By JORDAN IKEDA
Former Staff Writer
On April 22, the Arizona Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League presented Congressional Gold Medals to veterans or family of veterans of the U.S. Army’s 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service.
The event took place at the Glendale Civic Center in Glendale, Arizona as the finale to its 51st Anniversary Sara Hutchings Clardy Scholarship Awards Graduates’ Luncheon.
U.S. Rep. Trent Franks was the keynote speaker. The medals, which had been scheduled to be delivered a week or two after the event, had been pushed to the top of the U.S. Mint’s to-do list so that the honorees in attendance were all presented the authentic award.
There wasn’t really any other choice for me. I knew the trip would be physically taxing — 15-16 hours in a car over the course of 36 hours will do that. But there was just no way I was going to miss it. There was too much to be gained, and nothing but sleep to be lost.
So, on April 21, my father, my uncle, and my great uncle got into a rented car and drove out to Phoenix to join my other great-uncles and cousins at the event.
As frequent readers of The Rafu Shimpo already know, on Nov. 2, 2011 a concurrent resolution by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate awarded Congressional Gold Medals to the 100th, 442nd, and MIS for their extraordinary accomplishments during World War II.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the United States given to an individual or unit who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States.
George Washington was the first to ever receive the Congressional Gold Medal and I think the reputation of our nation’s founding president speaks to the esteem and honor this award exudes.
Unfortunately, many of the Japanese American veterans who earned the award were unable to attend the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington, D.C. — 69 years having an inescapable way of taking youth, health, and life. As a result, organizations around the country, like the Arizona JACL, held similar ceremonies so that the surviving veterans and their families didn’t have to travel so far but were still publicly honored.
My grandfather, Masaru (Mas) Ikeda, and his younger brother, my great-uncle Katsumi (Katz) Ikeda, both earned their respective gold medals as members of the U.S. Armed Forces. After being previously denied entrance for two years following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of 120,000 American citizens, my grandpa became a member of the 442nd’s G Company in 1943.
A year later, my great-uncle Katz followed him into the military and was called to duty in May of 1944. He was one of the first JAs to be inducted into the Army following the reopening of the selective service procedures for the Nisei.
After surviving the war, my grandfather lived another 56 years before passing away from a brain tumor. My great uncle Katz never saw his 24th birthday, killed from a stray bullet at Camp Shelby during a training exercise.
Having worked with or written for The Rafu Shimpo in some capacity over the past decade, I have attended numerous events, interviewed a host of people, and written pages of stories all concerning the Nisei, the 442nd and 100th, WWII, and Japanese American internment.
The luncheon on April 22, though similar in many respects to ceremonies and luncheons and programs I’ve been to countless times before, will never be forgotten. It wasn’t just because of the uniqueness and honor of the award. It was the situation it birthed.
The ceremony brought together members of my family that hadn’t been together for many years. Three generations were present. My grandfather’s surviving brothers, all Nisei, brought their children, who brought their children.
Overall, nearly 150 people attended the event. Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei and even a few Gosei all gathered together to reflect upon and/or discover for the first time a generation that played an integral role in shaping all of our lives.
As the years move further and further away from the 1940s, these opportunities grow fewer. The number of those still directly connected to the war is quickly dwindling, as is the interest of the younger generations.
While it saddens me, I can understand.
When I was a freshman in high school, my grandpa asked me if I would go to Hawaii with him for what must have been the 50th anniversary reunion of the 442nd’s G Company.
I accepted because I was 14 years old and enamored with the notion of an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. I don’t remember who spoke at the official ceremony or what was said. And I didn’t take the time to talk at length with any of my grandpa’s war buddies or the other Nisei in attendance. I do remember being bored and thinking that Hawaii should be a lot more fun.
Like George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Thankfully, I didn’t completely waste it. That trip was the first and what would turn out to be my last opportunity to spend one-on-one time with my grandfather.
He was a man of few words. A man I didn’t truly understand and often underappreciated.
During that trip, as I began to realize that we would not be spending any time boogie boarding or snorkeling, I thankfully began to pay attention. I don’t have full memories, just snapshots. My grandpa took a lot of pictures on that trip. Regrettably, most are of just me. He didn’t want to be in them no matter how many times I asked.
When we talked, I’d have to speak up if he was facing left. He had lost his hearing in his right ear when a mortar went off right next to his head. While I had always known that about him, suddenly when it was just the two of us, I became consciously aware of it.
I became aware of other things too. How he struggled to swallow his daily pills at every meal. How he let me lead the way when we were walking around the streets. How, when the taxi was late to pick us up for our plane home, he cursed under his breath, the first time I had ever heard him curse.
But it was the quiet nights in the hotel room, where we sat across from each other at the little table in the corner, that I will never forget. The artistic romantic in me likens those nights to Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.”
