Hawaii Herald Articles

America’s Congressional Gold Medal Heroes

This is the first of many articles that have been published in The Hawai`i Herald.  Here is the cover story on the AJA Congressional Gold Medal — Courtesy of The Hawai`i Herald.

In the Twilight of their Lives, America’s AJA Veterans Still Shine

Karleen C. Chinen
The Hawai‘i Herald (November 4, 2011)

They now belong to an elite group of world citizens — honored by the Congress of the United States with the nation’s high civilian award for service — the Congressional Gold Medal. Past awardees had included U.S. presidents, astronauts, the Dalai Lama, baseball great Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, among others. Google “Congressional Gold Medal” on the Internet and you will find their names — the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service — America’s newest Congressional Gold Medal heroes.

The Hawai‘i Herald was not able to send a writer to Washington, D.C., to cover the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the World War II Nisei veterans, but, fortunately for us, a few of the many friends we have made in the course of publishing the Herald, willingly shared their eyewitness accounts, thoughts and feelings as they watched the veterans receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

Most of the Hawai‘i veterans departed Honolulu on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 30. Among them was 92-year-old MIS veteran Frank Tanabe, who was accompanied by his wife Setsuko and daughter Barbara Tanabe, former KHON news anchor/reporter and now a partner with her former KHON colleague, Jim McCoy, in their firm, Ho‘äkea Communications. Barbara narrated the Hawai‘i veterans’ send-off from Honolulu International Airport in this e-mail to the Herald.

“We had a wonderful send-off, with Delta giving the veterans the VIP treatment. When the veterans appeared at the gate, an announcement was made about their trip to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. All the waiting passengers applauded — some men stood up and gave the veterans a standing ovation.

That was just the beginning. After the over eight-hour flight to Atlanta, and another two hours to Washington, D.C., everyone was travel-weary. But what a welcome! A fire truck greeted the plane as it neared the gate and sprayed the aircraft with a congratulatory shower. Everyone inside cheered. The veterans were asked to remain inside the aircraft until everyone disembarked. I knew there would be a grand welcome, so I deplaned early. Waiting for the veterans was a huge Delta contingent of employees and customers; the gate was decorated with flags and patriotic bunting. Tammy Kubo and Gen. Bob Lee were there with Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and other National Veterans Network organizers, who passed out flags. As the veterans came off the flight, the crowd burst into cheers and applause. Even a french horn player struck up a tune! The veterans weren’t aware of what was happening until they came off the plane, one by one. Their puzzled and surprised expressions gave way to smiles as well-wishers shook their hands and waved American flags. They looked so frail and humble, almost embarrassed by all the attention.

I spotted my dad, who was among the last to deplane. He was tired from a lack of sleep. But as soon as he saw everyone cheering, he broke out in a wide grin. As we walked to baggage claim, passengers stopped and clapped, and clerks came out of their stores, holding signs saying, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It was a memorable welcome to Washington, D.C.

It’s going to be very busy, but the weather is wonderful — clear, sunny and just cool enough to feel the autumn winds.”

Neatly packed in each veteran’s suitcase just for the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony was a handsome new navy-blue blazer with the patch of the unit in which the veteran had served sewn onto the breast pocket, along with a white dress shirt and a matching blue tie. And what was the cost to each veteran? Absolutely nothing, thanks to the generosity of a several Hawai‘i businesses and individuals — and the “go for broke” spirit of Tammy Kubo, niece of several uncles who served in the 442nd and MIS and mother of Spec. William Lurbe, a member of the 100th/442nd U.S. Army Reserves.

Kubo said she got the idea of dressing all of the Hawai‘i veterans in identical blue blazers after researching previous Congressional Gold Medal ceremonies on the Internet. Impressed with how distinguished the Tuskegee Airmen looked in their identical red blazers when they received their medal in 2007, she pitched her idea to retired U.S. Army Gen. Robert Lee, asking if he would co-chair a fundraising effort with her. Lee signed on immediately. Within two weeks of e-mailing appeals for donations, the two had surpassed their goal of raising $7,000 to purchase blazers for all of the veterans planning to go to Washington. The project sold itself, she said.

“It was so self-explanatory, because these boys are local heroes.” There was also enough money to purchase a clip-on necktie for each veteran. Kubo said only U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, a 442nd veteran, received a “real” tie. Each veteran also received a three-strand red, white and blue lei which Violet Kagawa and her group of crafters hand-made and donated to each D.C.-bound veteran.

