Nisei valor

Dental clinic named for hero

By J.M. Simpson on August 4, 2017

The Okubo Medical & Dental Clinic on Joint Base Lewis-McChord North honors a hero.

James Okubo was a Nisei, a second generation Japanese American, born in Anacortes in 1920 to immigrant parents.

Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese males were categorized as 4C, or enemy aliens, and were not subject to being drafted into the military.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing military authorities to create internment camps. Although the order did not specifically refer to Americans of Japanese ancestry, it was aimed at people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast.

In March 1942, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command and 4th Army, issued the first of 108 proclamations that resulted in the relocation of more than 110,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, of which two thirds were Nisei.

Okubo was one of them.

Living in Bellingham at the time of the executive order, Okubo's family was first taken to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California and later to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming.

In early 1943, the Roosevelt administration changed its policy of allowing Japanese Americans to serve in the military and authorized the enlistment of Japanese Americans. On May 20, 1943, Okubo volunteered for the Army and was sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, for basic training.  

He was trained as a medic and assigned to K Company, 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

A segregated infantry regiment, the 442nd was a fighting unit led by white officers and comprised almost entirely of Nisei.

Ironically, many of the families of the Japanese Americans serving in the 442nd RCT were confined to internment camps.

Beginning in 1944, the regiment fought primarily in Europe, in particular Italy, Germany and southern France.

The 442nd became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in American history.  In total, approximately 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, eight Presidential Unit Citations, 18,143 individual decorations, and 21 Medal of Honors.

One of those Medal of Honors was awarded to Technician 5th Class James Okubo.

In October 1944, the 442nd found itself in France confronting German forces in the cold, dark and foggy Vosages Mountains outside the town of Bruyeres. His dreams of domination crumbling, Hitler had ordered his forces to hold the area at all costs.

At 4 a.m. Oct. 27, the 442nd was ordered to rescue the encircled 141st Regiment, 36th Infantry Division.

During the fighting, Okubo distinguished himself.

On Oct. 28, Okubo crawled under fire for 150 yards to within 40 yards of enemy lines to retrieve and then treat 17 wounded comrades. On the following day, he provided medical care for eight more of his comrades while under grazing machine gun fire.

Six days later, Nov. 4, he ran 75 yards through enemy fire and pulled a wounded soldier from a burning Sherman tank. Soon thereafter, the 442nd broke through the German lines and rescued the 141st.

Okubo's commanding officers put him in for the Medal of Honor.  

The medal was downgraded to a Silver Star because Okubo was just a medic and not eligible for any higher award.

He survived the war and eventually became a dentist in Detroit, Michigan.  During the 1990s, a review was done of awards presented to Asian Americans during World War II.

Under separate legislation, Okubo's Silver Star was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

On June 21, 2000, President Bill Clinton posthumously presented the medal to Okubo's family at the White House.

The Okubo Medical & Dental Clinic on JBLM honors his service to his country.