More than two dozen Japanese American veterans recently received France’s highest medal, the Legion of Honor, for their part in liberating France during World War II.
The medal was bestowed on Nisei from the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team by a French diplomat on Jan. 16 in Honolulu, Jan. 21 in Kona and Jan. 22 on Maui.
The recipients at the Kona ceremony, held at West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery, were:
- Staff Sgt. Iwao Yonemitsu, born May 4, 1923 in Paauilo. The eighth child of Japanese immigrants, he attended Hilo High School and the University of Hawaii, and served with the Territorial Guard before volunteering for the 442nd.
- Staff Sgt. Kazuma Taguchi, born Jan. 11, 1918 in Waikapu, Maui. The second eldest of nine children, he attended Lahainaluna School, was inducted on Dec. 8, 1940, and was assigned to Company F of the 100th Battalion and later Company B. He was unable to attend the ceremony and was represented by his daughter, Shelly Santo from Oahu.
- Technician 5th Class Tokuichi Nakano, born June 6, 1919 in Honuapo on the Big Island. The youngest of nine children, he was inducted into the Army at age 24 with Headquarters Company.
- Pvt. First Class Hidetaka “Paisan” Sato (posthumously), born in Kukuihaile, he attended Honokaa School and joined the 442nd in 1942 and was assigned to G Company. He passed away on Jan. 18, 2014 and was represented at the ceremony by his son, Alvin, and daughter, Claudia.
- Pvt. First Class Mitsuo “Benty” Tachibana (posthumously), born in Amauulu Camp 1 in Hilo. At age 18, against his family’s wishes, he volunteered to part of the 442nd, K Company, which went to Bruyeres, France to rescue the “Lost Battalion.” He passed away on July 20, 2014 and was represented at the ceremony by his wife, Ruth.
Emcee Lt. Col. Douglass Adams, U.S. Army (retired), introduced veterans in the audience, including Don Seki and Yasunori Deguchi, past recipients of the Legion of Honor, and residents of Okutsu Veterans Home in Hilo. Seki sang the “442nd Fight Song.”
Following the draping of the POW/MIA chair and the presentation of colors by Konawaena JROTC, the French national anthem was sung by Daughters of the American Revolution and Kona Choral Society, and the U.S. national anthem by Hawaii Pono’i.
A special prayer was given for 442nd and Military Intelligence Service veteran Sumio Nakashima, who passed away on Dec. 31, 2014.
The honorees received certificates from representatives of Sen. Mazie Hirono and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Mark Takai.
The keynote speaker was Col. Debra Lewis, U.S. Army (retired), a combat veteran, a member of the first class to graduate with women from West Point, and Lt. Col. Adams’ wife.
The medals were presented by Pauline Carmona, consul general of France in San Francisco (France does not have a consulate in Hawaii).
A 21-gun salute and “Taps” were performed by members of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Korean War Veterans Honor Guard.
A tree-planting ceremony followed. A symbol of friendship for the people of France, the ‘ohe makai from the ginseng family grows to over 30 meters. To the ancient Hawaiians, it was the tree form of Kapo, the goddess of hula and sorcery.
The tree is adjacent to a ho’awa tree that was planted a couple of years ago for the town of Bruyeres, whose residents have visited Hawaii to thank as many 100th/442nd veterans as possible.
Following is Carmona’s speech.
Today, it is a special day. Today, we are celebrating heroes whose courage, faith and dedication contributed – more than 70 years ago – to defend and preserve the independence of France and to save our common values: freedom, tolerance, democracy.
I would like to extend the tribute today to all your fellow soldiers during the Second World War, especially to all of those who did not make it back to their country and families.
The heroes celebrated today were part of the 100th/442nd.
The 442 Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army was a regimental size fighting unit composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry who fought in World War II, despite the fact that many of their families were subject to internment. Beginning in 1944, the regiment fought primarily in Europe during World War II, in particular Italy, southern France, and Germany.
The legendary 100th Infantry Battalion was in combat for 20 months, from Sept. 29, 1943 until Germany surrendered on May 2, 1945. After five months, the 100th had suffered so many casualties that it was called “the Purple Heart Battalion.” Even after merging with the 442nd in Italy, it was so famous that it was granted the rare privilege of keeping its original name.
After combating in Italy, both units fought famous battles in France in 1944, in the Vosges, liberating and securing Bruyères and Biffontaine, playing a decisive role in the liberation of France. They did it at a very heavy cost: Gen. Jacob Devers, commander of the 6th Army Corps, declared: “In the entire U.S. advance in Europe, Bruyères will be long remembered as the most vicious combat.”
The 100/442nd is the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. It had suffered the highest casualty rate of any unit in the entire history of the U.S. army.
Ladies and gentlemen, these heroes did all of this far away from their home, from their beloved family, from their friends. You are heroes.
It is almost impossible for us to imagine how much courage and bravery it must have required to cross the ocean and to fight over Europe as you did.
Courage and bravery are precisely the qualities that Napoleon wanted to reward while creating the Legion of Honor in 1802. Your courage and your bravery are precisely the reason why the president of French Republic has decided to award you the highest French recognition.
Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower told you: “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
You did your duty. You said to Eisenhower: “You can count on us.”
And you saved France and Europe from hell. You saved people you didn’t even know.
I am here today to tell you that the people of France have not forgotten. Their children and grandchildren have not forgotten. France will never forget.
We, the French people, know exactly what we owe to the American people, to the U.S. Army, to the U.S. Navy, to the U.S. Air Force, to the U.S. Marines, to the U.S. Coast Guard, to the men and women who spent days and nights in American factories and shipyards to build the most powerful military force in history.
We know exactly what we owe to you personally.
Thanks to you and thanks to America, people of my generation were allowed to grow up in a free country.
On behalf of the resident of the French Republic, I want to express the deep, sincere and eternal gratitude of the French people.
On this note, 70 years after the end of World War II, permit me to quote from the French president, who said:
“In France, there are many white crosses where lie some of your comrades who did not return to the United States. Know that their memory is cherished by all the people of France. The sacrifice made by you and your comrades was not in vain. If I am here before you, it is because men like you did their duty.”
Photos courtesy of Tracey Matsuyama