Nisei Vets Honored by Defense Language Institute

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From left: MIS veterans George Tanaka and Ben Umeda watch as the DLIFLC Air Force Choir sings “America the Beautiful” to conclude the ceremony. (Photo by SFC Rebecca Doucette/DLI)

MONTEREY — A program honoring Monterey-area Nisei veterans for their service during World War II was presented March 4 by the Monterey Peninsula JACL and Monterey Peninsula Nisei Memorial Post 1629, VFW.

Twelve veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service, and family members of 23 deceased veterans, received bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal, which was presented to the three units in Washington, D.C. last November. Most of the honorees were unable to attend the U.S. Capitol ceremony.

Some of the MIS veterans had studied Japanese at the MIS Language School in Camp Snelling, Minn., the predecessor to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) at the Presidio of Monterey, and are considered DLIFLC alumni. The school’s assistant commandant, Air Force Col. Laura Ryan, presented the medals.

The MIS Language School, predecessor of DLI, originated at the Presidio of San Francisco before the Pearl Harbor attack, and was moved to Minnesota after Japanese Americans were excluded from the West Coast.

The program included the posting and retiring of colors by the DLIFLC Honor Guard; the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” by the DLIFLC Air Force Choir; and an invocation and benediction by Chaplain John W. Shipman, an Air Force major.

A spokesman read a statement from U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz), who said that the MIS Nisei “faced crushing prejudice and discrimination in the United States during World War II and that “many of their family members suffered internment while they were serving their country.”

“MIS graduated 6,000 service members during World War II to provide critical Japanese language capabilities to the American military,” the spokesman said. “These brave service men and women provided translation, interpretation, and code-breaking services in the essential Pacific theater, which contributed significantly to our nation’s victory.”

The statement ended with a quote from Gen. Charles Willoughby, chief of staff to Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “The Nisei shortened the Pacific war by two years, and saved possibly a million American lives.”

The spokesman finished by reading a letter written by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio): “This regional celebration represents the thanks of a grateful nation. This proud honor is a testament to your selflessness, your selfless dedication, and unwavering loyalty as you fought a two-front war against prejudice at home, and fascism abroad.”

Although some vets were too emotional to speak of their experiences, MIS veteran George Aihara summed up his feelings: “Receiving this award was really an honor to me. I … feel that Congress has finally … recognized us for our service and loyalty.”

Guest speaker Tom Graves, a photojournalist who has documented the Nisei veterans’ stories, reached out to the veterans and their families in attendance. “You helped to integrate our Armed Forces. You proved how important foreign languages are to the military. You fought to reverse long-standing discriminatory laws at home. You allowed your parents to become citizens for the very first time.”

One of the highlights of the ceremony was an impromptu appearance of Al Tortolano, a member of the “Lost Battalion.” He gave heartfelt thanks to the 100th/442nd for rescuing him and 210 other members of the 141st Texas Regiment, allowing him to return home, get married and raise a family.

The 442nd and the 141st were both part of the 36th Division and were fighting in eastern France near the German border in 1944 when the Texans were trapped behind enemy lines. After six days of desperate combat, up against mines, sniper fire, heavy artillery and spraying shrapnel, the 442nd broke through to the Lost Battalion.

According to the Go For Broke National Education Center, 54 Nisei were killed and many more were wounded during the six days, and during the entire Vosges Campaign, 34 days of almost non-stop combat–liberating the towns of Bruyeres and Biffontaine, rescuing the Texans, and nine more days of driving the Germans through the forest–the 442nd’s total casualties were 216 men dead and more than 856 wounded.

Al Tortolano, who was rescued by the 442nd in France as a member of the Texas "Lost Battalion," thanked the Nisei soldiers. (Photo by Ann Oda)

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