JA veteran receives nation’s highest civilian honor just before passing

SALUTING A SOLDIER — Lawson Sakai presents the Congressional Declaration signed by President Barack Obama to Robert Masami Iso, 92. The Declaration ensured that all members of the 442nd RCT during World War II would receive the highest civilian award in the nation, the Congressional Gold Medal. photo by Curt Campbell, VA photographer

Menlo Park, Calif. — More than 100 people witnessed a historic event Feb. 3 involving a soldier from a historic World War II unit — the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit of its size from World War II.

Robert Masami Iso, 92, served in the Army and received the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts from his World War II service, but on Feb. 3 he received the country’s highest civilian commendation, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Family, friends and VA Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS) employees attended the presentation held at the VA Menlo Park division Community Living Center just three days before the Nikkei passed away on Feb. 6.

Iso was the second soldier of his 442nd unit to receive the award; the others will receive their medals in August in Washington, D.C.

Iso’s VA doctor, Eric Strong, heard about the upcoming award and was concerned about Iso’s health. He alerted staff to set things in motion and present the award as soon as possible.

Although Iso was not able to speak, it was evident that he was aware the ceremony was to honor his military service. One of Iso’s fellow veteran residents, Howard Hensleigh, congratulated him and shared his thoughts.

“I served in the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team and we fought alongside the 442nd in Italy,” said Hensleigh, during an impromptu opportunity that kicked off the event. “Here we were fighting together and our parents were warm and safe in their homes, but their parents were imprisoned in camps in the very country they were fighting to defend. They carried the fight. We owe these gentlemen so much.”

The medal itself was not available yet to present to Iso, but the Japanese American Veterans Association in Washington, D.C. was able to get one of the original documents signed by Congress and the president, declaring that members of the 442nd would receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

photo by Curt Campbell, VA photographer

“Immediately after Pearl Harbor, all Japanese Americans who were eligible for the draft were classified ‘Enemy Alien,’ and no longer eligible for the draft,” said retired Air Force Col. Brian Shiroyama, who was born in an incarceration camp. “With the shortage of fighting men, the Army decided to form a segregated Japanese American unit called the 442. Once they joined the Army, they were no longer called Enemy Alien, and went on to become one of the most decorated units in WWII.

“Now the brave men of the 442nd are receiving one of our highest honors, in line with such heroes as George Washington, John Paul Jones, The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama,” said Shiroyama.

Additional event participants included Frank Shimada, who served in the 442nd, and James Iso, Robert Iso’s younger brother, who served with the occupational forces in Japan.

“My brother, Bob, was one of the first members of the 442nd. In fact, he was drafted shortly before the war began and was actually already in the Army. He was one of our country’s best soldiers: a hero. He was gunned down by a machine gun while rescuing another soldier and they left him for dead. A farmer found him and his life was saved, but he paid the price the rest of his life — spending much of it in a wheelchair. Throughout his life, Rose, his wife, stood by his side and took care of him.”

In the audience, Rose received a huge ovation and she shyly smiled.

After taking the opportunity to thank VA for the great care given to his brother, James Iso continued to talk about how far Japanese Americans have come since World War II, reminding people that today there are 50 Japanese Americans who are of flag rank — generals or admirals. Perhaps on the most famous one is former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I will close today by thanking my dear friend Bob for heroically defending our nation,” said Lawson Sakai, “and by repeating a phrase my new friend Howard Hemsleigh said earlier, ‘God bless America!’”

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