W.W.II soldier from Lahaina earns Congressional Gold Medal
LAHAINA – Beginning in the early 1900s, Japanese culture spread across the United States with immigration to diverse areas in metropolitan pockets and island locales. Though widespread to all corners of the country – as well as across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii – the influence of the Japanese presence had a deep and profound effect in those neighborhoods labeled fondly as the “Lil’ Tokyos” and “Japantowns” in those areas.
Perhaps due to geographic similarities of the island nation of Japan and emerging territory of the United States, that influence seemed to run deeper in Hawaii than in the city existence, such as New York, Los Angeles or Seattle. Island living in the middle of the Pacific more resembled that of the Far East nation with seaside villages, subsistence farming and aquaculture these immigrants were used to.
Regardless of where the Japanese settled, the ethical standards of their character – mainly respect, courtesy, duty, kindness, persistence and honor – were carried forth through these pioneers, the Issei or first-generation immigrants, to their offspring, the Nisei or second-generation.
In this strength of character, the Nisei, the Japanese Americans, made great progress toward attaining the American Dream of owning a home and raising a family all across the United States, from New York to Hilo and all the “Lil’ Tokyos” in between during the first half of the 20th Century.
Then came the day that will live in infamy: Dec. 7, 1941, as the Imperial Nation of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to the shock and horror of all Americans – and especially to the Nisei (Japanese Americans) in the United States.
Everything changed for them after that fateful day, as an Executive Order was signed by the president that said the Nisei were not Americans anymore; they were now “non-aliens.”
They were herded into race tracks, farms and concentration camps and allowed to carry only what they could bring on their backs. They lived in horse stalls and chicken coops and barracks in freezing temperatures and sweltering heat. Barbed wire and armed guards surrounded them.
It was hard for most Americans to understand at the time, but the Nisei young men and boys were as angry and disgusted with Japan as anyone else in the United States. The young Japanese Americans in the concentration camps on the Mainland and from the plantations in Hawaii were confused, but retained the sense of “giri” – duty, honor, responsibility – that had been passed on to them from their parents.
“What can we do?” they asked one another.
They joined the Army and became the 100th Infantry Battalion. They volunteered and formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.
The Nisei felt “oyakoko” (the love for family) and thus felt the obligation to prove their loyalty at any cost. They felt the need to prove their love for democracy and justice, and then volunteered to serve their country – despite what was happening to their families – “kodomo no tame ni,” for the sake of the children.
They were told by their parents to go forth and to bring honor to their families and to their country: the United States of America.
“When you go off to war, fight for your country; return if you can, but die if you must. Strength and success will grow out of adversity,” noted U.S. Army Historian Eric Saul, when discussing the unit’s origin.
The motto for the 442nd/100th/MIS (the 100th later became a part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team) was “Go For Broke,” which, roughly translated, means “give it all you’ve got.”
So, for two years or so, the boys of the 442nd gave it all for their country. They paid the price for democracy.
Some 14,000 Japanese Americans served in the 442nd during World War II, and they became the most decorated unit in American military history for their size and length of service, receiving seven unit citations and 18,000 medals for heroism and service. The unit suffered 314 percent combat casualties, and the 4,000 men who started off in February 1943 had to be replaced nearly three-and-a-half times.
The exploits of the 100th/442nd/MIS have become legendary in U.S. military history. In particular, the battle for the Rescue of the Lost Battalion at Vosges Mountain in France and the battle of the Gothic Line at Po Valley at the entrance to Austria. The exploits of the Military Intelligence and Language Service stand tall in the lore of W.W.II.
The Rescue of the Lost Battalion saw the 100th/442nd send 2,000 men charging up a rain- and sleet-slickened mountain slope in the face of furious machine gun fire from the German forces entrenched near the top of the hill. Beyond the Nazi line were 200 surrounded American soldiers of the Texas 36th. In almost five days of constant fighting on that hill and the breakthrough to rescue the 36th, the 442nd suffered 1,000 casualties.
Both K and I Company went into the battle with 185 men in each of their ranks; after the rescue of the Lost Battalion, K Company had 17 riflemen standing. All of their officers had been killed.
