They're old men now, old enough to remember the days of segregation and slurs.
Levi Thornhill is an African American raised under Jim Crow laws in Virginia. Bill Toledo is a Native American who was spanked by teachers for speaking his Navajo language. And Ken Akune is a California native and U.S. citizen who was imprisoned in a World War II internment camp simply because of his Japanese ancestry.
But when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, thrusting the nation into World War II, none of that mattered. All three enlisted in the U.S. Armed Services, entering segregated units to fight for a nation that refused to give them equal rights. Their skin colors were different, but their fierce patriotism was the same.
On Friday, the three octogenarians met for the first time — along with comrades from the African American Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo Code Talkers and Japanese American members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. The units will be honored Saturday at a gala dinner to recognize the men who fought a two-front battle during the war — one against the Axis enemies abroad and the other against racism at home.
In particular, the dinner will pay tribute to the 33,000 Japanese American veterans who were awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, earlier this week.
"These are men who put their life on the line for the country despite incredible adversity and prejudice," said Don Nose of the Go For Broke National Education Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Japanese American World War II veterans, which is hosting the Beverly Hills dinner."They dug in, persevered and turned an adverse situation into a glory."
Akune was 18 when he and 120,000 other Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents were forced off the West Coast and shipped to desolate internment camps. Despite the assault on his civil and constitutional rights, Akune jumped at the chance to volunteer for the Army in December 1942.
Fluent in Japanese, he and his comrades in the Military Intelligence Service intercepted messages, interrogated Japanese prisoners and performed other tasks credited with shortening the Pacific War by two years. Akune, for instance, recalls learning of new Japanese aircraft during an interrogation.
Other Japanese American veterans fought on the front lines for the 100th/442nd units. Don Seki, for instance, helped drive out remaining Germans in mop-up operations after the celebrated Battle of the Lost Battalion, where Japanese American soldiers were sent to rescue a Texas battalion trapped in France. The Japanese Americans sacrificed four lives for every Texan saved but ultimately succeeded in their mission.
Seki would lose his arm a week later in a subsequent battle in France, earning the Purple Heart. The 100th/442nd would become one of the nation's most highly decorated military units. But, like Akune, Seki isn't one to harp on such glories.
"We were born in this country and were ready to die for this country," the 87-year-old Long Beach resident said.
Such sentiments were also expressed by members of the other segregated units. Toledo's teachers may have washed his mouth out with soap for speaking Navajo, but when the nation needed his language for an unbreakable code during the war, he jumped in to help.
In 1942, he joined the Navajo Code Talkers unit in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in the South Pacific, Guam and Iwo Jima in Japan. The unit — popularized in the film "Windtalkers," starring Nicolas Cage — devised a code based on the unwritten, extremely complex Navajo language to transmit information on tactics and troop movements. Toledo, for instance, recalls transmitting requests for artillery fire on a particular Iwo Jima hill using Navajo words for "sick horse," the code for hill.
The Japanese never broke the code, and the Code Talkers were awarded Medals of Honor in 2001.
"I'm really proud," said Toledo, 87. "I just wanted to go in there and help my country."
Tuskegee Airman Thornhill, 89, grew up with segregated parks, schools, restaurants and streetcars in Virginia. His fellow airman, Ted Lumpkin, was raised in an integrated neighborhood in Los Angeles. Despite those differences, they both realized the stakes when they joined the all-black Airmen, the nation's first African American military aviators and their ground crews.
"A lot of people thought if we did a good job, we would improve the racial problems and result in more opportunities and fairer treatment," said Lumpkin, 91.
The Airmen, part of the Army Air Corps, flew bomber escort missions in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, taking out hundreds of enemy aircraft, boats and railroad cars. The service record is credited with helping prompt President Harry Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948.
In 2007, the Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Decades after the war, the men shrug off such accolades.
"We didn't go to war to get a medal," said Akune, 88. "We were just happy we did our best. We showed we were just as good Americans as anyone else."