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From Enemy of the State to Beloved Bishop: The Conversion Story of a WWII Hero

World War II hero Saiji Zakimi courageously served the U.S. after Congress granted Japanese-American men the right to serve in the military—even as more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were being held in internment camps throughout the country. And since he found the gospel so many years ago, he has honorably served the Lord with the same commitment and integrity.

Hardworking son of an immigrant family, highly decorated member of the most highly decorated military unit in U.S. history, and devoted husband, Saiji Zakimi accomplished big things before becoming a Latter-day Saint, but the best was still to come. A spiritual giant in a frail 5-foot-2-inch body, he would add being a bishop, a perennial member of the high council, and father to his resume over the years. Now in his 90s, Saiji Zakimi will tell you that family, the Lord, and the opportunities He gives you to serve are what matter most.

Home in Honokaa

In 1881, King David Kalākaua, Hawaii’s “Merry Monarch,” signed a treaty with Japan's Emperor Meiji, opening the door for his subjects to travel to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane and pineapple fields. Proud of their home, laborers opened special schools so their children could grow up familiar with Japanese language and culture.

By the time the Zakimi family moved to the Big Island, Hawaii had become a territory of the United States, but Japanese workers still played a vital role in Hawaiian agriculture. At the time that Saiji was born, 1922, more than 40 percent of the population was of Japanese descent.

“I worked in the sugar cane field from age nine,” says Saiji, who spent evenings working on his family's private field after finishing work at the plantation. “The sugar plantation, when any family was ambitious enough, would give land so you could earn your own money.”

From kindergarten through tenth grade, Saiji attended school on the plantation. After that, he attended the eleventh and twelfth grade at Hilo High School. He also attended one of the local Japanese schools. “It was good because they teach you to be loyal to your country, be family minded, be ambitious in your life, be hard working, be a good student. They were very, very good teachers, but they were strict.”

A youth more interested in people than school, young Saiji never learned to speak Japanese fluently and to this day he speaks the pidgin of the islands and his plantation upbringing.

When he graduated from high school, Saiji traveled to Oahu to attend the University of Hawaii where he hoped to earn a teaching degree. Unfortunately, his “Pidgin English” came back to haunt him.

“When I took the teachers’ college exam, I couldn’t pass the speech. They told me, ‘We’ll give you three years to pass, but no credit.’ I was the only one who took two years [to pass]. All of them [the other students] were only there a short while, but I took two years.

“People would see me on campus, they would say, ‘Are you still in the class?’ and I would say, ‘Yes.’ I used to smile, but I was very ashamed.

“After two years, the teacher said, ‘Oh, Zakimi, you’re okay. You pass.’

“I told her, ‘No keedeen?’

“She said, ‘What did you say?’ and I said, ‘No kidding,’ and she said, ‘Okay. You pass.’”

He passed the speech requirement in the fall of 1940. A few weeks later, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, and the Second World War began.

“When the war broke out on December 7, they called all of the students to come to University campus because they required ROTC training, and they wanted us to become the home guard, so all of the Japanese boys were placed in the home guard.

“After one month, they said, ‘We cannot trust Japanese,’ and they released us.”

It wasn’t just the military that didn’t trust Japanese Americans. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 clearing the way for 110,000 men, women, and children who were U.S. citizens of Japanese descent to be sent to relocation camps such as Manzanar in the barren foothills of the Sierra, Nevada.

While few Japanese citizens living in Hawaii were sent to internment camps, they were still excluded from the war effort. Considering themselves loyal Americans, some of those University students demanded the right to fight for their country.

“We wrote to the general and said, ‘WE WANT TO SERVE OUR COUNTRY! You know, we born and raised in Hawaii. Our loyalty is to America,’” Saiji recalls.

“He [Lieutenant General Delos Emmons] took it up in Congress, and 179 of us were placed in Schofield Barrack military base."

Though they were allowed to serve in the military, Saiji and his fellow soldiers of Japanese descent weren't allowed to have any weapons.

“[We spent a year] building roads, building houses, anything you can think of. We built everything that was in Schofield* and in the mountains. It was all hard labor. Again, I repeat, HARD LABOR. After one year, they said, ‘Wow! These are very good soldiers.’ And that was how the 442nd Combat Team was organized.”

The Road to Rome

While Saiji worked at Schofield Barracks, his older brother, George, entered the war as part of the 100th Infantry Battalion—a unit mostly made up of first- and second-generation Americans of Japanese descent.

While he served as a medic, George Zakimi showed tremendous valor. On the 100th Battalion’s website, George S. Zakimi is remembered as follows:

“I saw a private, George S. Zakimi, of Hakalau, dress two wounded men and then quietly sit down and treat himself,” said Lieutenant Ernest Tanaka, of Wailua, Oahu. “He wouldn’t go to the rear, so I had to order him back. He was up front again in an hour.”

In February 1943, Congress reversed an earlier decision banning Americans of Japanese descent from serving in the military, clearing the way for the 179 Japanese volunteers to join the war effort. Having proven themselves at Schofield Barracks, Saiji and the “Varsity Victory Volunteers” flew to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for boot camp where they were joined by more volunteers from the internment camps.

“The amazing thing was that the American Japanese were placed in concentration camps, but when they were asked if they wanted to volunteer in this Japanese military outfit, a few of them volunteered.”

The 442nd was sent to Europe, where it was joined by the remaining soldiers of the highly decorated 100th Battalion. Unofficially known as the “Purple Heart Battalion,” the 100th lost over 800 of its original 1,300 fighting men.

As a member of the 442nd regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company L, Zakimi completed boot camp prior to entering combat, but he admits he was not prepared for the horrors of war. “We learned by courage, not by strategy, and we became a very amazing unit.”