I Company had but eight infantrymen standing and only a sergeant in charge.
The Army has designated the Rescue of the Lost Battalion as one of the top ten battles fought by the U.S. Army in its 230-year history.
The pivotal battle of the Gothic Line saw three infantry divisions line up to attempt to breach the German forces that guarded the Po Valley at the entrance to Austria and its strategic position in the European campaign. Those three divisions couldn’t break through and were stalemated for six months.
At this point, the Army turned to the 442nd and asked the “Go For Broke” Regiment to take over the charge against the Nazis at the Gothic Line.
Mount Fogarito in the Gothic Line was heavily fortified with the top German forces, but the Nisei soldiers climbed up a near vertical 4,000-foot precipice in full combat gear in the still of the night. Several of them fell to their deaths without making a sound during the eight hours of climbing in the dark. The 442nd took that mountain and broke the Gothic Line in a battle that lasted for 34 minutes!
More than 6,000 Nisei who spoke Japanese served throughout the Pacific theater in a super secret branch of the Army known as the Military Intelligence and Language Service (MIS). They provided invaluable language skills that helped break the stalemate in the Pacific. They broke secret codes, interrogated prisoners, provided valuable propaganda and translated millions of documents to help win the war in the Pacific.
By the war’s end, Chief of Intelligence Charles Willoughby declared that the Nisei shortened the war by two years and saved a million Allied lives.
Saul, in his speech to honor Medal of Honor recipients William K. Nakamura and James Okubo on March 25, 2001, said, “Never had so many owed so much to so few. I only wish that a million people could be here to hear your story and know of your service. We owe a great debt of honor to you Niseis for what you did for the country and for democracy. It is a debt that can never be repaid. America stands unique in the world – the only country not founded on race, but a way, an ideal.
“There were more than 590 laws in California against Asians, and you fought a fight to make sure those laws were challenged and overturned one by one. We thank Japanese American Senators (the late) Sparky Matsunaga and Dan Inouye, both 442nd veterans, for doing that. You never lost faith in your country, and the result of that faith is that your children can be anything they want: professionals, doctors and lawyers. The price that you paid for democracy was the highest combat rate of any regiment that served in the United States Army.”
When the 100th/442nd/MIS returned from the war, President Harry Truman had a special ceremony at the White House to honor them. At that ceremony, President Truman said, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity to tell you what you have done for this country. You fought not only the enemy, but you fought prejudice and you won. You have made the Constitution stand for what it really means: the welfare of all the people all the time.”
Years later, President Bill Clinton, in his address to belatedly honor 20 Medal of Honor recipients from the 100th/442nd, said, “In the face of painful prejudice, they helped to define America at its best. Rarely has a nation been more well-served by people it had so ill-treated.”
Army Historian Saul continued to say that justice has prevailed, and “Your parents became citizens, and now we stand at a pinnacle of your history in your golden years. Redress passed and a nation apologized for a terrible injustice perpetrated against its own citizens.”
Recently, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate gathered to present Nisei veterans of World War II and their families with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest honor. The ceremony at the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall honored veterans – now in their 80s and 90s – of the three Japanese American Units (the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion and the Military Intelligence Service) as well as spouses of deceased veterans and family members of those killed in action.
For those veterans of these units from Hawaii who were unable to travel to Washington, D.C., to take part in the ceremony there, another presentation was held last month in Honolulu.
At that event, Lahaina’s Hideo “Pakala” Takahashi, 89, was presented his Gold Medal. Takahashi previously received a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star for his efforts in the battle to save the Lost Battalion.
Other veterans of the 442nd from Lahaina include Tom Morisaki, Paul “Lefty” Nishimura, Tetsuo Tada, Archie Fushikoshi and Minoru “Swipe” Nakamura.
According to Maui County Veterans Council President Paul Laub of the West Maui Veterans Club, another Congressional Gold Medal presentation will take place on Feb. 25 at Maui Tropical Plantation beginning at 11 a.m.
“We are looking for any West Side young veterans to become a part of the West Maui Veterans Club organization,” said Laub. Call 442-2450 for more information.