They Went For Broke

Former members of the historic 442nd, 100th and MIS just received the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., recognizing their heroism and sacrifice in World War II. From left: Charles Ijima, Kenneth Higa, Mitsuo Hamasu, Glenn Masunaga, James Oura, Herbert Yanamura, Tadashi Fukumoto and Robert Arakaki

For the second time in their lives, a group of Japanese-Americans answered the call to service. But instead of being enemy aliens, internment camp prisoners or simply “Japs,” the veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion and Military Intelligence Service were called to join their brothers in selfless service, the Navajo Code Talkers and Tuskegee Airmen, as recipients of our nation’s highest civilian honor the Congressional Gold Medal.

The award actually goes to their units, but the men were able to purchase replicas.

The ceremony, which took place Nov. 3 in Washington, D.C., brought back a flood of memories, near uncontrollable excitement and immeasurable pride in the veterans.

To quote Speaker of the House John Boehner from the ceremony: “The United States remains forever indebted to the bravery, valor and dedication to country that these men faced while fighting a two-front battle of discrimination at home and Fascism abroad.”

“I was too excited. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t believe we were getting this award, the highest civilian honor,” says MIS veteran Tad Fukumoto slowly, for emphasis. “That’s impressive. We got off the plane, there were a couple hundred people waving the American flag. That was terrific. I thought, this is great. I went to a restaurant and people were saying thank you. I walked down the street and people said thank you. I really enjoyed the treatment.”

While everyone agreed that receiving the award was a tremendous honor and they were proud to have taken part in the ceremony, some couldn’t help but think about those left behind or the bitter fighting they experienced.

“My experience in Washington, D.C., was great and I’m very proud, but for me the program brought back memories because that was the same month we fought in France, and that is where the unit faced the toughest combat we experienced. I could feel myself crying,” says James Oura, a 442nd veteran. “Today we received the medal, and I’m proud this happened to recognize the unit and what we went through and our battle to rescue the lost battalion, which cost the regiment a lot of men. It brought back some bitter memories of what we went through.”

Through their veterans groups, the former soldiers knew congressional supporters were sponsoring a bill to have their exploits recognized. But it wasn’t until they read about it in the newspaper a year later that they learned President Obama had signed the resolution.

That the measure passed unanimously wasn’t lost on the awardees.

“Usually, they fight like hell,” says MIS vet Glenn Masunaga with a laugh.

Once they knew they got the award, they had to find out what it was.

“The first question in my mind was, what is this gold medal?” says MIS veteran Herbert Yanamura. “So I looked it up on the Internet and I read all I could about it, and that’s when I found out it was a very, very prestigious award. George Washington was the first man to receive it, and we’ve been put in that same category as the first president of the country. I couldn’t believe that we would be honored in that way.”

“We are in an elite group now,” adds 100th Infantry vet Kenneth Higa.

Looking back through the lens of modern culture, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would fight for a country that denied them their basic civil rights. To a man, the vets said that love of family and country doesn’t waver because times get difficult. They spoke of the Japanese belief of on (pronounced “own”), a combination of Bushido code and the belief that everyone has a debt to be paid to those who gave so much to them. It’s about the deepest level of honor, respect and love. There is no simple, accurate English translation.

“I think we all owe this award to our Issei generation,” says Robert Arakaki, a 100th Battalion veteran. “They are the ones who taught us. I give them great credit for us getting the medal. During the war, a lot of people were interned and they never said one thing against America. I give credit to our Issei parents because they gave a lot of inspiration to all of us.”

Masunaga, who later in life became a dentist and received a medal from the Japanese emperor for his work with Japanese researchers tracing the ancient migration of people from Asia to the Americas, said the concept of on was essential to why they volunteered and is the reason the Congressional Gold Medal means so much to them.

“The most powerful love on Earth is a mother’s love for her child. So when that child grows up, they should show that deep on to the parents. That is something you can never, never forget. So when I received this medal, I feel that feeling of on for America, not for Japan. For Japan I am grateful (for the emperor’s medal), but I have on for America because I was born in America and America was good to me. They gave me an education, and because of the kindness of the country I was able to go to school on the GI Bill, and my life has been very good. I have a deep, deep on to America, not Japan,” says Masunaga as his voice cracks with emotion.

The 442nd, 100th and MIS have collected nearly every military recognition. For their size, they are the most decorated units in U.S. history. But for them, the greatest recognition is knowing that never again will Japanese-Americans have to prove their loyalty.

Were they angry? Of course they were, at times, says Masunaga. It’s only natural. But they had a bigger mission to achieve.

“If it wasn’t for the war, we may have remained second-class citizens. And because of the war we have overcome discrimination. I’m grateful for America for giving us that chance,” says Yanamura.

Of the three groups that were honored, the exploits of the MIS are probably least known. They worked in jobs that were highly classified, but their impact was no less great. Fukumoto’s unit intercepted a radio transmission that identified Naval Gen. Isoroku Yamamoto’s flight plan. Using the information, U.S. pilots shot down Yamamoto’s plane, killing Imperial Japan’s most important military leader.

“The chief intelligence officer for Gen. MacArther said the MIS shortened the war by two years. We saved millions of lives of soldiers and civilians,” says Fukumoto with pride.

According to the MIS vet, the Hawaii translators and code breakers had another unique skill that helped safeguard U.S. secrets: Pidgin.

“They couldn’t understand us. Not even the Mainland Japanese knew what we were saying,” says Fukumoto.

Charles Ijima hopes the medal presentation and the associated celebrations will help educate today’s youths on the war and the seemingly unimaginable events that led Americans to lose their freedom.

“When I look back at the ceremony, I was surprised there were so many nonvets at the ceremony,” says Ijima. “I was happy to take my son because he probably doesn’t know anything about war, and maybe when he gets much older and looks back he will appreciate being there. For me, that was a very historical moment, and I just wish more young children could have been there to witness the ceremony. I’m very happy I was there and for this medal. I’ve been showing it and my family have been showing it to all our friends and neighbors, and all the people who have been shown the medal appreciate what we did to get this award.”

So can you.

Members of the 442nd, 100th, MIS and the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion which was stationed on Oahu during World War II will be honored at 10 a.m. Dec. 17 with a parade in Waikiki. A lunch banquet at Hawaii Convention Center follows at noon. Cost of the lunch is $75 for adults and $50 for children under 10. A memorial service will be held at 9 a.m. at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. All events are open to the public.

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Event co-chairwoman Barbara Tanabe says the luncheon will likely be sold out by MidWeek’s publication date, but that if veterans still want to attend, they will be accommodated and should contact event manager Dianna Shitanishi at 782-4514.

Nathalie Walker photos