92-Year-Old Nisei Vet Receives Gold Medal

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Lawson Sakai presents a declaration from Congress and President Obama to fellow 442nd vet Robert Masami Iso at the VA Menlo Park Division’s Community Living Center. (Curt Campbell/Veterans Affairs)

MENLO PARK — More than 100 people witnessed a historic event Feb. 3 involving a soldier from the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit of its size from World War II.

Robert Masami Iso, 92, received the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts from his service on the battlefields of France and Italy. But on this occasion 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 (nursing home). Iso was the first 442nd veteran 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.

Iso, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, passed away on the morning of Feb. 6, according to his family. Services are being arranged by Willow Glen Funeral Home in San Jose.

Although Iso was not able to speak, it was evident that he was aware the ceremony was to honor his military service. One of his fellow veteran residents, Howard Hemsleigh, took a moment to congratulate him and shared his thoughts.

“I served in the 571st Parachute Regimental Combat Team and we fought alongside the 442nd in Italy,” said Hemsleigh 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 President Obama, declaring that members of the 442nd would receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

“ ‘Alien enemies,’ what men of the 442nd were called, were initially interned in 10 camps around the country,” said retired Air Force Col. Brian Shiroyama, who was born in one of those camps. “Now they 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.”

Additional event participants included Lawson Sakai, who served in the 442nd, and James Iso, Robert’s younger brother, who served with the occupation forces in postwar Japan.

“My brother, Bob, was one of the first members of the 442nd,” said James Iso. “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, Mrs. Iso received a huge ovation and she shyly smiled.

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

Shinseki did not attend the ceremony but did have the opportunity to meet Robert Iso on a previous occasion.

“I will close today by thanking my dear brother for heroically defending our nation,” said James Iso, “and by repeating a phrase my new friend Howard Hemsleigh said earlier: ‘God Bless America!’ ”

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