Sunday, May 28, 2000

WWII Heroes

Medals of Honor

        Walter Oka was 13 when he watched the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His family lived on a rim overlooking the duck-pond Navy at anchor, so he had a front-row seat.

        “I watched the whole shebang. I thought, "Wow, the Army is really ticked off at the Navy.' ”

        Actually, he didn't say “ticked off.” It was saltier than that, as you'd expect from a 72-year-old Army veteran.

        “They would have these practice bombing runs we used to watch, so we really thought it was one of those,” he said. “Until a Japanese plane flew over and we saw the insignia on the wings. Then we thought, "Oh-oh, this is no game.' ”

        Mr. Oka's father, who had fought for Japan against Russia, yelled “Banzai” in the yard. “But my brothers and I were all born in the U.S. and we had no allegiance to Japan whatsoever.”

        Instead, they pledged allegiance to America by trying to enlist. Mr. Oka was too young, but seven of his brothers volunteered, and three served in one of the racially segregated units commanded by white officers: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team or 100th Infantry Battalion.

        Those became “the most decorated units of their sizes in Army history,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported on May 12. “A partial medal count: 20 Medals of Honor, 48 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 9,468 Purple Hearts.”

        “They had something to prove,” Mr. Oka said, “to show, "Hey, we're Americans.' ”

        And they proved it at a terrible price: “the highest casualty percentage among Army formations,” the Honolulu report said.

        Mr. Oka recited the history in a recent talk to a University of Cincinnati class.

        “The whole significance for Japanese Americans was that here we were, treated as prisoners, and we still volunteered to serve,” he said.

        In the 100th and 442nd, a third of the volunteers came from the internment camps.

        Mr. Oka enlisted in 1946, and served in the occupation of Japan. He came to UC for college, married a local girl and lives in Western Hills.

        His three brothers who served in the 100th Infantry Battalion are now in their 80s. The honor they fought for will be saluted in June, when 21 of the men who fought beside them are awarded Congressional Medals of Honor.

        The medals are 55 years late, the result of a search through hundreds of military records that was ordered by Congress to redress discrimination. A similar 1997 review gave overdue Medals of Honor to seven black soldiers.

        Seven of the Asian-American medal winners are still living, including U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who attacked three German machine-gun nests although he was wounded three times and lost an arm.

        Fourteen of the medal winners are dead, including Staff Sgt. Robert T. Kuroda, who was shot between the eyes as he stood next to Mr. Oka's brother. That was during the rescue of the “Lost Battalion” — when Japanese-American soldiers saved a Texas unit lost in France.

        “They lost 800 men to save 200,” Mr. Oka said. That's a little more dramatic than Saving Private Ryan, but the story is the same: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

        In that way, the Japanese-Americans who fought for their country in World War II were no different from the rest of the Americans whose deaths we remember tomorrow.

        That's the point.

        “I don't care what color you are,” Mr. Oka said. “If it has to be done, come hell or high water they would do it.”

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.