Nisei Veterans Awarded Congressional Gold Medal
President Barack Obama and guests applaud after signing S.1055, a bill, granting the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Nisei interpreters of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) for service during World War II, in the Oval Office, October 5, 2010. Also present are Veterans Affairs Sec. Eric Shinseki, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (442nd veteran) and other Members of Congress. Veterans present included Grant Ichikawa (MIS), and 100/442 veterans, Osamu “Sam” Fujikawa; Jimmie Kanaya; Yeiichi “Kelly” Kuwayama; Terry Shima; NVN Chair Christine Sato-Yamazaki (granddaughter of veteran Dave Kawagoye); and JACL Director S. Floyd Mori. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
Washington, DC (October 5, 2010) – President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed legislation to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Several Nisei veterans and key Japanese American leaders were present for the White House signing to recognize the dedicated service of three distinct units during World War II.
The Congressional Gold Medal was created 1781 as the highest civilian honor awarded to individual or groups for outstanding deeds or service to the United States. Recipients include George Washington, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. Other WWI group awards include the Tuskegee Airmen and the Women Air Force Pilots and the Navaho Code Talkers.
Dr. Franklin Odo, Director of Research and Education for National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, and recently retired as Founding Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American program, said the medal stands out as a civilian honor and that now the MIS is included along with the 100/442nd.
“This is from the highest levels of civilian government as a civilian honor rather than a military recognition,” said Odo. “With Congress, officially acknowledging them is a little bit different than being awarded a Medal of Honor for combat valor.”
Odo credited a grassroots lobbying effort with getting people to contact senators and congressional leaders to let them to know this is something they should support. Thus it became a national and a political process versus a military process.
Much of the groundwork leading to the redress of the Nisei internment with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, was carried out by the Sansei children of behalf of their parents and grandparents.
The House of Representatives passed a bill this summer introduced by Congressman Adam Schiff’s (D-CA), and the Senate unanimously passed a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) last month after an amendment to include the MIS was attached to the bill. The amended version was approved by Congress and the “Gold Medal” bill was signed by the President this week.
Kathy Ohama Koch said her father had passed away without ever telling her much about his experience as a Nisei veteran. There were only about 27 veterans left at the time, and she became involved with the Japanese American Veterans of Minnesota and remains as secretary/treasurer of the organization.
Koch was contacted by someone from the Go For Broke Foundation about encouraging Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken to co-sign on to the Senate bill in committee so that it could go to the Senate floor for a vote. She said the problem may have been that not as many Minnesota Japanese American families had relatives that served in the 100/442 and they did with the MIS – which had not yet been added as an amendment.
“We don’t have that big of a Japanese community here and unless they knew a veteran it was hard to get them to help call and email,” said Koch.
The MIS amendment was not introduced while it was in committee or she said the two would have signed on right away for its connection to the state. Koch helped to mobilize the local community and personally kept after the senators to sign onto the bill.
“It would have been a slam dunk if we could say that MIS school was here and the people here,” said Koch.
The senators did sign and after the Senate MIS Amendment was approved by the House version, it went to President Obama. The JAVM had planned to send four veterans to the signing, two from the 442 and two MIS.
JAVM had planned to send four veterans to the signing – two from the 442 and two from the MIS. But when it was scheduled to take place in the Oval Office it became a handpicked few who could attend.
“We got it and once the MIS was on there I was really happy, I am just so proud of them,” said Koch. “Most of my veterans are MIS. Its just sad they waited until these veterans were so old.”
There are only about 18 Nisei veterans left now in Minnesota. They rarely meet now because of age but still have an annual memorial service at Fort Snelling.
Floyd Mori, JACL National Executive Director, stated the bill recognition extends not only to those who are living but to those who were killed in action and those who have passed on.
“It was very emotional to listen to Congressman after Congressman extol the valor of the Japanese American soldiers during World War II in spite of the fact that their families were incarcerated behind barbed wire for no reason other than their race,” stated Mori. “Many referred to the similarity of then and today’s hatred aimed at loyal Muslim Americans.
“We thank the veterans, and we commend the Congress for the unanimous support of a measure that provides a great lesson that patriotism is beyond color and ethnicity.”
Schiff introduced the House version of the bill, stating that he could not imagine a group more deserving of this highest Congressional honor.
