Belated Medals of Honor awarded

Clinton praises Asian-American heroes World War II

June 22, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - America turned its back on these men more than a half-century ago, and they responded to the insult by joining the U.S. military and performing heroically on World War II battlefields.

Yesterday seven of those veterans, elderly now, six of them Japanese-American and one of Filipino ancestry, sat in a tent on the White House lawn amid scores of family members as President Clinton took care of unfinished business.

The president awarded them and 15 of their deceased comrades the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest decoration for combat bravery and an honor that had long eluded them, possibly because of wartime discrimination.

"They risked their lives above and beyond the call of duty," Clinton said before draping the gold star medal around the neck of each veteran and presenting medals to surviving relatives.

"And in so doing they did more than defend America. In the face of painful prejudice they helped to define America at its best."

The most prominent recipient was Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat who lost an arm fighting in Italy with an all-Japanese-American unit.

Clinton recalled that the young Army lieutenant returned to the United States wearing his ribbon-bedecked uniform only to be told by a barber, "We don't cut Jap hair."

Seated near the senator was George Sakato, 79, whose family was ordered out of California by the U.S. government because all Japanese-Americans there were considered security risks.

His father was forced to sell his meat and fruit stand at a loss and move to Arizona, where George Sakato joined the U.S. Army, saying he wanted to show his country he was loyal.

In October 1944, Private Sakato ignored heavy enemy fire and rushed a German line, killing a dozen soldiers with a captured enemy rifle and handgun before helping his squad take 34 Germans prisoner.

"To prove our loyalty, we had to fight," the retired Denver postal worker told a reporter.

In the same row as Sakato sat frail Barney Hajiro, 83, of Hawaii, another former Army private, who was wounded as he single-handedly charged two Nazi machine-gun nests in France while trying to rescue fellow soldiers. His unit took heavy casualties, 800 killed or wounded.

Back home, he recalled, "Everybody treated us bad. ... They didn't like us at the time."

Anti-Japanese hysteria

Japanese-Americans were barred from joining the U.S. military for two years because of the anti-Japanese hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor, which led to the government's classification of all Japanese-Americans as "enemy aliens."

Some, like Sakato, fled their homes on the West Coast, and 120,000 others were confined to dusty and remote internment camps.

Later in the war, an Army committee recommended against allowing Japanese-Americans to fight. President Franklin D. Roosevelt overruled them, saying, "America's not a matter of race or ancestry."

All but one of those honored yesterday had previously been awarded the nation's second-highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross. The lone exception, James K. Okuba, had received the Silver Star, the third-highest combat decoration.

Hajiro and at least six others were put in for a Medal of Honor but received the DSC instead. During the war, two Asian-Americans - one Japanese-American and one Filipino-American - received the top award, and 120 received the DSC.

Four years ago, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat, asked the Army to review service records to determine whether any Asian-Americans had been denied Medals of Honor because of their race.

Army historian James McNaughton, who surveyed the records, said he found no "smoking gun" of discrimination but said it was unusual that only two Asian-Americans received the top award when 120 received the DSC.

"It's important to set the record straight historically," Army Secretary Louis Caldera said before the ceremony. Caldera, who recommended that Clinton award the medals, said the Army is "doing the right thing."

Recognition due

Sakato and Hajiro brushed aside talk that prejudice might have prevented them from receiving the military's top award.

Another Japanese-American veteran, Susumu Satow, 77, who fought in France and was awarded a Purple Heart for his wounds, believes his comrades never were granted the recognition due them.

"We just had to accept it," said Satow, who enlisted from an Arizona internment camp that held his parents and eight siblings. "We were perceived to be part of the enemy system. We needed to change that perception."

Clinton recalled that one Japanese-American soldier was killed in action in southern France. A chaplain found a letter in his pocket from home, telling how vandals had burned his father's house and barn "in the name of patriotism. ... And yet this young man volunteered for every patrol he could go on."

Satow remembered that when his family returned to its Sacramento farm, it found it ransacked and the equipment stolen. As late as 1948, Satow recalled, his family had trouble getting served in the city's restaurants.

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