Alumnus and Japanese-American WWII vet Kenji Sayama donates Congressional Gold Medal to Bancroft

Kenji Sayama, a 1942 UC Berkeley graduate and a veteran of the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service, has donated to The Bancroft Library a Congressional Gold Medal awarded to him and some 19,000 other Japanese Americans who served in World War II. They were recruited into all-Japanese-American military units known for the motto “Go For Broke.”

Sayama, 91, presented the medal to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Bancroft Director Elaine Tennant on April 20, in a small ceremony at the library. The chancellor accepted the medal, calling Sayama “a hero.”

Congressional Gold Medal issued to Nisei soldiers.

“I can’t think of any better place to send (the medal) to than this university,” Sayama said after the ceremony.

He noted that he spent many hours at the Bancroft, including on the day he was scheduled to take his Ph.D. oral exams. He said he got so involved in his studies that he forgot the exam until someone asked him about it that night.  Fortunately, he said, his professors allowed him to reschedule.

Friday’s ceremony was attended by Sayama family members and Bancroft staff, including Bancroft Director Elaine Tennant and Theresa Salazar, curator of Bancroft’s Western Americana Collection.

That collection includes the U.S. government’s Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement records from World War II, which are supplemented by personal papers from Japanese Americans in wartime internment camps. The materials, along with those from seven other institutions, can be found in the online Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives.

Last November, Sayama was among dozens of Japanese-American World War II veterans who received the medal in Washington, D.C. That medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the nation’s highest civilian honors.

The medal proclamation says, in part: “The United States remains forever indebted to the bravery, valor and dedication to country that these men faced while fighting a two-front battle of discrimination at home and fascism abroad. Their commitment demonstrates a highly uncommon and commendable sense of patriotism and honor.”

“It is such an upbeat new chapter in the story of the Japanese internment that is so richly documented at Bancroft,” said Tennant. “To this point Dr. Sayama is the first member of that group of internees who has brought us another later chapter of that story.”

Sayama was attending UC Berkeley when President Roosevelt issued the internment order in February, 1942; after he left school to look after his parents, he was sent to the Rowher War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

Chancellor Birgeneau accepts the Congressional Gold Medal from Kenji Sayama and his wife, Sue. John “Jack” Rosteon, Class of ’42, looks on.  Photo by Peg Skorpinski.

The diploma he had earned (based on his mid-term exams) for his undergraduate work in zoology arrived in the mail while Sayama was interned. That enabled him to teach science classes for youth in the camp, for which Sayama said he earned $9 a month. A black-and-white photo of Sayama in a Rowher classroom was recently uncovered in Bancroft’s Relocation Authorities records and was on display Friday.

During his internment, Sayama enlisted in the U.S. Army and served four years. His time was split between officers’ and Military Intelligence Service training in the United States, and service in Japan.

Later, Sayama returned to UC Berkeley on the G.I. Bill, receiving a master’s degree in 1950 and a Ph.D. in 1953, both in zoology.

It wasn’t until 1992 that Sayama was able to don the traditional cap and gown and formally receive his degrees at UC Berkeley in a special convocation ceremony for all 17 other Japanese Americans who had to leave UC Berkeley before their wartime graduations.  John “Jack” Rosston, the Class of ’42 classmate who gave Sayama his diplomas at that event, also attended Friday’s Gold Medal program.