The “Fighting 442nd” took heavy casualties, but it never slowed down. The unit’s motto was, “Go for broke,” and its most famous mission was recovering the “Lost Battalion.”

“The Germans surrounded this battalion from Texas, and they couldn’t get out, so they sent us to save the Texas Battalion," Saiji recalls.

Courage was never in short supply for the 442nd, which remains the most highly decorated military unit in American history. Like the 100th Battalion, the 442nd took casualties as a given. Second Lieutenant Daniel Inouye, later a U.S. Senator, lost an arm in San Terenzo. Over the course of the war, the 442nd sustained a 314 percent casualty rate.

Saiji courage never failed, but his luck eventually ran out.

“I got wounded while reaching the German border from Italy. It was mountainous, so the Germans had to use mortars.That was  how I got injured—by a mortar shell.

“Well, I really believed in God, although, as I say, I was not a member. I thought, ‘God is protecting America,’ so I believed we were protected. When I was wounded, I was surprised, but I told myself, ‘I think that God let me get wounded because I was too brave, too careless.’ I said to myself, ‘From here on, I will be brave but cautious.’

“I went back to the war and that was a big challenge."

While Saiji and George served in the Army, Rodney Zakimi, Saiji’s younger brother, joined the Marines. All three of them survived the war.

Finding the Gospel

Upon returning home, Saiji returned to the University of Hawaii to finish his education.

“After the war, we used to have what they called ‘Anniversary Dances.’ I asked one of my classmates, ‘Will you be my date?’ She said, ‘Sure,’ but just before the date, she called me up and said, ‘I rather go footballs, but don’t worry, my friend is going to take my place.’”

That friend turned out to be Lynn Shiroma.

Raised with an appreciation for the traditional Japanese values of humility and serenity, Saiji was quiet. Lynn was outgoing and jovial, but the two hit it off. They fell in love.

Realizing that she and Saiji were going to become an item, Lynn extracted an unusual promise from him.

“She said, ‘Will you promise not to be a Mormon?’ The few members that she got to know, you could say they were not upright. And so [her] impression was, ‘Mormon is not a good church.’ I didn’t know about the Church, so I said, ‘Sure.’”

Though he took the promise seriously, Saiji would later break it.

While attending school, Saiji became friends with a couple of very “upright” members of the Church—Edward and Chieko Okazaki.

“I became good friends with Chieko Okazaki, who was married to Eddie Okazaki. Chieko was a convert on the Big Island at age 17, and her testimony was so strong. And she really had Christ as her Savior. (She was called to serve as the first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency in 1990.)

“Edward and I were classmates at University. He sent the missionaries to see me. When I learned the discussions, I was so happy to know about Jesus Christ, but I was sad that I couldn’t keep my promise. So I told my girlfriend, ‘I’m sorry; I cannot keep that promise. Jesus has to be first and you second, so I am going ahead and getting baptized.

“She said, ‘Don’t worry. We’re still going to get married.’

“I said, ‘Are you going to join?’ 

"She said, ‘No way.’"

But five years later, Lynn was also baptized. "She saw me pay tithing when I earned money, and she saw me quit golf to be active in church. . . . After five years she said, ‘I will never be able to change you not to become a Mormon,’ and she became a Mormon.”

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Though he graduated from the University of Hawaii, Saiji never achieved his dream of becoming a teacher.

“I didn’t pass the teacher’s exam, so I became a social worker. After a few years as a social worker, I took a civil service exam to become a probation officer. I passed the test, and they kept calling me and saying, ‘We want you to be a probation officer.’ I kept saying no until they stopped calling me, and then I [decided to] become a juvenile probation officer.”

Most active Latter-day Saints living in Honolulu Stake in the '70s and '80s will remember Saiji and Lynn Zakimi—you could hardly miss them. A perennial high councilman and two-time bishop, Saiji led a high-profile existence in Honolulu Stake, but it’s Lynn that most Latter-day Saints will remember best.

As the secretary, receptionist, and office manager of the Honolulu Institute of Religion, located across the street from the University of Hawaii, Sister Zakimi became a surrogate mom for a generation of Honolulu Saints. She was sweet, friendly, and oh so very energetic. She made a point of knowing Institute students by name.

As anyone who has ever worked in an LDS Institute can tell you, the prerequisites for teachers deal more with spirituality than organization, but Sister Zakimi kept them organized. It had to have been a Herculean effort, but the tiny woman with the big smile and the endless energy kept the classes running on time and the grades and enrollments recorded.

Parole officers retire at 65, but there is no age limit for Institute workers and surrogate mothers. When Saiji retired, he asked Lynn about serving a mission, but she wasn’t ready to leave the Institute of Religion.

“I kept begging her, but she said, ‘No, the students and the directors need me.’”

But eventually, Lynn gave in.

“A few years later, she said, ‘If you’re so desperate about going on a mission, okay. I’ll retire and go on a mission with you.’

“That night, she had internal bleeding. Our stake president said, ‘You cannot go on a foreign mission, but you can go on a local mission.’ We became employment specialists. I started working at the employment office, and my wife was secretary.”

Lynn passed away in 1996. Saiji continues his life as a faithful member of the Church, serving weekly in the Laie Temple and visiting with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Looking back on his life, he places people over experiences and sums his life us like this:

“When I went from Hakalau (the plantation) to Hilo, I learned to make friends.

“When I came from Hilo to Honolulu, I learned to make friends.

“When I got in the military, I learned to make friends.

“When we were stationed on the mainland, I learned to make friends—lots of friends.

“When we were stationed in Europe, I learned to make friends.

“So all the way, I learned to make friends.”

To this day, Saiji Zakimi still has a knack for making friends.

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