Nisei WWII veterans Terry Shima and Grant Ichikawa, are also leaders of the Japanese American Veterans Association, and worked with JACL staff in finding co-sponsorships for the bill.
The 100th Infantry Battalion, which was later incorporated into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was made up of predominantly Nisei (second generation Americans of Japanese ancestry) members of the Hawai’i Provisional Infantry Battalion. The units saw some of the fiercest combat of the war in North Africa, Italy and Germany, nicknamed the “Go For Broke” and “The Purple Heart” Battalion for enormous casualties.
The 100th/442nd was a blend of Hawaiian and mainland Japanese Americans that became the most decorated unit in United States military history for its size and length of service. Combined, the 100th and the 442nd received 7 Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, 29 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 22 Legion of Merit Medals, 15 Soldier’s Medal, and over 4,000 Purple Hearts.
Dr. Odo said the 100/442 was appropriately honored for its military exploits in the past. However, the MIS honors have been slow to come, in part for the secrecy of their service. As intelligence officers he said they were under orders to keep quiet about their service for decades after the war.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which created military exclusion zones on the Pacific coast, it effectively authorized the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans living to camps inland for the duration of the war. Around 18,000 Japanese in Hawai’i were interned, more than 60 percent of them American citizens.
First denied enlistment, Nisei men were recruited and tested in the internment camps as Japanese translators to serve in the Pacific Theater. The internment order would not allow Nisei to be schooled at The Presidio in San Francisco, and so the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) was moved to Minnesota, first at Camp Savage and then to Fort Snelling.
A plaque at the former Camp Savage site just off Highway 13, quotes General Charles Willoughby, Chief of Intelligence for General Douglas MacArthur, who credits the vital intelligence work of 6,000 Nisei MISLS with shortening the Pacific War by as much as two years.
The 100th contained three battalions of about 1,500 draftees in 1940. They were largely inactive after Pearl Harbor, considered enemy aliens even though they were American citizens. The Army sent them to Camp McCoy, Wisconsin for training in June 1942 and eventually to fight the Germans.
The 442 started training in 1943 and Odo said the much younger enlistees looked up to the older 100th as “mentors, uncles and big brothers.”
Odo said an attempt to create one unit designation when the units merged was not successful, and that it is important to acknowledge their wish to keep the separate unit designations. He said it is also important to see this civilian honor as acknowledging that these men served knowing their families were interned.
The Nisei and their descendents fought again for the next 50 years to make the U.S. government admit to the injustice in interning Japanese Americans during the war era, and the community has since helped to define Asian American identity in becoming a model champion for civil and human rights.
Odo said there are few, if any of the original 100th battalion members remaining, and it was their children that did much of the work. The effects of the war, now known as post traumatic stress, led to some suicides or substance abuse related deaths for some veterans. Others have lived long lives and get together as often as possible.
“They had had extraordinary longevity, but there are very few left,” he said.
There are only about a dozen WWII Nisei veterans left of the nearly 70 that made Minnesota home after the war.
The NJAMF mission is about education and outreach to ensure the public does not forget WWII, and also the internment process and the constitutional challenges that came about as a result. He said this medal is a political and constitutional morality tale about the dangers of ethnic racial profiling – more than a memorial to a single group or patriotism – but a much larger message to the world.
“The 100/442 and MIS exploits are really sort of icing on the cake to demonstrate that it’s really not a good idea to racially profile entire groups of people based on suspicion and not on evidence,” said Odo. “When you do that you consign entire groups of people to unjust treatment and one of the more important lessons of that is that you deny them the opportunity of participating in their own defense of their own freedom.”
Learn more about the Nisei veterans by reading books found at the Minnesota History Center Book Store, including “The Nisei Soldier,” and “Essays on WWII and the Korean War,” both written by Edwin (Bud) Nakasone, a retired professor of history at Century College, and White Bear Lake High School. He is a native of Oahu and witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 18, in 1946 and served as an interpreter during the occupation of Japan in 1947-48. Or visit the National Japanese American Historical Society (www.njahs.org).
2 thoughts on “Nisei Veterans Awarded Congressional Gold Medal”
Valor with Honor is an independent documentary film based on over 35 interviews of Japanese American veterans who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
The entire film is woven through with stories told by the veterans themselves.
Congratulations our Nisei veterans! Thank You Mr Bud Nakasone, an old friend of our family. Your books are a great record of your service
and preserves your story for future generations. Mahalo Nui Loa!