Friday, May 3, 2013

TDIH: The Medal of Honor

Kennedy greets Gino J. Merli
On May 2, 1963, President John F. Kennedy invited all the living recipients of the Medal of Honor to the White House. In 1963, there were 290 living members of that exclusive club and 240 of them attended the ceremony. At the time, there were a large numbers of veterans of both WWII and the Korean War as well as at least one living veteran of the Civil War. 464 men were awarded the Medal of Honor for combat during World War II alone. It was an impressive assemblage of American heroes. However, there were heroes missing that day, heroes who did not receive the recognition they deserved until much later.

In President Kennedy's address to those 240 recipients at the White House, he spoke of pride, pride in the men who have fought so bravely for their country. He went on to speak of the rarity of the honor:
"Not many Medals of Honor have been won, if any, in this country in this century. There are thousands of Americans who lie buried all around the globe who have been fighting for the independence of other countries and, in a larger sense, for the independence of their own [..] In honoring you, we honor all those who bear arms in the service of their country."
As Kennedy historians marked the fiftieth anniversary of that Medal of Honor ceremony, it would be remiss of me to not mention those who were missing from that distinguished group. Missing that day in the White House Rose Garden were members of the Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion or 442nd Regimental Combat Team who had acted in heroic ways during World War II, but had not been recognized for their service, patriotism and heroism.

Kennedy congratulates Private Wilburn K. Ross
The 442nd Infantry Regiment was a fighting force made up of Japanese-Americans, many of them Nisei or second generation Americans often born to Japanese immigrant parents, that volunteered to fight during World War II while many of their families were interned in relocation camps across the United States. The 442nd fought primarily in the European theater. They remain the highest decorated regiment in the history of the United States Army. The 100th Infantry Battalion was also comprised of Nisei, many of them from Hawaii and part of the Hawaii Army National Guard. Like the 442nd, the 100th saw heavy combat during the latter days of World War II. In June of 1944, the 100th Infantry joined with the 442nd Regiment. The all-Nisei unit was given the name the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team under the 34th Division.

It would take thirty-seven years from when President Kennedy convened 240 Medal of Honor recipients that day in the Rose Garden in 1963 to when President Clinton would finally bestow the Medal of Honor on twenty-one members of the 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Prior to the ceremony at the Clinton White House in 2000, only Sgt. Jose Calugas, of the Philippine Scouts, and Pfc. Sadao Munemori of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were awarded the Medal of Honor. It was a glaring oversight, driven by unfortunate institutional racism that had persisted since the order was signed by President Roosevelt to intern Americans of Japanese ancestry, and one that should not have taken fifty-five years since the end of World War II to reverse.

President Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to Pvt. Mikio Hasemoto, Pvt. Joe Hayashi, Pvt. Shizuya Hayashi, Staff Sgt. Robert T. Kuroda, Pfc. Kaoru Moto, Pfc. Kiyoshi K. Muranaga, Pvt. Masato Nakae, Pvt. Shinyei Nakamine, Pfc. William K. Nakamura, Pfc. Joe M. Nishimoto, Staff Sgt. Allan M. Ohata, Pfc. Frank H. Ono, Staff Sgt. Kazuo Otani, Tech. Sgt. Ted T. Tanouye, and Capt. Francis B. Wai. Additionally, during Clinton's ceremony, he had the privilege of presenting the award in person to Rudolph B. Davila, Barney F. Hajiro, Shizuya Hayashi, Yeiki Kobashigawa, Yukio Okutsu, George T. Sakato and U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye.

Kennedy meets Daniel Inouye in 1962
President Kennedy had met Daniel Inouye, a member of the 442nd who lost his right arm in combat, as Inouye was beginning his campaign for the United States Senate. At the time, Inouye was a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives. Inouye's story was not unknown. His Medal of Honor citation, like the other members of the 442nd who received the medal, reads like a Hollywood movie script:
"Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 21 April 1945, in the vicinity of San Terenzo, Italy. While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions. In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge. Second Lieutenant Inouye’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army."
This man was serving in the United States Senate, the very Senate where Kennedy once served, as a ceremony was taking place at the White House to honor men of Inouye's caliber. Here was a man who enlisted in the 442nd as soon as the military lifted its ban on Japanese-American servicemen, lost his arm while in combat and never once directed anger or cynicism toward his county, but instead devoted his life to public service. This man embodied what the Medal of Honor represents. This man was as deserving of that award as any to which it had been presented. And yet he had to wait.

Obama and members of the 442nd in 2010

In addition to the Clinton White House ceremony in 2000, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the 100th Infantry Battalion and Nisei who served in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. What was widely celebrated in 1963 as a great feat by the Kennedy White House, bringing together 240 recipients of the Medal of Honor, seemed to come full circle finally with Clinton and Obama.

The finality of bestowing proper recognition on the Japanese-Americans who fought for this country during World War II was all the more important because of the time in which we live. Americans will witness, as we have twice already, the awarding of the Medal of Honor to soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. And those soldiers will not receive awards based on anything but their service and devotion to their country. Hopefully no generation, no regiment, no demographic will ever again be denied proper recognition like those brave men who fought with the 100th Infantry Battalion or the 442nd Infantry Regiment.

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