News Anaysis: Campaign Fights for Japanese American WWII Vets

By Caroline Aoyagi-Stom, New America Media
Tuesday February 27, 2007

Before you lick your next postage stamp onto the electricity bill or a postcard from the latest family vacation, take a look at the variety of commemorative stamp choices you will have this year. 

There’s the Marvel Super Heroes stamps, the Disney-inspired ones, and a special “With Loves and Kisses” stamp just in time for Valentine’s Day. For history buffs there’s the Settlement of Jamestown stamp, and Ella Fitzgerald is featured in the ongoing Black Heritage series stamp collection. 

But missing again this year is a stamp honoring the heroic Japanese American World War II veterans—the 442nd Regiment, the 100th Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). 

For the past five years a group of individuals—many of them wives of JA WWII vets—have been working on a grassroots campaign to urge the United States Postal Service (USPS) and their Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) to issue a commemorative stamp in honor of these veterans. But so far only rejection letters have followed. 

“Why is our request being rejected when they are recognizing comic book characters and pop icons?” said 38-year-old Sansei Wayne Osako, the group’s California campaign organizer. 

For Osako, a former schoolteacher, the campaign holds special significance: five uncles in his extended family served in the 442nd and the MIS. 

“It’s something that’s close to my heart,” he said. “The history of the JA World War II vets is a key event for Asian Pacific American history. That’s why we’re really pushing for this.” 

Chiz Ohira, 79, wife of 442nd veteran Ted Ohira, believes the USPS needs to recognize this group of special men who volunteered out of internment camps even while their family members remained imprisoned. 

“This is a unique group of men,” she said. “I don’t think there will be anything like that again.” 


A coalition effort 

A petition letter to get a stamp for the JA World War II veterans now has close to 2,000 signatures. And some politicians have also thrown their support behind the effort, including Sen. Daniel Inouye. Still, the group’s efforts have not swayed the stamp committee. 

Last fall Osako learned that two other veterans’ groups were also proposing stamps with little success: the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. Soon the idea for a coalition effort began to take shape and now all three groups are collaborating to have the USPS issue a series of commemorative stamps to honor these veterans. 

“As for combining our efforts, I think it is an excellent idea,” said Sylvia Laughter of the Navajo Code Talker Memorial Foundation. “If indeed it is true that the U.S. postal stamp committee rejected these proposals previously, it makes sense that our combined efforts will gain greater support overall.” 

Laughter, a former Arizona state legislator, also introduced a successful Arizona state Senate resolution to garner support for the national stamp campaign. Now the groups hope to introduce similar resolutions in California, New Mexico and Utah. 

Nisei Aiko King, 79, has been involved with the JA World War II vets stamp efforts since its beginning and was at first hesitant about a coalition effort. But now she hopes the combined effort will finally show some results. 

“Sometimes I think, why can’t we have our own [stamp]? But if that’s the way we’re going to get on, then we’ve got to do it,” said King. 

“I just think it is so important ... before all the vets are gone.” 


The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee 

The JA WWII vets stamp proposal is just one of tens of thousands of requests the USPS receives each year. The requests are sent to the Postal Service’s CSAC—a group consisting of 15 appointed individuals from diverse backgrounds—who meet four times a year. 

The CSAC can either reject the proposal or keep it “under consideration.” Each year the committee recommends about 25 commemorative stamp selections to the Postmaster General that are “both interesting and educational.” 

“The decision is a process,” said Roy Betts, spokesperson for USPS, who noted that a Tuskegee Airmen stamp has been put “under consideration” but there are no current plans to issue a stamp. Stamps for the Navajo Code Talkers and the JA WWII vets are not currently being considered. 

“This united front is their choice but I cannot comment on the ineffectiveness or the effectiveness of it,” said Betts. “I encourage them to continue to take part in the process.” 


Honoring our veterans 

The USPS has a record of honoring its veterans with commemorative stamps. Latino veterans were honored with a stamp in 1984, and there was also a “Buffalo Soldiers” stamp honoring African Americans. In the 1990s a 50th anniversary World War II veteran stamp was issued although the stamp featured all Caucasian faces except for one African American man. 

So why isn’t there a stamp for the JA World War II vets, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers? 

There’s no question the three veterans groups have made their mark on military history. The 442nd and 100th Battalions are the most highly decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military airmen in history and flew over 200 combat missions without any casualties. And the Navajo Code Talkers used the Najavo language to produce the “unbreakable” code of the Pacific Theater. 

Those working on the grassroots stamp campaign believe a series of commemorative stamps for these heroic vets “would be a just way to continue to honor diversity in American military history.” 

“They deserve it, for what they did and why they did it,” said Mildred Ikemoto, 77, wife of 442nd veteran Henry Ikemoto. “These veterans need to have the visibility so our young people ... will know they should be proud of them.” 


A long-awaited honor 

Fusako Takahashi, 79, widow of a MIS veteran, had never felt the true impact of the JA WWII veterans’ story until she read a speech by Eric Saul, a noted historian and scholar. 

“I never realized what they went through,” she said. “I feel pretty strongly about it.” 

Now she is one of the many veterans’ wives and widows who are collectively pushing for a commemorative stamp for the JA World War vets. 

“I think this is really significant. But we can’t do this with just a few people. We need a popular effort,” said Osako, who urged people to sign their petition to support the stamp campaign. 

“We have to get the story out,” said Ohira, “before all of our vets are gone.”