By GWEN MURANAKA and JK YAMAMOTO
RAFU STAFF WRITERS
Across the nation, city by city, Japanese Americans have gathered this past year to honor their heroes: the recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. It was fitting that one final celebration was held on Saturday in Little Tokyo at the Go For Broke National Monument.
More than 1,500 joined in the celebration, including 155 members of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service. The weather remained cool and overcast as a team of 300 volunteers, clad in red T-shirts, helped to check in veterans and their families.
“Being a Sansei who greatly benefited from their sacrifices, I’m elated to see multiple generations of Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei, family members and the many volunteers who are paying tribute to these men today,” said Don Nose, president of the Go For Broke National Education Center.
Sponsoring organizations for the ceremony included the 100th/442nd Veterans Association, MIS Veterans Association of Southern California, Go For Broke Educational Center, 100th Infantry Battalion Veterans, Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American Bar Association and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
David Ono, KABC news anchor, served as master of ceremonies and Maj. Gen. Rodney Kobayashi gave the keynote address. Kobayashi noted that the Japanese American soldiers join the ranks of George Washington and Gen. Douglas MacArthur as recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal.
“I personally want to thank the soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service for your sacrifice, your distinguished service, your valor and your courage. As you accept our appreciation for your service you represent every soldier who served in your distinguished unit, especially those who are no longer with us,” said Kobayashi. “You have set the bar for me and all the generations to follow, you are my heroes.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), who introduced the legislation in the House, said the Congressional Gold Medal has been one of the highlights of his political career. He was introduced to some of the Nisei soldiers by Alhambra City Councilmember Gary Yamauchi and Stan Yonemoto, and he remarked that getting to meet the Nisei convinced him move forward with the legislation.
“I knew their story, but it’s one thing to know their story and yet another to meet these men — to get to know their quiet heroism, their self-effacing humor, their wonderful, genial personalities,” said Schiff. “To get to know them convinced me that this was a story that needed to be told and retold, that it needed to be retold to a new generation of Americans.”
Schiff was joined by Reps. Judy Chu (D-San Gabriel), Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles Councilmember Jan Perry, as they handed each veteran or surviving family member a bronze replica of the Gold Medal.
“I was especially moved by the widows who are here and to give them the medal and something to say thank you,” said Waters. “What’s so very important about this is the generosity and spirit of those soldiers who fought and died for us, so that we could be free, despite everything done to the Japanese American people. And I am so appreciative for it.”
Beverly Iba was among the widows, wearing a red, white and blue lei, in tribute to her late husband Shigeru Iba of the MIS.
“This was really touching today. My goodness, I never believed I’d be able to make it to here now. I only wish he was here, but I’m happy I was able to accept it for him,” Iba said.
Members of the Japanese American Bar Association read the names of veterans, to the applause and cheers of family members seated in temporary bleachers constructed for the event.
At the beginning of the ceremony, George Nakano and Ann Hashisaka read the names of deceased soldiers, underscoring the many who have already passed on.
Lea Mizumoto, who wore a necklace with her father Robert’s Army photo, reflected that it was almost one year since his passing. While she went to Washington, D.C. last November, the Los Angeles ceremony was an opportunity for her mother Florence to participate. Robert Katsumi Mizumoto, 442nd C Company, was among the 29 veterans to also receive the Bronze Star, for heroism in combat.
“He knew about the ceremony in D.C., and my sister said, ‘Do you want us to go get you medal for you?’ But he passed away before the actual ceremony,” said Mizumoto.
The family of Fred Kitada, another Bronze Star recipient, joined together at the monument to take family photos.
“I’ve never felt this patriotic before. We’re so proud of him. We never knew of all his great accomplishments,” said Heather Kitada, Fred’s granddaughter. “I went to France on a language intensive study abroad and we always exchanged stories of our times in Europe.”
Hitoshi Sameshima, a 91-year-old MIS veteran, attended the Washington, D.C. ceremony but was pleased to see many friends who were unable to go.
He remembered a friend who served with the 442nd. “The sad part of all this is guys like my buddy. We grew up together, we went to school together. He was killed in France. So he wasn’t able to get any recognition. So I always told myself I’ve got to share this replica with him.”
Sameshima was an interpreter/translator/interrogator in the Philippines and worked for the War Crimes Division in occupied Japan. He has been a volunteer at the Japanese American National Museum for 22 years and also took part in this year’s honorary degree ceremony for Nisei students at USC.
George Kanatani, a 442nd veteran who attended the Washington, D.C. ceremony, said it was “quite an honor” to receive the Bronze Star at the Los Angeles ceremony. He participated in the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” and the Champagne Campaign in France as well as Po Valley in Italy.
“I lost quite a few of my buddies during the war, so I’m really lucky to be alive,” he said. “I’m 94. I was one of the older veterans.”
Kanatani was among the Nisei who was in the Army prior to the formation of the 442nd. He was drafted in February 1942. “It was quite an event - first time I ever rode on a train,” he recalled, adding, “When I was drafted, I waited for about a week down at Fort MacArthur, the induction center … They were gathering all the Japanese Americans, there was about 50 to 75 of us, and they sent us back to Arkansas for basic training.” His parents were interned in Poston, Ariz., and he was able to visit them before leaving for Europe.
Kanatani joined a group of Nisei veterans who visited Bruyeres, France, where generations of townspeople have erected monuments to the 442nd, thanking them for defeating the Nazis. He also visited the grave of one his comrades who was killed in action.
George Fujimori, an MIS veteran, was interned in Manzanar before joining the Army. Born in Fresno, he grew up in Boyle Heights and now lives in Gardena. During the war, he was stationed in Manila and Luzon in the Philippines, where he was a “one-man crew” interrogating POWs. “I went to Japan after the war, got stationed at Yokota Air Base,” he said. “I came back in June of ‘46. They wanted me to stay, but I was married and had a kid.”
Fujimori did not attend the D.C. ceremony and was experiencing a medal ceremony with his colleagues for the first time.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Helen Ota, Kurt Kuniyoshi and Darrell Kunitomi led the audience in singing “America the Beautiful.”
George Nakano, chair of the Go For Broke National Education Center, offered closing remarks, vowing to continue the legacy of the Nisei soldiers.
“This is not the final chapter, we will continue to keep telling the story of your accomplishments for generations to come,” Nakano said.