They Went For Broke

Former members of the historic 442nd, 100th and MIS just received the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C., recognizing their heroism and sacrifice in World War II. From left: Charles Ijima, Kenneth Higa, Mitsuo Hamasu, Glenn Masunaga, James Oura, Herbert Yanamura, Tadashi Fukumoto and Robert Arakaki

Steve Murray
Wednesday - December 07, 2011
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Robert Arakaki, Charles Ijima, Mitsuo Hamasu, James Oura, Glenn Masunaga, Kenneth Higa, Herbert Yanamura and Tad Fukumoto Nathalie Walker photos

For the second time in their lives, a group of Japanese-Americans answered the call to service. But instead of being enemy aliens, internment camp prisoners or simply “Japs,” the veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 100th Infantry Battalion and Military Intelligence Service were called to join their brothers in selfless service, the Navajo Code Talkers and Tuskegee Airmen, as recipients of our nation’s highest civilian honor the Congressional Gold Medal.

The award actually goes to their units, but the men were able to purchase replicas.

The ceremony, which took place Nov. 3 in Washington, D.C., brought back a flood of memories, near uncontrollable excitement and immeasurable pride in the veterans.

To quote Speaker of the House John Boehner from the ceremony: “The United States remains forever indebted to the bravery, valor and dedication to country that these men faced while fighting a two-front battle of discrimination at home and Fascism abroad.”

“I was too excited. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t believe we were getting this award, the highest civilian honor,” says MIS veteran Tad Fukumoto slowly, for emphasis. “That’s impressive. We got off the plane, there were a couple hundred people waving the American flag. That was terrific. I thought, this is great. I went to a restaurant and people were saying thank you. I walked down the street and people said thank you. I really enjoyed the treatment.”

While everyone agreed that receiving the award was a tremendous honor and they were proud to have taken part in the ceremony, some couldn’t help but think about those left behind or the bitter fighting they experienced.

“My experience in Washington, D.C., was great and I’m very proud, but for me the program brought back memories because that was the same month we fought in France, and that is where the unit faced the toughest combat we experienced. I could feel myself crying,” says James Oura, a 442nd veteran. “Today we received the medal, and I’m proud this happened to recognize the unit and what we went through and our battle to rescue the lost battalion, which cost the regiment a lot of men. It brought back some bitter memories of what we went through.”

Through their veterans groups, the former soldiers knew congressional supporters were sponsoring a bill to have their exploits recognized. But it wasn’t until they read about it in the newspaper a year later that they learned President Obama had signed the resolution.

That the measure passed unanimously wasn’t lost on the awardees.

“Usually, they fight like hell,” says MIS vet Glenn Masunaga with a laugh.

Once they knew they got the award, they had to find out what it was.

Charles Ijima, 442nd
Kenneth Higa, 100th

“The first question in my mind was, what is this gold medal?” says MIS veteran Herbert Yanamura. “So I looked it up on the Internet and I read all I could about it, and that’s when I found out it was a very, very prestigious award. George Washington was the first man to receive it, and we’ve been put in that same category as the first president of the country. I couldn’t believe that we would be honored in that way.”

“We are in an elite group now,” adds 100th Infantry vet Kenneth Higa.

Looking back through the lens of modern culture, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would fight for a country that denied them their basic civil rights. To a man, the vets said that love of family and country doesn’t waver because times get difficult. They spoke of the Japanese belief of on (pronounced “own”), a combination of Bushido code and the belief that everyone has a debt to be paid to those who gave so much to them. It’s about the deepest level of honor, respect and love. There is no simple, accurate English translation.

“I think we all owe this award to our Issei generation,” says Robert Arakaki, a 100th Battalion veteran. “They are the ones who taught us. I give them great credit for us getting the medal. During the war, a lot of people were interned and they never said one thing against America. I give credit to our Issei parents because they gave a lot of inspiration to all of us.”

Masunaga, who later in life became a dentist and received a medal from the

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