Kubo worked with Celebrity Tuxedoes, which discounted the cost of the blazers and waived the fitting and alterations charges. Celebrity also coordinated with seamstresses on the neighbor islands so those veterans would not have to fly to Honolulu for a fitting. Within two months, the veterans had their new blazers.

“Everything’s been fast and furious,” Kubo said. All total, 70 veterans received blazers.

“I think that when you wear something new, it just feels so good. I just want this day to be all theirs and I wanted them to be identified when they’re there at the Capitol,” she said just days before leaving for D.C.

Kubo and Ann Kabasawa, a travel agent and the daughter of 100th Battalion veteran Raymond Nosaka, assisted the veterans with their travel plans. Kubo decided to attend the celebration to accept the medal on behalf of her late uncle, who was in the 442nd. After the ceremony, she e-mailed this message to the Herald:

“Today is a day I will never forget for the rest of my life! It began with a police-escorted 6 a.m. bus ride to the U.S. Capitol — 27 buses were scheduled to go to the Capitol. Lucky me got on the first bus. The ceremony at the Capitol started at 11 a.m.

At first I wanted to grumble — 6 a.m., are you kidding me?! Why do I have to show up five hours early for a ceremony?! And then I thought about the men we were honoring. They didn’t question what they were told; they believed in the mission and followed instructions.

The bus ride took about an hour and 15 minutes. For some reason, we drove around as if to wait for the go-ahead to park and unload. We finally got to the Capitol at 7:15 a.m., passed through security and saw the beautifully decorated Emancipation Hall.

As we waited, we saw the veterans coming in, one by one. Slowly, they took their seats. Our Hawai‘i boys looked stunning in their blue blazers, ties and lei. There was lots of photo-taking and hugging old buddies on the floor as we waited for the ceremonies to start.

I saw my son William, who, as a member of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team U.S. Army Reserves, was part of the honor guard for the ceremony. How proud I was of him! I wish my late uncles could have seen him, wearing the same patch they wore in battle, the same patch he wore while deployed in Iraq and Kuwait. How proud they would be of him and this event. William joined the U.S. Army because of 9/11. My uncles joined because of Pearl Harbor — they all volunteered, knowing they were going to be deployed to a combat situation.”

Barbara Tanabe was among the approximately 1,000 relatives and friends who watched a video feed of the Congressional Gold Medal presentation at the Washington Hilton. The ceremony included remarks by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate President Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Sen. Daniel Inouye spoke on behalf of the Nisei veterans. Also present on-stage was U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) who, in 2009, introduced the bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the World War II Nisei veterans.

Barbara and her sister Irene watched the video feed at Washington Hilton, the Congressional Gold Medal headquarters, because there was room in the Emancipation Hall for only the veterans and one guest, so Setsuko Tanabe accompanied her husband to the presentation. Barbara sent this e-mail soon after the ceremony.

“The ceremony ended at noon and it will take another several hours for all the buses to make it back, so the veterans will be very tired — plus we have the big banquet tonight. My dad has been looking for buddies, but so far only connected with one, whom he hasn’t seen for nearly 50 years. My sister and I are spending a lot of time looking for names Dad remembers.

The veterans are really stoic and humble. They have endured long waits and crowds, making it difficult for many to see or hear highlights of the events. But no one has complained. As one veteran said, ‘This isn’t going to happen again.’ They are just appreciative of this honor. However, my dad is totally not used to all this attention and is quite weary. I’m sure he just wants to hurry up and go home.”

For 100th Infantry Battalion daughter Pauline Sato, the number of people in attendance was more than she expected. “Everyone was happy to be there and so proud of the veterans,” said Sato, who also is the first daughter of a 100th Battalion veteran to serve as president of the 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans Club.

“I’ve known about my dad and all this [history] for some time, so it’s not like it’s new information. But I think for a lot of people who aren’t connected, this is the first time they heard of this, what the veterans have done and, realizing that they’re in their 80s and 90s, gave them more respect, I think, for their accomplishments. So it’s good to share that story — it is a true American story, not one you would expect, but it is.”

Sato said she was especially moved by Sen. Inouye’s speech at the banquet held the evening of the presentation. Calling it “a glorious day,” Sato recalled Hawai‘i’s senior senator saying that the veterans were all made “patriots and heroes” that day, something they did not feel almost 70 years ago.

