More than two dozen of Maui's living World War II nisei veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service were honored Saturday for their bravery in fighting for the freedom Americans enjoy today.
The 28 veterans each received replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor presented by Congress, among hundreds of family and well-wishers at the Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu. They were among veterans who did not travel last year to Honolulu for a medal-award event or to Washington, D.C., for a White House ceremony with President Barack Obama.
WWII veteran Hiroshi Arisumi basks in the glow of Saturday’s ceremony and a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Ret. Major Gen. Robert Lee, who was battalion commander of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry, of the U.S. Army Reserve, said it was a privilege to honor the veterans in person.
"For such a prestigious award, no one should get it in the mail," Lee said during his keynote address. Earlier recipients of the medal have included George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, the Navajo Windtalkers and the Tuskegee Airmen.
"Succeeding generations, you need to continue what you saw here today," Lee told the audience of more than 350 people.
The Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, Maui Sons & Daughters of Nisei Veterans and Hale Mahaolu sponsored the luncheon, with the help of 11 donors.
Also on hand Saturday were about 100 widows of soldiers, said one of the organizers, Yuki Lei Sugimura, a Nisei Veterans Memorial Center board member.
"The important thing today is the appreciation and recognition of those who gave us our freedom," Sugimura said. "And it shows in the Nisei Memorial."
Fellow board member Leonard Oka said he attended the Honolulu regional medal event in November and while maybe 400 men there were soldiers, at least 3,000 people were family members. He said that he noticed how many Maui nisei soldiers weren't there.
Many of the veterans are in their 80s and 90s, and travel can be difficult for them.
"You can see how important it is to them, and I hope the next generation takes the opportunity to talk to their parents and grandparents," Oka said. "I hope by doing this, they communicate and share their stories, which I know isn't always easy. Luckily for me, I had a dad (Clarence "Hekka" Oka, who died in 1991) who loved to tell stories.
"This isn't just family history," Oka said. "It's American history."
While they and their families faced racial discrimination at home, the nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, fought valiantly overseas while their parents, brothers and sisters were kept behind barbed wire in internment camps. An estimated 25,000 nisei soldiers engaged in some of the fiercest combat of WWII and were among the most highly decorated troops in the nation's history.
Many of the soldiers came from Hawaii, and they encouraged more Japanese-Americans to sign up, Lee said.
MIS soldiers sabotaged the enemy and intercepted codes, Lee said. Their intelligence work helped lead to the air attack that killed Japanese Adm. Isoruko Yamamoto, the chief architect of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, he said.
"I've been told the MIS is responsible for shortening the war in the Pacific by two years," said Lee, adding that members of the intelligence unit also went on after the war to help transform Japan into a democracy and an American ally.
Two MIS soldiers' classified efforts remained a secret for decades after the war. They were on the same team once again Saturday, said Masao Motooka, 88, and Hiroshi Shishido, "86 and a half."
They reminisced a bit about how they "translated and interrogated" during much of the war in the Pacific Theater. The two also sparingly talked about a time they helped 22,000 people, many of them women and children, evacuate from a city.
"I never expected this much," Motooka said of Saturday's party with a band, bar, buffet, color guard and speakers including Lee and Mayor Alan Arakawa.
"We're just grateful," Shishido said. He smiled, shook hands and disappeared into the crowd with his buddy.
Arakawa said the humble, brave and honorable soldiers and widows gathered Saturday not only went to war for us. They came back, he said, and created businesses, raised families and built up the community.
"They stand head and shoulders above us," Arakawa said. "They are what makes Maui no ka oi."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.