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Chicago's First Asian-American Principal and WWII Hero Remembered

by Chris Fuchs /
Sam Saburo Ozaki, Chicago's first Asian-American school principal and a Purple Heart recipient who spent time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, died on September 23, 2015.Courtesy of Rebecca Ozaki

A memorial service was held Saturday to celebrate the life of Sam Saburo Ozaki, Chicago's first Asian-American school principal and a Purple Heart recipient who spent time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Ozaki died on September 23 in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of 90.

During the war, Ozaki volunteered to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all Japanese-American army unit, to prove his loyalty to the United States, his son Edward told NBC News. Ozaki was also remembered as a caring and engaged educator, and as a dedicated high school principal who served Chicago’s public school system for more than three decades.

The second youngest of five children, Ozaki was born November 2, 1924, in Los Angeles, California, to Kyujiro and Tomino Ozaki. A senior at Banning High School when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Ozaki and his family were forced to move to a temporary assembly center at Santa Anita Park, a racetrack near Los Angeles.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the relocation of anyone considered a national threat to security. In the wake of that order, more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry were moved from the west coast to fenced-in, guarded relocation centers further inland.

After spending six months at Santa Anita Park, Ozaki and his family were then sent to the Jerome Relocation Center, an internment camp in Arkansas, where they stayed for a year. There, Ozaki and some of his friends decided to sign up to join the Army, but they encountered prejudice when they arrived for boot camp in Mississippi in 1944, according to a 2011 Chicago Tribune article.

That mindset changed, however, by the end of the war, Ozaki told the newspaper.

“They respected the fact that we were good soldiers,” said Ozaki, who was wounded on the battlefield and received a Purple Heart.

  Courtesy of Rebecca Ozaki

After the war, Ozaki earned a college education through the GI Bill, his son Edward said, and he moved to Chicago, where in 1951 he began a career in education--first as an elementary school teacher and later as a principal.

After retiring in 1989, Ozaki began speaking to students about his experiences at the internment camp in talks arranged by the Japanese American Citizens League, an Asian-American civil rights organization founded in 1929, Edward Ozaki said.

“They liked to call on him because he was a pretty good speaker, and he would not shy away from any questions,” he said.

  Courtesy of Rebecca Ozaki

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award, to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, part of the combat team, to recognize their service and dedication during World War II. Ozaki was one of the recipients.

Ozaki is survived by his children Edward, Stephen, and Nancy, and his sisters Lily Teraji and June Nomura.