The heroic story of Sadao Munemori, LA native and WWII Medal of Honor recipient

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- If you stroll into Los Angeles' oldest cemetery, Evergreen in Boyle Heights, you'll undoubtedly see a figure that stands out high above all the others.

It's the statue of a young man from Los Angeles who experienced incredible difficulty but, in doing so, displayed enormous courage.

He sits high above where thousands have come to rest. He watches over his city and his comrades who have fallen with him.

"I married into the family, but the family was proud of what he did," Kenny Wachtel said.

Wachtel talks about a soldier named Sadao Munemori, his uncle-in-law.

"He was a normal guy, but he was of Japanese American heritage," he said. "And he was a very strong family guy and loved his mother."

Kenny was married to Munemori's niece. After many years together, she passed away and left Kenny with a revealing collection of letters and photos from Sadao's life.

Sadao, grew up in Glendale and graduated from Lincoln High. At only 19 years old, he enlisted in the Army and became part of the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese Americans in World War II.

They would soon be considered one of the greatest fighting units in American military history.

"What makes his story unusual is the fact that the rest of his family was in Manzanar relocation camp in a god awful place in California," Wachtel said.

Munemori's family, along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent, were locked up in concentration camps, denied their constitutional rights.

And yet, Munemori along with many others in 100th/442nd, were fighting for the very country who did it -- willing to die to prove that they were Americans.

In picturesque Pietrasanta, Italy, there is yet another statue of Munemori.

Even the Italians say he is a special man. It was near the town where Munemori earned the Medal of Honor.

It was April 1945, Munemori and his tough fellow soldiers broke the German's back by penetrating the heavily fortified Gothic line, high in the mountains over Pietrasanta.

During the battle, Munemori fought gallantly, singlehandedly taking out two enemy machine gun nests. Then, that fateful moment when a grenade lands at the feet of his comrades. Munemori jumped on it, saving his men but killing himself.

Inside his pocket, they found a picture of his beloved mother now stained with his blood.

Americo Bugliani was just a child then, but he'll never forget what it took to liberate his town.

And that's why years later, he helped spearhead the effort to erect this statue, the Italian's way of forever recognizing Munemori and the 100th/442nd.

Despite their incredible record, Munemori would be the only Japanese American recipient of the Medal of Honor, until an investigation revealed prejudice within the selection process.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded 20 more to the families of those who were unjustly denied.

Today, just feet from Munemori, you will find three other Medal of Honor recipients from the 100th/442nd, all died on the battlefield, all while their innocent families were locked up.

The reason they are at Evergreen was because it was the only place a Japanese American was allowed to be buried, even if he died for his country.

There Munemori stands at attention, a symbol of courage and sacrifice.
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