Reflections on the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony

The day began with drama. My sister and I had come to the ceremony on behalf of our late father. She had gone to the Washington Hilton, headquarters for the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, to reconnoiter and register us. Some minutes later, she phoned me yelling, “Get over here. The buses are leaving for the ceremony!”

Although I had missed my bus, a kindly volunteer hustled me on to another. It was still two hours before the ceremony. For some odd reason I will never know, the bus drove around Washington, D.C. for one hour and 45 minutes, at one point the driver making a three-point turn and reversing direction. We leisurely circled the Capitol building at least five times. I was thrilled to have multiple views of the new stunning new American Indian museum. I was thinking: It’s about time. Now, all Americans can marvel at the sublime artistry, physical mastery and cosmic spirit of America’s First Peoples.

A HERO ­— Nobuo Nishimori (R), being awarded the Bronze Star in 1950. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor while serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II. photo courtesy of Nobuo Nishimori Family

Finally reaching the Capitol building, the bus expelled its contents of elderly veterans, their middle-aged children armed with iPhones, friends and family. Soon we were in the vaulted Emancipation Hall. Perhaps 100 to 200 veterans were there, many surprisingly spry for their 85-plus years, not a few retaining their wiry physiques of yesteryear. The 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team wore their red and blue “Go For Broke” hats; the MIS sported solid navy colored hats. A few veterans wore their original brown soldiers’ hats from that awful war so many years ago. When I saw an MIS-er, I wanted to go up to him and ask, “Did you know my father, Nobuo Nishimori?” But it was too much a shot into the 65-year-old dark of memory. I watched the veterans, humble and quiet, all with families, greeting their comrades. They seem to be relishing the moment.

After the presentation of the colors, Dr. Barry Black, the African American chaplain of the United States Senate, gave the invocation. My, how times have changed … for the better.

The powerful and the famous — Boehner, Pelosi, Boxer, McConnell, McCain, Reid — followed each other to the podium. Their words of praise mingled with my own thoughts: You fought not only your enemy; you fought prejudice and won … Your fearlessness in battle is a story for the ages … Thank you, Daddy … Your valor, patriotism, and selfless service have set the standard for others that follow … Thank you to all those who bore internment and discrimination with grace, thank you for making it easier for me … This long overdue honor … The honor is not only yours, but also it is ours … We owe you a debt we can never repay.

I’m not much of a crier; it was verboten in my family, but my eyes stung with tears. At long last, a thank you was being extended to those who gave their all.

The Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award, was presented, and accepted by Sen. Daniel Inouye, now walking with a cane, and three other veterans, each representing one of the honored units. After so many introductions of the Distinguished so-and-so and the Honorable such-and-such, I wished with all my heart that the accepting veterans had been given the courtesy of an introduction. So I will introduce them: Mr. Mitsuo Hamasu of the 100th Infantry Battalion; Mr. Susumu Ito of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Mr. Grant Ichikawa of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Thank you for your exceptional service. Thank you for accepting this honor on behalf of your comrades, living and dead.

Back at the Washington Hilton, my sister and I reviewed an exhibit detailing the exploits of the three units. Since my father had been with the MIS, I was particularly interested in that exhibit. I found out some interesting things I had not known before.

When interrogating Japanese prisoners of war, the MIS-ers treated them humanely, asking them about their families and lives back in Japan. They gave them food and made sure medical care was provided. The Japanese expected to be tortured and killed. General MacArthur said of the MIS, that never in the history of American warfare had an army known so much about the enemy before engaging in battle, because of the intelligence reporting, interception and translation of messages, interrogation of prisoners, etc. After the war, the MIS continued its translating work with Japanese nationals to help rebuild Japan. Because of their knowledge of the language and culture, they enabled the U.S to work closely with the Japanese, resulting in a new democracy and an economic powerhouse, as well as a strong alliance between the two nations, which still exists today.

The Gala Dinner: I’ve always wondered what a $175 dinner would be like. Fortunately for me, as the family representative, I did not have to pay. It was in the Grand Ballroom of the Washington Hilton, set for at least 2,000 people. I discovered that the meal did not include a glass of wine, which I consider “de rigueur” for momentous occasions like this. I ordered a California red and white for the table.

We toasted the veteran at our table who told us his name was “Harry;” he accepted a half a glass of red. Just as my father would have done, Harry tucked into his meal and did not say much.  He seemed to enjoy it, though.

Some highlights of the program that followed: Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veteran Affairs: eloquent and humble, his words deep with meaning, lyrical command of the English language, his voice tinged with an accent of the Hawaiian Islands. I’ve kept the famous picture of the 442nd at parade rest in my office. I have tried to model myself after these men … I stand on their shoulders; nobody is more fitting of this recognition. After receiving a standing ovation from the gathering, I thought to myself, I can see why Eric Shinseki was General of the Army.

A proud Danny Inouye elicited a chuckle from the audience after Shinseki’s speech: “I nominated that boy.”

Co-host Ann Curry, in a loving mimicry of what her Japanese war bride mother would be saying to her now: “Annh, you hair a mess. Too much eye makeup. Look like raccoon.”

A pre-recorded message of thanks from President Obama: “We thank our valiant veterans … long overdue … grateful nation … you gave your lives while your people at home were poorly treated … your courage and bravery will go down in history.”

He looked older than in 2008.

At the end of the evening, a three star general, his face reflecting a mixture of the races of the Hawaiian Islands, brought sad news. One of the veterans who had come to Washington, D.C. had died the night before. His family was in the audience tonight, in his honor and in his memory. Two other veterans had been hospitalized for heart problems. He asked for a moment of silence.

When the evening ended, my sister and I went up to Harry, a stand in for our dad, and thanked him. We shook hands all around.  Everybody agreed it had been a most memorable and significant day.

Jeanette Nishimori is an educator, world traveler and food enthusiast. She lives in Fresno, Calif., with her son, Tristan Nishimori Pursell.

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