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His regiment awarded Congressional Gold Medal for WWII service

WWII picture Kenji Yatsushiro who fought with 442nd Japanese-American brigade thincluded Sen. Dan Inouye. He went be Chicago engineer with

WWII picture of Kenji Yatsushiro, who fought with the 442nd, the Japanese-American brigade that included Sen. Dan Inouye. He went on to be a Chicago engineer with about a dozen patents.

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Updated: March 12, 2013 6:20AM

For one moment in the forests of southern France, Kenji Yatsushiro’s existence was in the balance. He was so close to enemy German soldiers, he was sure they could hear his heartbeats.

What saved him — and ensured he would become a husband, father, and engineer who lived a quiet, long life in Chicago — were his observational skills. Specifically, his ability to judge height.

Mr. Yatsushiro was one of the Japanese-American soldiers of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Their valor was remarkable, especially given that the U.S. government started out the war viewing the men as “enemy aliens.”

The 442nd was on a mission to save the “Lost Battalion,” a group of Texans trapped behind enemy lines in southern France in 1944.

“My dad said he got separated from his company one time in the middle of the night, and he was walking through a forest very silently, and he came upon a camp,” said his son, Steve Yatsushiro. “He sat down on a log, and he saw these silhouettes in front of him — and they were tall.”

He had stumbled on a group of German soldiers.

“He knew these were not his guys, because they [the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd] were all 5-foot-5, 5-6. So he stood up and started backing away.”

His heart was beating so loud and fast, he thought it would shatter the silence.

“Somehow, he was able to back out of there and reunite with his company,” his son said.

Chicagoan Kohei Ikeda, 89, was with “I” company, which reached the Texans. “There wasn’t too many of us left when we got there,” he said of the treacherous mission.

As for the Texans, “They were happy as hell,” he said.

When the soldiers of the 442nd returned home from the war, they “found themselves declared to be . . . the most decorated military unit in the history of the United States,” the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), the regiment’s most famous member, said in 2011 when the team received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award from Congress, at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol.

In 2011, Eric K. Shinseki, the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the nation’s first Japanese-American four-star general, listed the 442nd’s accomplishments as he saluted the men. They received more than 18,000 individual awards from September 1943 to September 1945, Shinseki said, including 21 Medals of Honor; 52 Distinguished Service crosses; 560 Silver Stars; more than 4,000 Bronze Stars; 9,486 Purple Hearts, and seven Presidential Unit Citations.

“No other regiment, in 237 years of U.S. Army history, has amassed an equivalent battle record,” Shinseki said.

Mr. Yatsushiro was born in the town of Wailuku on the island of Maui. His father ran a laundry. In the days before the use of antibiotics, an ear infection ravaged his father’s system, and he died when Kenji was only 5. Kenji went to work in the sugar-cane fields, chopping it with a machete.

“For lunch, they would just strip back the bark on the cane and just munch on the sugar,” his son said.

On December 7, 1941, his family heard aircraft overhead. It was the wave of Japanese pilots heading to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”

“They were on their way to Pearl Harbor to bomb them,” Steve Yatsushiro said.

Mr. Yatsushiro was among the many “Nisei” — second-generation Americans born to Japanese immigrants — who enlisted.

“Everybody suspected them of still being loyal to the emperor,” his son said. “They were dead-set on proving themselves.”

Mr. Yatsushiro was assigned to an anti-tank infantry company that flew in lightweight aircraft to secure ground for the Allies. But the motorless gliders were unpredictable and prone to crashes.

“He said he felt so sorry for the pilot of the glider, because it would nosedive,” said his wife, Anne.

After the war, Mr. Yatsushiro returned to Hawaii, where he fell in love with Anne.

“It was love at first sight,” their son said. They were wed 65 years, until Mr. Yatsushiro died on Dec. 27 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91.

The GI bill enabled Mr. Yatsushiro to study electrical engineering at what’s now called Trine University in Angola, Ind. He worked at Chicago’s Dormeyer Industries and Controls Corporation of America, and he earned nine patents.

The Yatsushiros raised their family on the North Side. He taught his kids how to play baseball and ice-skate and how to strum the ukelele.

“He really had a prankster’s mentality trapped behind that stoic Japanese surface,” his son said in his eulogy. For Mr. Yatsushiro, no proffered bouquet of flowers was complete unless he had hidden a rubber cockroach inside, his son said.

Whenever his kids opened a new toy, “He’d have to look at it to see if there were any sharp edges, and he’d say, ‘I have to go get my file; I’m going to file down that sharp edge,’ ” his son said. “A true engineer, always looking for design flaws.”

Mr. Yatsushiro also is survived by daughters Christine Guro and Therese Vickers; brothers Toshio, Yasuo and Tamio; five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

In retirement, he spent two years compiling a family tree that he sent to more than 60 relatives across the globe.

After Alzheimer’s took hold, “He looked at it with the eyes of a child,” his son said in his eulogy, and asked, “ ‘What is this thing?’ ”

When his son told him it was the genealogy he had compiled, Mr. Yatsushiro looked at it and said, “I must have been crazy or something to do all this.”

“No, you weren’t crazy, you did a wonderful thing for everyone,” his son told him. “Do you know how many people you made happy with this album? He just smiled as he admired his work.”

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