LONG OVERDUE: Japanese American veterans of World War II receive Congressional Gold Medals at South Bay ceremony

SAN JOSE — It was moving. It was emotional. It was long overdue and yet so deserving when U.S. Congressional leaders awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Japanese American World War II veterans of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service.

The Congressional Gold Medal, and the stand, which Jimi Yamaichi made. photo by Barbara Hiura

Almost 800 people filled the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin Annex, which accommodated a standing-room-only group on the afternoon of Feb. 23, as 157 veterans who were unable to attend the national celebration held in Washington, D.C. last November were honored. The Japantown gathering was intimate, warm and noisy, as comrades in arms saw each other for the first time in such a large group in years. Only 65 living veterans were honored. The award was presented posthumously to the others’ surviving wives and family members.

For some, the impact was immediate. “When I first sat down and saw the American flag and his name on the stand, I thought I was going to fall apart,” commented Janice Noda, wife of veteran George T. Noda, as she was flooded by memories of his life. “This event was very emotional for me.”

Her husband passed away after suffering a heart attack while driving their son, Darryl, to a Boy Scout Jamboree, 37 years ago. “It really hit me,” she added.

Indeed, the day brought back memories of what the Mainland and Hawai‘i boys went through, each proving what it meant to be an American citizen. George Noda went to war while his parents were incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyo. According to Janice Noda, when he returned, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before there was even a term for it.

Darryl Noda reflected on his father’s memory and the significance of the Nikkei veterans’ actions. “It was nice … after such a long time to think back on their contribution, not only to the country but to Japanese Americans and their status as citizens,” he said.

“My only wish would be if this could’ve happened 10 to 20 years earlier, so that more of the veterans would still be around.”

The ceremony was “pretty emotional, especially when you think about the contribution of your parents. You really take a lot of that for granted,” he continued. “It’s these types of events that are really good reminders that they’ve done a lot to secure a place for us in society.”

The Humbled and the Honored
Congressional leaders Mike Honda, Zoe Lofgren and Anna Eshoo were humbled to be in the presence of the veterans and present them with the medals.

“You have suppressed your stories because they are too painful,” Honda noted. “But these stories must be shared, told, written about and documented in film so that our children and our grandchildren can tell the story to the rest of this country so that everyone can understand what we can do in times of war hysteria, racial prejudice and the failure of political leadership.”

Honda applauded the veterans, saying because of “your work, your labor and your sacrifice, someone like me can walk the halls of Congress. And now, we are able to speak up in Congress for those who don’t have a voice,” he stated.

“To our veterans, to the MIS, thank you for setting a great example. My father taught me to be proud. But you taught this nation to be proud,” he concluded.

Lofgren noted that the Dalai Lama, George Washington, Colin Powell and Nelson Mandela, are fellow recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal. “They are honored to be in your company,” she quipped.

She added, “This was the first gold medal event to occur in a Japantown and the only ceremony that included three members of Congress outside the nation’s Capital.”

Lofgren closed by stating, “you stepped out of the camps leaving your family behind and stepped onto the battlefield to save our country and when you did, you not only saved our country but you taught our country a lot about honor, and about patriotism, and helped make a more perfect union.”

Eshoo recounted the exploits of the 100th Battalion out of Hawai‘i. They were trained on the Mainland before being sent to North Africa and then to the European Theater. “Their courage in battle helped them gain the respect of their Caucasian counterparts,” she reflected. “Called the Purple Heart battalion, they went on to on to be the most decorated unit for its size and its length of service in the entire history of the military in the United States of America.”

Eshoo added, “I, along with my colleagues, offer the profound gratitude of our entire nation. You who have served in 100th Battalion, 442nd RCT and MIS, you secured our liberty for us.

“I think today, the entire nation genuflects before you for your unparalleled patriotism. You are now and always will be one of the most distinguished chapters in the history of our great nation and we will never ever forget.”

The three Congressional leaders moved throughout the hall to present each veteran with their well-deserved Congressional Medal of Honor as their names were called out.

This then became an emotional day for Honda, who bestowed a medal to his mother, Fusako, in memory of his late father, Giichi Byron Honda.

It’s Not About Me
Wendy Hanamura, who co-emceed the event with Mike Inouye, NBC Bay Area morning traffic anchor, witnessed her father, Haruo Howe Hanamura, the subject of her documentary “Honor Bound: A Personal Journey” receive his medal from Lofgren. Hanamura spoke of traveling with her dad and sharing his story and that of his unit Company L of the 442nd RCT.

“During those days when I was making that documentary so many of you veterans said the same thing. You almost all said, ‘What we did was nothing special. We are not heroes. We did what anyone in our place would have done.’” Hanamura interjected, “But I think you’re wrong, you are all heroes.”

Indeed, the veterans never saw themselves as doing anything out of the ordinary.

“This is a great honor that the United States is bestowing on all three units. But for me as an individual, I did very little to contribute to that because I was hit early,” said Frank Shimada, 94, who was in Company I of the 442nd RCT.

