Sixteen million men and women served in uniform during World War II. Today, 1.2 million are still alive, but hundreds of those vets are dying every day. In honor of Memorial Day, NPR's All Things Considered is remembering some of the veterans who have died this year.
"Tad Nagaki was a gentle, quiet farmer," says Mary Previte, a retired New Jersey legislator and former captive of the Japanese during World War II. That quiet farmer, who did extraordinary things, died in April at the age of 93 at his grandson's Colorado home.
With her siblings and separated from her missionary parents, Previte spent nearly three years in the harsh conditions of a prison camp in China during the war.
Tadashi "Tad" Nagaki was among her rescuers. Previte was 12 at the time and never forgot him. More than a half-century after the war, she tracked Nagaki down and learned more about his life.
Nagaki, a Japanese-American, grew up on a family farm in Alliance, Neb. After the war, he went back to Alliance to farm corn, beans and sugar beets.
Previte says Nagaki was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, just before Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was 21 at the time and stationed at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
When the U.S. entered the war, Nagaki wanted to join the fight. But when he asked if he could be an airman, Previte says, "he got a letter from his commander in Fort Monmouth that said, 'No, [he] could not be an airman,' because he was Japanese-American."
Instead, Nagaki was sent to another base and given mundane tasks like landscaping. But Nagaki and other Japanese-American GIs wanted to do more. They asked repeatedly what they could do to join a combat unit, Previte says, but for two years, "they kept being turned down."
Finally, the War Department realized it needed Japanese-speakers for intelligence work. The Office of Strategic Services selected a handful of them to serve in China and Burma — including Nagaki.
The war had just officially ended when Nagaki's OSS team parachuted into the camp where Previte and about 1,500 others had been held. Although the emperor had surrendered a few days earlier, the Japanese camp guards raised their guns when they saw the Americans descending. But no shots were fired and they handed their guns over to the Americans.
The rescue brought elation to the camp, Previte recalls. "Everyone was berserk," she says. "I mean, out of their minds pandemonium. People laughing, weeping, dancing."
Nagaki and the other American rescuers were followed around by the freed prisoners wherever they went, Previte says. "One lady cut off a piece of his hair so she could have it for a souvenir."
Previte says Nagaki told her he didn't want to be known as a hero. He said he did what any American would have done. But Previte gives him higher praise.
"Tad Nagaki was an American hero and I can never say enough 'thank yous,' " she says.
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