“Even on the plane ride back, when they announced on the loudspeaker that we have some veterans from Hawai‘i and the Congressional Gold Medal, folks were coming by to my dad and saying ‘Thank you so much. We’re so proud to meet you. I saw you on the news . . .’ Word’s getting out, so that’s a good thing. People are learning about what they did.”

Sato’s father, 94-year-old Robert T. Sato, did not articulate much, except to tell his family that the awarding of the medal was a good thing and that he was glad he had come. “We wanted him to go, because it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

It was indeed a once in a lifetime opportunity for 93-year-old 100th Battalion veteran Kenneth Higa. “Oh, it was wonderful. I’m really glad that I went,” he said.

From the moment the Hawai‘i group arrived in Washington, to the ceremony and the evening banquet, Higa felt on top of the world.

“There were a lot of people there, congratulating us, shaking our hand,” said Higa of their arrival at Reagan National Airport. “So many people. I felt really good. Most of them were haoles — it was really nice of them to greet us and welcome us.”

Higa took the early morning wake-up calls; the long, snaking lines and long waits in stride, saying he had anticipated those conditions. What impressed him most is the elite group of previous Congressional Gold Medal recipients the AJA World War II veterans now join — the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers, among them. “That made me kinda proud of all the Japanese people,” he said.

In spite of all the excitement, as he watched the ceremony, he said his thoughts drifted back to the comrades the 100th lost in battle. “You feel a little sad. But I’m glad I went; it was real terrific.”

And how about the replica medal he brought home? “You know, I thought this was going to be a small thing, but this is a pretty good size . . .”

A week before the ceremony, Charles Moriyama of Mililani and his wife Helen made a spur of the moment decision to fly to Washington. Moriyama said his main purpose was to accept the medal on behalf of his brother, Corp. Toshio Moriyama, who served with Anti-tank Company of 442nd Infantry Regiment. Toshio died two years ago.

But Moriyama, who grew up in Wahiawä, is himself a veteran of the Military Intelligence Service, in which served in the Counterintelligence Corps. He received a call from Congressman Ralph Hall’s (R-Texas) staff, informing him that he had two tickets to the presentation — they were his if he wanted them. Moriyama didn’t have to think twice. Within days, he had his blue blazer and was set to go. “Wonderful,” he said of the ceremonies. “It was emotional . . .”

For 442nd veteran Yasunori Deguchi of Kona, the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony “was really a humbling kind of experience.” “The opportunity to be there at such a gathering to honor our exploits, it was such an honor.”

Deguchi, who at age 87, is one of the younger 442nd veterans, volunteered for the unit just after turning 18 years old. In his high school years, he worked part-time at the Manago Hotel, where he came into contact with soldiers in the 106th Infantry who shared their experiences with the impressionable young man. Excited about the possibility for new adventures away from sleepy Kona — and because he was a middle child in a family of nine kids — he volunteered in February 1943 and was inducted the next month. A week after volunteering, Deguchi learned that his brother, too, had volunteered.

Deguchi, who retired as vice president of the Kona Community Federal Credit Union after almost 40 years, attended the ceremony with his son, Wesley, a Honolulu architect and president of the Sons and Daughters of the 442 RCT. Yasunori Deguchi said he felt a “deep sense of humbleness and honor,” that he was also there for those who were not able to attend the ceremony. “I was proud to represent them,” said Deguchi.

Retired Gen. Robert G.F. Lee was already in Nisei veteran “mode” by the time he arrived in Washington, D.C., after having traveled to Bruyeres, France, with a group of 100th/442nd veterans and the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Infantry U.S. Army Reserves to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the town’s liberation by the Nisei soldiers. As the state’s adjutant general, he had passed on several invitations to visit the small town the 100th and 442nd liberated in the fall of 1944. Retired since January, Lee was determined to see Bruyeres and Biffontaine with his own eyes and to try to envision the military mission the Nisei soldiers had faced. From France, he flew to Washington, D.C., with the 100th/442nd Reserves for the Congressional Gold Medal presentation. The Reserve soldiers had been tapped to serve as the color guard for the ceremony.

Lee was at Reagan National Airport to greet the weary veterans when they arrived in D.C. He was also in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol to witness the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal.

“I was extremely proud of not only the accomplishments by the soldiers, but more so the recognition by America,” he told the Herald. “In the military, especially in the Army, you have individual awards for your performance of duty. But it is astonishing and heartwarming to see this award going to every soldier that served, no matter how you served in the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. It’s a great recognition by America and especially of their service during some very trying times for Japanese Americans.”

