At first glance, this is a perfectly ordinary room on a perfectly ordinary night in Las Vegas: snacks, drinks and plenty of aloha spirit in a hospitality suite at the California hotel-casino Downtown. Most of the guests are Asian-American, older and, on the surface, mild-mannered and unassuming. Conversation is buzzing with anticipation for the group banquet later that night. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.
The men gathered in this room, however, are extraordinary. They are members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the United States military. For a few days, the 442nd, their family and friends, and members of the Military Intelligence Service are holding their annual reunion at the California.
They are—in the truest sense—real American heroes, and for reasons that go beyond their battlefield heroics. The 442nd—and the 100th Infantry Battalion—was composed of Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans.
Lawson Sakai, organizer of the reunion, was a student at Compton Junior College in Los Angeles when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The next day, he went—along with two white classmates—to a Navy recruiting station, eager to enlist. Sakai’s classmates were accepted, while he was rejected as an “enemy alien,” although he was born only a few miles away. Four months later, Sakai and his family were moved to a Colorado internment camp.
In 1943, the Army announced that it was forming an infantry regiment of Nisei volunteers. When given the chance to fight for the country that had imprisoned his family, Sakai did not hesitate. Why was he so eager to volunteer for a country that had treated his family so unfairly?
“We were American citizens, we wanted to do our part,” Sakai says matter-of-factly. “We were going to show them that we were better Americans than anyone else.”
The 442nd certainly did, living up to its motto, “Go for Broke.” The bravery of Nisei soldiers on battlefields in North Africa and Europe erased any doubts about whether they were “real” Americans, and the work of Nisei Military Intelligence Service members in the Pacific contributed considerably to the United States’ victory there.
So why is this distinguished group meeting in Las Vegas? Since the 442nd has a high contingent of Hawaiians and the majority of its members live on the West Coast, Las Vegas is a natural gathering point. The group has been meeting annually at the California for more than 25 years—largely because of the property’s Hawaiian influence. Sam Boyd’s presence on the islands in the 1930s led to him develop relationships with local travel agents that remain strong 80 years later.
On paper, the 442nd reunion might not look like much. Most of the Hawaiian participants are here on a package deal that, for $350, gets them four nights at the Cal, meals included. The group holds two banquets during their stay—the total cost of which is probably less than a high-roller’s bottle service tab.
But the soul of Las Vegas isn’t in the bottom line. It is in the city’s identity as a place where people can come together, make new memories and cherish old ones.
A few years ago, more than 100 Nisei veterans attended the reunion. This year, there are about 30, and they are a bit less spry than last year; most are in their 90s. Next year there will be fewer. And then one day there will not be any Nisei to reminisce about their training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi or make toast to missing comrades. The presence of family—children and grandchildren of the veterans—and friends, though, ensures that the Nisei’s bravery will not be forgotten. The Cal, where these heroes and their supporters have come together for nearly three decades, has a role in keeping those memories alive.
The Las Vegas hospitality industry provides many things to many people. But the city’s soul and its redemption won’t be found in taxable gross revenues, deliveries of shareholder value or even payrolls met. It is in giving groups like the Nisei veterans and their friends a few more moments together, and a few new remembrances to carry forward and share. It is one way we can humbly repay those who risked their lives going for broke.