In 2011, Turlock native Hiroshi “Hiro” Asai was one of several local veterans presented the highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, for his outstanding efforts in World War II.
Asai and the soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion were honored with a civilian medal for facing discrimination at home and in the military because of their ethnicity.
Asai, a life-long resident of Turlock, died July 26 after a month-long illness in St. Mary’s Medical Center, San Francisco. He was 88 years old.
Asai was born and raised in Turlock. His family grew grapes and vegetables in Cortez, just outside of Turlock. When he was 18 years old the United States Government rounded up Japanese Americans on the West Coast and sent them to relocation camps. Asai and his family were sent to the Merced Fair Grounds, and then to Camp Amache War Relocation Center in Colorado.
Many of the interned were Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans who were born in the U.S. and were United States citizens. The Nisei in camps were not allowed to join any branch of the military at first. Then the government took 1,000 volunteer Japanese American soldiers. Later they drafted the Nisei, who were given a choice between joining the military and going to prison.
“I wanted to go into the Air Force, but the only place they would take us was the Army. And then we had to join the infantry, there was no choice,” Asai said in a 2011 interview.
All internees drafted into World War II were placed in the Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team. They were later joined by the 100th Infantry Battalion, mostly Japanese Americans formerly from the Hawaiian Coast Guard. The 442nd fought in the European Theater in France, Italy and Germany. It remains the most decorated unit of its size in American military history. The 442nd includes 21 Medal of Honor recipients, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, and 4,000 Bronze Stars. They also suffered many losses, and received 9,486 Purple Hearts.
During their service, members of the 442nd lived with the knowledge that their family members were still interned in their own country. Asai’s parents and siblings were interned at Amache for four years. He said many Nisei soldiers wanted their families released.
“They said ‘if I have to fight in the war then my family should be allowed to go home,’” Asai said in 2011.
The interned Japanese Americans were officially released on Jan. 2, 1945. Members of the 442nd returned to the United States and their families. Not everyone went back to where they used to call home. Asai said many of Turlock’s Japanese families were melon farmers. They were share-croppers because melon crops had to be rotated every few years and they never purchased land. When orders for internment came down they had to sell all of their farming equipment and most of their personal and household belongings or leave everything behind. Many Turlockers lost all of their possessions during the war.
“There was nothing for them to come back to, so they never did come back to Turlock,” Asai said.
The Asai family did return to Turlock, but Hiro did not go back to farming. He instead went to trade school to become a repair man.
“At the time they discouraged us from going into higher education. They said ‘even if you get a degree nobody will hire you,’” Asai said.
Someone did hire Asai. He got a job at Youngdale’s as a service repair man, where he worked for 25 years.
“Frank Youngdale hired me, but it was against some people’s objection,” Asai said.
Sixty-six years after they fought for their country, despite facing detainment and discrimination at home, the 442nd were recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal. Asai and other local vets, including Kaoru “Carl” Masuda, were invited to Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2, 2011, for the awards ceremony. Asai received his third Bronze Star — this one personally engraved with his name from Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno. The Congressional Gold Medal was extended to all members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and Nisei serving in the Military Intelligence Service.
“It’s not for us. It’s for the ones that didn’t come back. They are the ones who deserve it,” Asai said of the medal.
Asai said he has no complaints over what happened 66 years ago. He said Japanese culture teaches Nisei not to let adversity get them down. He said his parents taught him not to bring shame to himself, his family, his culture or his country. Asai and other Nisei consider the United States to be their country, and they are proud of their service in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
After retiring from Youngdale’s, Asai concentrated on farming. He expanded his farm from 20 acres to 260 acres. He was a member of the Stockton Buddhist Church, the Cortez Howakai, Cortez Growers Assn, Blue Diamond Growers, Cortez Japanese-American Citizens League, and Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans. He was involved with activities and reunions of the WWII 442nd veterans.
Hiro is survived by his wife of 65 years, Hisa; sons and daughters-in-law, Paul Asai and his wife Iris, Gary Asai and his wife Rebecca, Randy Asai and his wife Nancy, and Darryl Asai and his wife Joanne; grandchildren, Heather, Nicole, Christie, Scotty, Amy, Katie, Jonathan and Jennifer, and step grandchildren Shawn and Athena; 11 great-grandchildren, and sister, Kiyoko (Asai) Yoshioka of San Jose.
He was preceded in death by brothers, Hideo, Kiyoshi and Yoshio (Yosh).