There was, of course no drinking. But, there was a young and an old man who broke up the moments of prolonged silence with chitchat about the day — the type of conversation I say I hate, but somehow find myself doing quite often.
And then, slowly, gradually, he would begin to share with me his experiences in war.
Five years later, a little over a year after my grandpa died, I became an intern at The Rafu and have since been intimately involved with trying to preserve the legacy he and his generation left behind.
My grandfather wrote a hundred pages worth of his experiences during World War II. I’ve been a writer since the seventh grade and I’ve never put together a hundred pages of any sort of collective thought.
He recounted how he inexplicably cheated death over and over while the men around him continued to die. He talked about specific missions, the moments of kindness from others, the bullets whizzing by his head, the mortars blowing up around him, the marching, the shooting, the terror, the uncertainty.
He recalled the night Katz died.
“…Eating too much cheese or not drinking enough water. I was really bound up. Medic told me to come back early the next morning for another check. Got examined — tagged — and found myself on a plane to Rome. Another examination and they had me in a room to operate. A surge in new casualties and I was put on a mineral oil diet — drinking it every three hours.
“I tell you this to relate this phenomenal psychic incident. That night, a nurse was holding me down because I was yelling and trying to get up. I had felt two bullets hit me in the back. Timewise, the instant Katz got hit at Camp Shelby, I felt the same bullets, exact same location — a dull, numbing sensation. Psychic phenomena, mental telepathy, E.S.P.?”
My grandpa was in Italy. My uncle Katz was in Mississippi. All the way on the other side of the world, my great-uncle died from wounds he received while he and his companions were dismantling a machine gun after maneuver practice. The bullets penetrated through his back and into his heart. He had only been in service for two months.
That was July 22, 1944.
I was born July 21, 1982.
I don’t know what to make of that experience. I’m not into miracles or psychic phenomena. None of that has ever happened to me before. I believe my grandpa experienced what he did, but I don’t know how it happened.
What I do know and understand is that these many parallels with my grandfather are no coincidence.
That is why I had to go to Arizona.
Among the other veterans honored: Harry Oyama, Jack Suda, George Takagi, Henry Takagi, Goro Tanamachi, Masaji Inoshita, Satole Iwakoshi, Thomas Kadomoto, William Kajikawa, Ben Komatsu, Yoshiyuki Motoyoshi, Clarence Ohta, Robert Kiyoto Amano, Yoshitaka Eto, Tom Haga, Tasuo Iguchi, Makoto Tanita, Minoru Tanita, Tamotsu Tanita, Wataru Tanita, Koichi Tomita, Masatsuki Yamamoto, and Ted Yoshimura.
If it wasn’t for all of these people, we wouldn’t be able to live the lives we have now.
Knowing this, I’ve tried to live my life in a way that makes them proud, in a way that attempts to justify the sacrifice my grandfather, the entire Nisei generation — whether they resisted or volunteered — made on my behalf.
The day is fast approaching when there will be no one left from the Nisei generation.
So every opportunity to spend time with them is that much more valuable – a realization I came to after my grandpa died and I reflected on our time in Hawaii.
Don’t waste it.
April 22 was an opportunity for me to spend with my dad, my uncle, and my grandfather’s youngest brother — all of whom have taken after my grandpa in their quiet demeanor.
It was also an opportunity to spend time with my grandfather’s other two living brothers, who both bear an uncanny resemblance to him despite not really looking like each other. They live in Phoenix and provided me the opportunity to attend the event. Through my dad, my uncle, my great-uncles, and the Nisei veterans, I was able to get to know my grandfather better.
After all, they are his living, breathing legacy.
“I am now 72 years old — living in a senior citizens complex. Reminiscing my life. The most important decision I’ve made (my own) was to volunteer for the 442nd Regt. — when I was 19 years old. Even after being denied by my own government my basic civil rights, civil liberties — even refusing to induct me earlier — I joined others from Hawaii, throughout the mainland States and from the internment camps — all volunteers — 4,000 strong.
“Training in Camp Shelby, Miss. — was told that we were an experiment — untried, untested and that ‘all eyes’ were watching us. And by training hard and doing our best in combat — a tradition could be established. We succeeded, beyond all expectations.
“I am proud to be an ‘original’ volunteer. Very proud of the recognition the 442nd has received. When President Truman bestowed the 8th Presidential Unit Citation to the 442nd — he stated, ‘You fought two battles — for freedom and one against prejudice, and won!’ …The publicity gained from the 442nd’s accomplishment and sacrifice opened doors in America for all Japanese …
“I am proud of my mother and father for establishing their life and homestead in America. I am proud of my service to my country and especially the 442nd. — Duty, honor, country.”
(From a letter my grandfather wrote seeking redress.)
Jordan Ikeda is a former Rafu sports editor and current columnist (J-Slanted). Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.