WWII memorial unveiled during Maui service

The newly unveiled World War II Veterans Memorial stands decorated with lei in the Maui Veterans Cemetery in Makawao after a Memorial Day service Monday. It joins the Korean War and World War I memorials already in place. The Maui County Veterans Council hopes to continue the line of monuments and said one for Vietnam veterans is next. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

A memorial for World War II veterans of Maui County was unveiled Monday at the Maui Veterans Cemetery, where a couple hundred people showed up to pay their respects on Memorial Day.

“I appreciate the fact that we are being appreciated,” said Seiya Ohata, a World War II veteran and retired physician who will turn 100 next week. “I hope it’s a reminder to the world that there won’t be anymore of this fighting. That’s my open wish, that we see the end of war.”

The 4¢-foot-tall, polished granite memorial stands between the Korean War and World War I memorials already in place at the cemetery. A carving of the World War II Victory Medal decorates the top and an inscription honors “the men and women of the county of Maui who fought on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.”

Mayor Alan Arakawa said World War II was “especially excruciating” for Hawaii because of the discrimination that Japanese-Americans faced at the time.

“Our citizens, people who had immigrated here to Hawaii, felt a very deep obligation to be able to prove they were American citizens,” Arakawa said. “They were beyond brave and they really distinguished themselves far above everybody else in the country. Why? Because they knew that everybody was looking at them. They knew they had to set an example, and indeed, they set an example for all time.”

Maui World War II veterans Hiroshi Arisumi (from left), George Sano and Seiya Ohata listen during the dedication ceremony for the World War II memorial. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Monday’s ceremony also included a 10,000-flower drop from a helicopter, solemn recognition of prisoners of war and those missing in action and a 21-gun salute followed by the playing of taps.

Emcee and Army Ranger veteran Cody Snyder read the names of Maui County veterans who have died within the past year, and the standing room-only crowd applauded service members of every conflict, as well as the families of those killed in action, known as Gold Star families.

Speakers paid special tribute to those who fought and died during the Vietnam War. This year, the state is recognizing the 50th anniversary of the war, as part of a nationwide commemoration from 2012 to 2025.

“I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am that we have changed as a nation since those days,” Vietnam veteran and keynote speaker Bill Staton said. “You see the change every day in the way people will come up to a veteran and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’

“While I don’t think that any veteran has ever served to get appreciation, I know that no veteran deserved the offensive disrespect” that Vietnam veterans got upon returning home, Staton said.

Visitors stroll through the Maui Veterans Cemetery, which was decked out in red, white and blue for Monday’s Memorial Day service. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, whose father served two tours in Vietnam, said that “although the Vietnam War continues to be a controversial matter, what is undeniable is that we as a nation are committed to paying tribute to the more than 3 million service men and women who selflessly served our country.”

According to the National Archives, 58,220 of those American troops died in Vietnam.

“Let us work hard to keep their memories alive, and let us honor their sacrifices by living our lives to the fullest,” Tsutsui said.

Meanwhile, the Maui County Veterans Council hopes to erect more memorials throughout the cemetery. The Korean War veterans memorial was dedicated in 2007 and the World War I memorial in 2010. One for Vietnam veterans is in the works.

Late last year, plans for the World War II memorial were jeopardized after the man who was supposed to create it skipped town, memorial special committee member David Fukuda said. Thankfully, the man’s wife completed the job. The memorial was funded through a $5,000 county grant.

Maui Fire Chief Jeff Murray places flowers on his parents’ burial niche before the Memorial Day service at the Maui Veterans Cemetery. Murray served in the Air Force for 6 years; his father served in World War II. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Ohata was one of eight veterans honored at the unveiling of the monument. He served in the Army Medical Corps from 1943 to 1945 and joined the 160,000 Allied troops who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 — though he recalls the first obstacle was more ocean than gunfire.

“My fellow comrades, they’re all 6-footers,” Ohata said. “So they get in the water, the water is up to their knees, no problem. But me, I’m only 5 feet tall. The water came up to my waist. I could not carry my backpack the normal way.”

The medics set up a field hospital in a nearby town and “worked like dogs, I tell you, to take care of the sick and wounded.” Casualties were widespread and the town was almost completely demolished.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Ohata said. “I’m grateful that people appreciate what we’ve done. But one thing, I never would like to wish this on anybody else.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

Members of the Hawaii Army National Guard complete a 21-gun salute at the close of Monday’s service. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

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