By John Sammon—They had gone to war and fought and many died defending a country that had reneged on its Constitution and treated them illegally as second-class citizens, but in defending America, ensured greater freedom for us all.
It took the government 70 years to recognize it.
“Your cause was not only to bring an end to Fascism, but an end to discrimination,” Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives , told a gathering of 30 Japanese American veterans of World War II. “You created a more just America.”
Pelosi’s comments came during a ceremony awarding veterans of the 442 Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion and Military Intelligence Service (MIS) of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award presented for outstanding achievement. Held at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center in San Francisco, Pelosi’s home town, the observance like similar ones held in San Jose and Sacramento, was for veterans who could not journey to Washington D.C. to receive their medal last November.
In addition to Pelosi and congratulatory remarks from President Barack Obama in a video, the event included welcoming remarks from retired Judge Brian Yagi, president of the National Japanese American Historical society, and James Cook, commander of the 91st Division U.S. Army Reserve.
“This is an honor that’s been long overdue,” said master of ceremonies Robert Handa, a reporter for San Francisco Station KTVU Channel 2. “It not only includes the veterans here, but the widows and families of veterans who have passed away as well.”
Many of the veterans had already passed away and were unable to receive their Gold Medal, so their families were presented them. A somber moment of the event came when the crowd in the packed hall silently watched a screen upon which the photos of veterans killed in action in World War II were displayed.
In 1942 just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the expulsion and detention of 120,000 Japanese American citizens along the West Coast who were judged to be a threat solely because of their ancestry. Stripped of their citizenship, jobs and property, men, women and children were removed to barbed-wire-enclosed internment camps in desolate desert regions of the Southwest.
Despite this treatment, many of the men in the camps decided to fight for the United State in Europe. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, later merged with the 100th Infantry Division whose members were mainly Japanese Americans from Hawaii. Through some of the hardest fighting in Italy and France, they became among the most decorated of all American units, their dash and courage renowned to the point that it earned them the slogan, “Go for Broke.”
Soldiers of the MIS served in the Pacific Theater of the war and often acted as translators, deciphering Japanese transmissions and interrogating prisoners. They also helped American officials deal with the public in a destroyed Japan after the war and were vital in reconstruction efforts to rebuild the nation, today one of America’s closest allies.
“I was in the Tule Lake Internment Camp,” recalled Asa Hanamoto, an MIS veteran and 88-year-old retired landscaper from Mill Valley. “I was asked can you speak Japanese? I could. I entered the army and was sent Manila in the Philippines. Then I was sent to Yokohama and Tokyo after the war was over. The whole place was desolate from the war damage and there was an awful stench from bodies under the wreckage.”
Acting as an interpreter for the 187th Regiment, Hanamoto helped military officials clear and repair the shattered country.
Asked why the 442nd was such a great outfit, veteran Ken Nihei (86), said comradeship played a part. Many of the soldiers had come from the shared internment camp experience.
“I had been interned at Camp Topaz,” Nihei noted.
“I think one of the reasons for our success was that the IQ was so high,” explained 442nd veteran Shinichi Endo. “About 60 percent of the men were officer candidates who had math proficiency, and we had our own anti-tank, artillery, medical units and others. Our artillery was so accurate because we could do the math to direct the fire.”
Originally from Maui in the Hawaiian Islands and now a resident of San Francisco, Endo was wounded by shrapnel in his right leg and foot in Italy in June 1944 just two days before the Allied capture of Rome. He pointed to where the wounds on his leg are located, for which he still receives therapy at the age of 89 and walks with a cane.
“The worst part of the war for me was the cold,” he said. “I was not used to it. For 43 straight days and nights I slept on the ground without a bed during a period of February through June of 1944.”
Holding his Gold Medal at his chest, he recalled one of his most frightening moments.
“We were sent to take control of a bridge, two of us on one side and two of us on the other side,” he said. “The Germans started to shell the bridge. When a bomb would hit, you would jump a foot off the ground. It gave you a cold chill inside. My first experience under fire was when a sniper was shooting at me.”
Endo nearly had his right leg amputated and spent 15 months in a hospital.
He resumed a civilian occupation after the war repairing office machines.
He said when he goes to receive medical treatment these days he sees fewer and fewer World War II veterans. Asked hoe he came to live such a long life, he responded, “my wife takes good care of me.”
The event included an invocation by Champlain Omar Doi of the Golden Gate Nisei Memorial VFW Post 9879 and a closing prayer by the Reverend Ronald Kengu Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by the Eagle Scout Jason Chooey and Boy Scout Troop 58, and the National Anthem by Richard Kishimoto, of the San Francisco Nikkei Lions Club, who also led the audience in singing God Bless America.
Presentation of the colors was by the U.S. Army Color Guard led by Master Sergeant Stanley Kamiya of the U.S. Army Reserve.
Kamiya said after the ceremony that the freedoms all Americans today enjoy came about because of the sacrifices of the Gold Medal winners.
“They had never before received Congressional recognition,” he said. “This event allowed the community to give thanks. As a veteran myself, and like all the others here, I deeply appreciate their sacrifices. We should never forget them.”