His memories of his service, however, are vivid. He saw his buddies get killed — up close — by sniper fire and remembers the sound bullets made as they went zinging past or exploded too close for comfort. Shimada was hit by a German hand grenade early in the battles in Italy, and almost died. After months of recuperation, he was reassigned to limited duty and served in Germany and France and even attended the Potsdam Conference before being shipped home.

Shimada developed long-lasting friendships with his fellow brothers in arms from both sides of the Pacific, Mainlanders and those from Hawai‘i, all from Company I. He lamented their passing as they have aged. “They’re all gone.”

A DAY TO REMEMBER ­— (Left): The Matsuda family celebrates Congressional Gold Medal recipient Roy Matsuda. Back row, from left: Kirk Shimamoto, Cyndie Shimamoto, Roy Matsuda Jr., Lisa Bantilan, Keith Shimamoto. Front row, from left: Roy Matsuda, Nicole Shimamoto and Jamie Shimamoto; (Far right): Frank Shimada, 94, of Company I. photo by Barbara Hiura

Roy Matsuda, like many of the other veterans, shies away from the spotlight. He was from Hawai‘i, and simply believed it was his duty to serve. “It’s different today,” he quipped. “We didn’t think like that. I wasn’t thinking who was loyal or who was disloyal.
War is war you know, and I gotta help. I’m from Hawai‘i so my family was never interned. Japanese leaders like Buddhist priests were interned.

“The sentiment at that time was different than it is now. You cannot compare that time with now … For the guys who had families that were interned, I feel sorry for them.”

Receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor filled Matsuda with emotion. Being here “brings me back to the frontline and I was trapped in one spot for quite a while.” In that, he too remembered his friends who had fallen and grew silent, reflective.

Lisa Bantilan, Matsuda’s Sansei daughter, thought “that such recognition is a long time coming,” she remarked. “We’re so lucky that they went through what they did and paved the way for us, for Sansei, Yonsei. It’s amazing and we can’t ever forget it.”

Nobu Azebu, his son Ken Azebu and wife, Judy Akiko Azebu; the medal and stand. photo by Barbara Hiura

Coming out of the Big Island in Hawai‘i, Nobuyoshi Azebu, 88, made a career of the service, volunteering for the 442nd. But because he spoke Japanese, he was trained in military intelligence where he served in the occupation of Japan, doing translating and interpreting. He was 18 or 19 when he joined. “I went in because all my friends were joining. We all went in together,” he recalled. He decided to stay. He later served in Korea and remained in the service until he retired.

Still recognitions like this are uncomfortable. “I’m not used to anything like this,” he remarked. “Personally, I am not interested in this for me,” he commented. “It’s for all of them, the 100th Battalion, 442nd RCT and MIS.”

Like Azebu, William Oda, made the military his career. According to his widow, Esther Oda, 90, her husband was on the ground floor in the formation of the 442nd RCT stateside while in Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

She’s proud of her husband and the life she had with him. He garnered two Purple Hearts in Italy and Korea in his 26 years of service. She was just grateful that he survived the war. Her only regret, “it’s too bad he wasn’t alive to receive this. They all served with such honor and dignity.”

Cartoonist and author of “Poston Camp II, Block 211,” Jack Matsuoka, spoke about being in the MIS — a subject he thinks has not been fully explored. “This was a great ceremony, especially for the 442nd Regiment — but they don’t know too much about the MIS,” he exclaimed.

“I was MIS around the end of the war and went to Tokyo right after ‘the bomb,’” he recalled. “My job title was translation and interpreting, but beyond that, they made me a special agent who worked on investigation of ‘spy cases.’”

He dressed in plain cloths so he could question those in the Japanese military above his own rank. This is the area he believes is still being kept a secret.

Matsuoka himself remained quiet about being an honored recipient. He, too, was looking at the group as a deserving and collective whole for being uplifted in this way.

Several other Nikkei were also acknowledged during the ceremony. Jimi Yamaichi, who on Feb. 24 received Japan’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, was recognized as the designer, creator and fabricator of the 157 wood-based medal stands. The shape represents Monte Cassino. Atop of each flew the American flag and below, a mount for the medal.

Joe Yasutake, chair of the San Jose Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony Committee, provided welcoming remarks and thanked the committee members for their eight months of work in organizing the ceremony.

While the survivors of the war were honored, a moving tribute was given for the fallen soldiers from the three units as Ted Hasegawa of Wesley United Methodist Church played “Taps,” to a very reverent audience.

Keith Inouye, senior pastor of the church, did the invocation and benediction.

Boy Scout Troop 611 posted the colors and Shannon Haley of Archbishop Mitty High School sang the National Anthem.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Barbara, for this beautiful and moving story. We are currently working on a film to honor both the brave Japanese Americans who gave their all in the War Effort as well as the women who supported them through a letter-writing campaign known as The Crusaders. We’d appreciate any attention you can give. Please visit our site and view the brief trailer that will give an idea of the vast material we have already shot. it’s time we sang the praises of these brave women who gracefully and humbly receded into the background after their men came home. For more info, please check out http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/99993 and contact me. I

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