Lee said he felt a tinge of regret that more veterans could not have been present to witness the historic presentation. He said he was grateful that the Congress allowed “the Go For Broke soldiers to jump over other awardees. They realize that we have to do this quickly.”

Although the medal remained in Washington for presentation to the Smithsonian Institution, there were no unhappy veterans in Emancipation Hall. He said everyone got to see the medal and, at least for the veterans who traveled to Washington, come home with a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal.

“I’ll tell you what — the replica is really good,” emphasized Lee. “The replica is like, outstanding. It is like the real thing. You gotta know that it’s not gold.”

Carolyn Morinishi, who creates the Herald’s “Culture4Kids” page, attended the Congressional Gold Medal events with her mother Marian Kubota and her aunts, several of whom, like Kubota, were married to Nisei veterans. Upon arriving in Washington, Carolyn noticed that the attendees included families who, in some cases, spanned four generations.

“The youngest attendees — grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the World War II AJA vets — added a fresh energy to the event, and their words leave no doubt that the veterans’ legacy will live on for generations to come,” e-mailed Carolyn, who decided to collect comments from the children.

“I’m just proud of my grandpa that he got this award,” said 13-year-old Kiana Noda of Torrance, Calif. Her grandfather, Osamu Fujikawa of Los Angeles, played an important role in the ceremonies, having presented a wreath at the Bronze Star Medal ceremony on Nov. 1. “He really deserves it (the Congressional Gold Medal) because he helped save our country during World War II,” Kiana said.

“I’m glad that my Jiichan (grandfather) was getting the gold medal, but I’m sad that he wasn’t there,” said 9-year-old Kiara Kubota Stromberg of San Jose, Calif., about her late grandfather, Hilo-born MIS veteran, Yoshio “Mike” Kubota. “I thought it was brave of all those soldiers going into war, so I feel proud that I’m Japanese American.”

Thirteen-year-old Nick Yano of Vienna, Va., related an interesting story he learned from his great-granduncle, 442nd veteran Robert Lee Yano. “My great-uncle told me that he was part of the unit with Dan Inouye when he was injured.” Nick’s sisters, Carina, 9, and Laurel, 11, thought “the ceremony was cool!” Even though their late grandfather, Max Yano, was not there to share in the celebration, the impact was nevertheless felt by the Yano family. “The ceremony made me proud to be Japanese American,” said Laurel.

As Barbara Tanabe reflected on the veterans’ whirlwind week in their nation’s capital, she pulled out her iPad during the long flight home and recorded what she was feeling.

“This was truly an historic occasion, a proud moment for our nation, as it honored soldiers who asked only to serve their country.

During the three days of Congressional Gold Medal events, we saw photographs and video of them as young soldiers. Many had not seen their comrades since the war ended and the gathering at the Washington Hilton was often punctuated with shouts of recognition and laughter: ‘The last time I saw you was when you climbed on the troopship going home.’ Witnesses to these heartwarming reunions clapped and cheered as the old soldiers hugged and slapped each other on the back, just like old times. There were joyous and poignant moments as the past 65 years seemed to melt away.

My dad, Frank Tanabe, is now 92 years old. He, like others, searched the crowd for familiar faces. He finally found Leo, a fellow interpreter with the MIS who was assigned to the 77th Infantry in Hokkaidö. Leo and Dad had not seen each other for over 50 years. As they talked about their lives since the Occupation, they were joined by a woman who was searching for someone to tell her what her father might have gone through in the MIS. The MIS missions were classified, so for decades after the war, the men never spoke about their experiences during the war, not even with their families.

Naomi’s father had died without sharing his story, so she listened to Dad and Leo, trying to imagine what her father might have done. There were many other Sansei and Yonsei like Naomi, seeking information about their father, uncle or grandfather. A makeshift bulletin board covered the walls of the ballroom, with ‘Did you know . . . . please contact us,’ or letters from youngsters: ‘Did you serve with my uncle and grandpa . . . we’d like to hear your story.’ Some put up photographs of kin who died in combat, asking those who served to tell them about their loved one’s final days.

As the events came to a close and we bid farewell, the veterans were still smiling, though weary and ready to go home. They had received America’s highest honor for service to country, despite the sting of discrimination and racial hostility. And they had proven that they were loyal Americans with a deep sense of honor, duty and humility. They have left us a legacy that will be unmatched in American history. We stand on the shoulders of ‘the Greatest Generation,’ and we owe them a debt of gratitude and a promise to do our best to carry forth their spirit and resolve.”

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