of coming home and facing the same racism they’d seen before.

“There were times,” said Minata’s wife, Aiko, “that we’d go into a restaurant and would sit there and wouldn’t be served.”

A measure of recognition and appreciation has come to members of the 442nd as the years have passed, and they’re being presented with the Congressional Gold Medal next week in Washington, D.C. The Minatas are among a small Spokane contingent traveling to the Capitol for the ceremony.

George – who goes by “Ike” – is as effusive about this honor as he is about his experiences in the war or the way he was treated before he went.

“I don’t have too many feelings about it,” he said. “It’s nice. … The only problem is, we hate to travel anymore.”

Minata was a medic during the war. An ROTC student at Idaho, he’d seen most of his fellow students go on to become officers. He was among the first members of the 442nd when it was formed in 1943; in the fall of that year, he and his fellow soldiers were in Italy, in the thick of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

In July 1944, as they were fighting in the hills around Cecina, he and another medic were hauling away an injured soldier on the front lines when mortar fire rained down on them.

“I got hit through the neck and back and both legs,” Minata said.

His fellow medic’s arm was shredded. “The fella we were carrying before we got hit” – and here Minata starts to chuckle – “he got up and took off. I don’t how, but he did.”

Minata’s companion carried him to safety in a nearby barn; eventually he was hospitalized in Rome for a month, and then spent more time in a rehab unit. And then he rejoined the 442nd until the end of the war.

Even then, the Army asked Minata to stay on. He politely declined. He returned to America, landing in New York on Christmas Day 1945 after losing all his money gambling on the way home. Eventually he found his way to Spokane, where his family had moved.

Aiko, whose family had been relocated to the Minidoka camp in Southern Idaho, had come to Spokane with her brother, who had served with Minata. The two met in 1946 and married in 1948. George went to pharmacy school in Pullman and returned to Spokane, where they raised their daughters.

Among the topics that were not part of regular family conversation were George’s experiences in Italy.

“I didn’t know very much about any of this until we started going to (442nd) reunions in Hawaii,” Aiko said. “All the veterans would talk about the old days. That’s how I learned about these things. He didn’t say anything.”

The heroism of the 442nd is made all the more poignant by how little right America had to ask it of them. Minata doesn’t talk about this much – when I asked him why he hadn’t been angry and resentful, why he’d been willing to risk his life, he referred me to a written history of the Nisei fighters that mentions their strong sense of honor and loyalty and that included this line: “There is an old Japanese proverb that goes: If you do something really good and you don’t talk about it, it must be really, really good.”

Mike Mukai is a Spokane man whose late father, Tomeo, also served with the 442nd. Tomeo Mukai hadn’t been forced into a camp, but his family had to leave behind a West Side farm and move to Moses Lake.

Mukai said that for many Japanese-Americans, the decision to serve was a complicated one. They felt horrified by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and they were ashamed that their loyalty was called into question.

“I think that there was a lot of shame for the Niseis that were in camps themselves,” he said. “They were loyal Americans and they were stuck away in a camp and there was no way to prove their loyalty, and so it was kind of shameful.”

In the end, the 442nd compiled an amazing record. They served a crucial role across Europe in the final battles of the war. To the 14,000 Japanese-Americans who served, there were more than 18,000 medals awarded.

And if, like many of the World War II generation, Minata is subdued about the award, the rest of his family is not.

“Our two daughters think it’s great,” Aiko said. “We’re taking both of them.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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